BODY JOURNEY TO THE SELF

body Apr 25, 2019

It is the eve of my forty-fifth birthday. I stand in front of a full length mirror readying myself for the party. I dissect my body: the lines on my face, my sagging jowl, the pecs and arms that are too small, the dreaded bit of extra weight around my waist, the legs I actually like, and even my odd shaped feet. I’ve done this thousands of times. Being a meditation, yoga, and creativity teacher I know this body is the shell for my soul, but my mind still plays tricks on me.

At eight years old my mother began calling me “Nicky Picky” because I was “skinny as a tooth pick.” As a young gay child this was humiliating and I feared it to be unmanly. In my teens I worried incessantly that I was too skinny; It seemed wimpy. When I reached college a gay professor poked my belly and told me I needed to stop eating. He didn’t want to see the ‘freshman fifteen’ on me. Then I moved to New York City and began the illusive search for perfection. I needed to be trim and muscular. I tried protein shakes and steroids, was gym crazed, and attempted crash diets.

Here on my birthday, I’m still at it. At middle age I have very few role models outside the heteronormative culture. As the first large, out generation of gay men in history, who do we have to show us how to age gracefully?  What is enough? Why does our youth-glorified, selfie-obsessed society still have a hold on me after all these years? Can I finally be free and fully comfortable in my own skin? 

These questions sent me on a journey I decided to document. Over NYC’s gay pride weekend in arguably the heart of the LGBTQ community, Hell’s Kitchen, I began shooting a documentary film titled The Body Electric with the intention of evoking conversation and just maybe offering myself a bit of personal healing.

Starting with who and what I know, I reached out to gay men. I was certain I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. As a sub-culture we love to joke and harass each other about our weight and looks. We bully with subtle and even outright aggressive comments and shaming. We all know that it is a pervasive problem but we don’t discuss is maturely. Roughly 5% of the male population is gay, yet we represent 42% of the male eating disorders, according to research conducted by Dr. William Howard at the John Hopkins University School. Gay men have become the face of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and muscle dysmorphia disorder (MDD) which is a type of body dysmorphia marked by feeling insufficiently muscular or lean (when that is not the case). According to the Body Dysmorphia Disorder Foundation, among MDD’s characterizations are “excessive time and over-exertion in weightlifting to increase muscle mass,” “preoccupation over workout if unable to attend,” "disordered eating, using special diets, or excessive protein supplements,” “steroid abuse and often other substance misuse,” “compulsive comparing and checking of one’s physique” and “significant distress or mood swings.”


Gay man after gay man expressed this behavior and the pressures of queer culture, the media, and specifically social media with apps like Grindr and Scruff where there is little place for anyone who isn’t white, cisgendered, trim, and muscular.

Digging deeper, they each proclaimed some sort of trauma, family issue, and/or a combination of triggers that were aggravated by being gay men. No matter what the age, race, or socio-economic background they all experienced something traumatic.

Ryan hid he was biracial because he was ridiculed by both white and black people. Additionally, his alcoholic mother bullied him about his weight. After reaching 337 pounds he began taking drastic measures. When he did, he liked the attention he received from men. This lead to a cycle that has included two abdominoplasties, Botox, and injectables.

Once married, Del has children. He weighs himself every day because he “doesn’t know if he’s gotten heavier or not.” He considers himself an exercise bulimic; adding up his calories every day and then taking them off on the stair master or through spinning class. He became emotional telling me of the damage done to his children who now struggle with their own eating disorders.

These discoveries lead me beyond the gay male perspective. I began to include other members of the LGBTQ community. I flew to the heart of the Bible Belt and to Hollywood. I met extreme cases and those that felt the struggle was a small part of their every day life. I consulted medical doctors and therapists.

Dr Ryan Turner, a New York City dermatologist and plastic surgeon, told me that “25% of his clients were gay men” who seek Botox and filler and many of his other patients are Trans. Within the transgender community he sees “a lot of black market injectables; anything from silicone to mineral oils to caulking substances that you can find at your hardware store.” This can cause terrible disfigurement.

This completely shocked me. People are so desperate to change they inject caulk that typically goes around a bathtub in their face? What other perspectives could I receive from my Trans friends?

Seun is an African American trans woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma who after a few years of counseling is still grappling with her body dysphoria. Deeply affected by her father’s lack of understanding and being raised as a boy in the South, she now sees herself as human before color or gender. Another Trans woman, Shakina, said “I put myself in a lot of unhealthy situations because fundamentally I didn’t have a lot of respect for who I was.”

Nadav Antebi-Gruszka, a therapist who specializes in LGBTQ mental health, stresses that more clinical research needs to be done and that "We see a high prevalence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders among gay, bisexual, and queer men but we don’t necessarily see it among lesbian, bi, and queer women.”

Knowing that my heterosexual female friends struggle with this, that took me by surprise. So, I met with a group of queer femme identified millennials who expressed a great affinity for the body positivity movement, yet still confessed to some form of body image issues.

Is this a gay issue or simply magnified by this community? It is, after all, universal. If we are all spiritual beings having a human experience, it is through the body that we can understand, express, and be ourselves. The largest recurring theme from everyone I interviewed was the longing for connection with the self and with others. That innate desire to be seen and heard manifests itself in both the most beautiful and unhealthiest of ways.

This journey looking outward took me further inward, to reflection beyond the mirror. And while I certainly don’t have the answers to all the questions, I do have a greater sense of the community, the body, and my higher self. And that in itself is healing.

The Body Electric is currently in post production, relying on donations and individual investment for completion. For more information and to donate visit
https://oneconyc.com/projects-1

For more information on Nick and his teachings including his online creative community, Conscious Creatives visit www.thenickdemos.com

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