It’s a Tuesday lunchtime. The bell for lunch has sounded, and everyone is crowding through the school corridors to their next classes, when someone pinches my buttock.
I half-turn to see who did it. The only possible culprits are a gaggle of girls—you know the kind, those girls: the skinny popular kind who figured out early how to wield their bodies as weapons. You all had your own versions, and you probably remember that they were attractive, that the sense of sex came off them like static. Its only years later that you look back at photos and see the spongy makeup and the uncertainty behind their eyes, and realise it was all an illusion; it was bravado and it was consensus, and it was a glamour. But I am fourteen years old, and it’s a Tuesday lunchtime in 2002, so none of that matters yet—right now they are the apex predators.
They are laughing amongst themselves, and they are very deliberately not looking at me. I flush with shame. It isn’t because I am embarrassed at the touch, though I am a little. I’m embarrassed because what the pinch really means is that the idea of finding me—the awkward kid with the out-of-style haircut and several extra stone of weight; the kid who wears a t-shirt under his school-shirt because the extra layer softens the shape of his chest into something less noticeable; the kid who volunteers to tidy the P.E. cupboard at lunches because it means he’s allowed into the changing rooms a few minutes early enough to change without any eyes on him—it means that the idea of finding me attractive is ridiculous. Laughable. A joke.
It’s curious the things we remember. The pinch on the buttock is one small thing amongst the long and admirably varied parade of casual cruelties that is growing up in a comprehensive school. It’s not even close to the top of the list of the worst things they did. It’s not remarkable, nor is it some tight knot at the root of my feelings about my body and sex that if unpicked will release tension through the decades; that would be too narratively convenient, and I’d never roll that out so early in the story. But over the years I’ve turned so many of my school-era tortures into pithy anecdotes—except this one. If I see this one coming I sidestep it. I had never told this story until a few months ago when I gave it to a character in the novel I’m working on—a character who is definitely fiction and definitely not me apart from changing the name.
But suddenly it made sense, and suddenly it didn’t sting to think about.
Sex is currency in school. Not necessarily anybody actually having it, but in its potentiality. A switch gets flipped one summer and suddenly every relationship and every hierarchy is defined by it, even hitherto platonic friendships. Your body has always been the defining quality about you, its perceived deficiencies make you a target for ridicule, but suddenly this is tempered by fuckability. Not quite as coarsely phrased of course—in our teenage parlance it’s which people we “fancy” but the bottom line is that we are now sorted into order of importane based on how worthy our bodies are to have sex with. The cool kids are the hot kids, and the hot kids are the cool kids—and not one of them is fat.
I start to wear clothes to disguise… well, not precisely the fatness of my body, which is impossible, but so as to minimise it in such a way as to evade notice. My fatness already places me below regard, and that suits me just fine, so I help it along the way, participate in the game.
Some other people who are definitely fiction because the names are changed:
Jack: my friend since we were nine years old, he claws his way up out of our lowly social circle to orbit the bright lights at the top. He is the thinnest person in our group; he starts to run cross-country, much to our bafflement. He blends in, even when he outs himself to the whole school.
Rebekah: not quite a friend, but kind. When I look back, she is not fat, not really, but by some unspoken mutual consensus it is decided she is. A rumour spreads around the school that she had sex with another boy in our class, and people make vomiting sounds when they repeat the story.
Timothy: we cross paths occasionally; like me he is the chubby kid in his class, and we exist in a venn diagram of similar but separate friendship groups that coincide occasionally. At some point it is announced he is dating one of my female friends; we mock her relentlessly for a few days, and they break up shortly afterwards.
Scott: the fattest kid in school. Huge. I’m obscenely, effusively grateful when one year he is part of my P.E. class because now in the changing room the attention falls on him. He changes facing a corner, trying to dress quickly before any of the other boys can say something to him. It’s never quick enough. For a year evading notice is easy by virtue of his larger presence.
On the day Jack comes out as gay (by accident, in the quad one morning breaktime when we are thirteen) the popular girls flock to him and in the first exhilarating flush of it all, he submits to questioning. He buys his way into their circle by divulging which boys he fancies in school—the football players, the class clowns, the cross-country runners. On the bus home, my friends and I wind him up by suggesting other alternatives that we insist are the real people he fancies: Scott is chief among them. Without understanding it, we are hurt by his sudden dazzling ascendence into the upper echelons and are punishing him by devaluing his new social currency. Jack is disgusted by the idea, at high volume. We all laugh about it. We’re only joking about it. We’re not really participating. Look at us—how could we be in any position to be cruel, after all?
