This time 10 years ago, I was at my parent’s home recovering from an operation to correct pectus excavatum. It’s a depression of the breastbone resulting in a concave chest, and it can look pretty strange. I was once asked by a friend, “Did someone punch you really hard in the chest when you were a baby?” While it irked me, the question paint a pretty good picture of what it looked like. If you still need help, think of Jerry smashing Tom in the face with a frying pan. My chest looked a little bit like Tom’s face. Or maybe just Google it.
There are health complications associated with the condition, but it wasn’t life-saving surgery. On this basis, it falls under the realm of cosmetics. But it was a life-changing operation for me in lots of ways.
I hated my body: it was too skinny, too pale, too strange. I didn’t want to be seen with my top off in public. I didn’t want people to notice the outlines of my chest beneath my t-shirt. And I definitely didn’t want anyone to touch it. I hunched my shoulders and made sure I never leant in too close for a hug, in case someone feel my physical difference and freak out. I remember this girl once slid her finger slowly down my school tie, and it felt like torture – the wait for her expression to change suddenly.
It never did. Or not in a way I remember. On reflection, most people didn’t care how I looked. Apart from the odd question here and there, people’s own lives were more preoccupying. But I was determined to change my body, and surgery seemed like the way to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’.
During my recovery, I read a copy of Modern Primitives in the RE:Search series of books. A tattooist I once interviewed for MMU’s student paper dismissed it as a pile of factually incorrect garbage but for me, a pretty green 18 year old, the images alone were an eye-opening experience. Here were people pursuing and celebrating bodily difference. Suddenly I felt a bit ashamed.
A physical difference can be challenging enough, but I also spent much of my adolescence struggling with my sexuality. I had strong attractions to men and women but was too timid to express either, one: because even in my relatively liberal, progressive school, homosexuality was still a big taboo (just listen to any group of ‘straight’ teenage boys bantering) and two: I just didn’t feel desirable. The result was a near constant vigilance and suppression of my behaviours, a concealment of my physical, emotional and sexual self, and a terror whenever anyone threatened to reveal it. I constructed a pretty strong edifice that, for the most part, deflected any suspicions. On learning of my coming out, when friend of a friend memorably remarked, “Gareth’s not gay, he’s just polite.”
I sent a piece of writing out to a few friends to critique recently, and one of them asked me, “What are you writing this for? Why is it important?”
The answer was a shorter version of this blog post. Our bodies and our sexuality make up such a huge part of our identity (incidentally, I’m interested in what happens if we don’t ascribe to gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, queer roles, but that’s another post entirely) and for anyone who’s not had to question theirs, it might be hard to understand the effects of any uncertainty or downright dissatisfaction with them are. And I think it raises interesting areas around body image, identity, sexual education, the limits and ethics of surgery and more. I don’t think I’m close to having an answer on any of these things yet, but I’d like to talk about them.
I’m hoping to share some material based on these experiences soon; keep an eye out. And if anything I’ve written in this post makes you want to speak up, please do: I’m all ears!