When I get home, I close my bedroom door and think about what having sex with Scott would be like. I never tell anyone.
When I am seventeen, two things happen: I lose weight, and I come out as gay.
Both of these things are scary, though not for the obvious reasons (though coming out in a rough northern college and a fundamentalist Christian household has its own challenges) but because I was scared of people noticing. Coming out made people look at me, reassess me, notice me as a person who took up space. Losing weight did the same thing; changing something so fundamental put me on their radar. I became a person with control and intention instead of a background character. I had the audacity to place value in my body—and wasn’t that a laughable idea for someone like me?
In retrospect, of course not, but by now I’d had years of practice at being part of the wallpaper.
Suddenly I am on the playing field. There is a mild drama in my church youth group when one of the girls nurses an ill-fated crush on me. A friend I have known since we were eleven is suddenly bashful about dancing with me at a party because she has a boyfriend now. A girl in one of my classes finds out I’m gay and exclaims that her friend is gay too—she should give him my number! I date her friend for the whole summer; I lose my virginity on my eighteenth birthday.
Belatedly, at the tail-end of my teenage years, I participate in the messy adolescent life my peers have been navigating for years.
In that last summer before we all go our separate ways, we go out to a club. It is one of only two our college town has, and it is in an old church. Up on the stage that once housed the pulpit, I kiss my boyfriend. There is a whooping noise—and suddenly we are surrounded by girls. You know the kind, those girls: the skinny popular kind who figured out early how to wield their bodies as weapons, the kind who’ve probably been coming to this club since long before they were eighteen, and who now surround me.
“Oh my god, is that Matthew?!”
“I didn’t recognise you!”
“Is this your boyfriend?”
Reflexive fear grips me, washed away almost immediately by a giddy sense of liberation. I am not being mocked as I first think, but being adopted. I kiss my boyfriend again, and the girls shriek with excitement. Less happy is the bouncer who appears from stage left and interposes himself between me and my boyfriend—we can’t make out what he is saying, but the message is clear: you can’t do that here.
And then my new army steps in—the girls drive him back. They shout at him, deploy all their weapons. They stand between me and him and deal with it, and then we dance the rest of the night.
Let’s call him Steven.
Steven is a year older than me, but we are both studying the same course in the same year. We meet on the second day of university in someone’s student kitchen. Everyone is drinking and at some point we are moving around a circle and saying whether we are single or have partners back home (most of whom will have mildly awkward breakups before Halloween.) When it reaches Steven he says he has a boyfriend in York. It comes to me next, and I say I too have a boyfriend, mine in Lincoln. The bond is struck; The Homosexuals In The Room have found each other, and must by law become inseparable.
A few days later we are walking aimlessly around the campus. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, but I do remember pointing out people we thought were attractive. It is partly novelty at having so many new people to ogle, partly a way of getting to know each other: identifying people we have the hots for is a trading of secrets.
For at least an hour I think I have missed every single person Steven points out. Just gone around the corner. Just ducked into the shop. Just hidden from view behind that large man that’s blocking the view. And then eventually it dawns that this isn’t the case: the people he is pointing out are the large men.
Steven, by his own description, is a ‘chubby chaser’. His type is exclusively fat men, at the higher end of the scale, and he is unabashed about it—if anything, he wears it as a badge of honour, his ‘unusual’ tastes marking him out amongst our fledgeling university lgbt-soc as eccentric and interesting. Over three years I meet a variety of his boyfriends, am party to very detailed knowledge about his preferences in pornography, gain a very clear understanding of the nuances of his ‘type’. The message from him is lurid and unapologetic: fat bodies are desirable.
It is a fucking revelation.
Let’s put the revelation into context. Here was I, the former fat kid, taking my first uncertain steps into both the wider world and particularly into the gay world (such meagre delights as our university city had to offer, at any rate.) I am incredibly thin—to the point of looking ill in some of my first year photographs—but nothing on earth can convince me of that. When I buy clothes I buy size XXL even though they are hopelessly oversized, and I still wear extra t-shirts below them to control the shape of my body. I kiss boys in bars but never take any of them home because it never occurs to me that they would want to.
I develop a passing crush on Steven (a common rite-of-passage that every single member of our lgbt-soc goes through at some point). I spend a brief but unsuccessful period trying to convince him I am fat enough to be his type—despite physical evidence, this isn’t disingenuous because I really believe it. Despite what the mirror shows, I am still the fat kid from school and nothing--nothing—can shake that.
Let’s call this one Lee.
I first spot him in a lecture hall in my first week of classes amongst a hundred other students. He is blonde, has the kind of body I had a few years before. He seems shy, a bit awkward, but he smiles slightly when he catches me looking. I am instantly attracted to him, but for several months I keep it to myself. When I finally tell someone, I tell Steven as the obvious candidate to understand. But I don’t tell anyone else; despite the very potent fact of my own attraction to him I know he is not the type that anybody else will place value in and I don’t want to publicly admit to fancying him.
Not that it stops me doing just that—not does it stop me speaking to him, nor (after a summer holiday of flirting through myspace messages while Lee realises his budding homosexuality and dumps his unsuspecting girlfriend) does it stop me coming back to university a week early from break to meet him for a drink. A drink turns into another drink turns into mindblowingly hot sex. This continues for a few months, but never openly: despite both being single, we treat it like an affair. We encounter each other on nights out, he with his housemates, me with the cheerleaders I now live with, and there are knowing jokes, discrete touches, but nobody but a select few know we are sleeping together.
Shortly after it fizzles out, Steven and I take a trip to London, and the ex-boyfriend whose couch we are staying on takes us out to the club XXL. It is my first paw-dip into bear culture, and frankly it is terrifying: despite the worldliness Steven and I affect back at university, down in the big city we’re wide-eyed innocents by comparison. If this were a fictional narrative, this trip would be a transformative moment of realisation that there is a whole subculture that venerates the kind of bodies the rest of gay culture rejects, but this isn’t fiction and really our main takeaway from the trip was that darkrooms are not a good place for sightseeing when you don’t understand the rules. The guys are intimidatingly confident; we pale by comparison.
Drunk on the way home, Steven confides: “It’s such a shame when they know they’re hot.” He muses into his pizza. “I want them to be grateful when I sleep with them, you know what I mean?”
And from here, from those words, cracks radiate.
This is exactly how he sees it; for all its flippancy, it cuts to the centre of how Steven sees it. Enthusiastically adopting the ‘chubby chaser’ moniker, it is an affectation that has become a pathology; in later years he will express frustration when he is not the only ‘chaser’ in his social circle, resenting the competition. He desires fat bodies, but an intrinsic part of this is the singular and gracious favour he is bestowing upon them by deeming them worth enough to offer sex—which really means that, somewhere rotten beneath, they aren’t worthy.
And what does this say for me? Is my own attraction—my own burgeoning type— just a manifestation of my self-image? Part of my attraction to Lee was his shyness, his uncertainty. I still see myself, whoever erroneously, as the fat kid; am I attracted to large guys because I am safe to think they will say yes? Do I also choose them because I think they will be grateful?
I still don’t have an answer to this, even now.
In my second year of university, I meet someone, and spend the next nine years with them.
I go home from that first starstruck weekend that we meet and relay the story to my housemate. The first thing I say when describing him is, “He’s the thinnest person I’ve ever pulled.”
There’s this curious thing when you’re a writer where you are simultaneously egotistically confident and wracked with doubt at precisely the same moment. I’d go so far as to say it’s a fundamental aspect of writing; if you don’t have this ballsy level of self-belief that what you’re writing is an unassailable work of genius that you would never be able to create anything; but at the same time you’re thinking this, you also know with absolute certainty that what you’re writing is worthless and without that part you would never be able to improve, be self-critical, evolve.
These days that is roughly how I feel about my body.
Every now and then I visit London. After university Steven and I go our separate ways, he south and I north, but it gives me the opportunity to occasionally couch-surf and play tourist in his world—the bear world.
A quick precis for anyone unaware: ‘bear’ is a descriptor encompassing the larger, typically hirsute man, but there are myriad subsets and variations—chub, cub, otter, etc. As a niche of the gay community its founding principle is the embracing of those that don’t fit the stereotypical body standards of the gay community. It is certainly in theory a more welcome segment of the community than many others, though rife with its own unspoken rules and standards that can conversely become more exacting than those it eschews.
It offers terminology and categorisation of attraction to fat bodies, which chips away at the sense of being an outsider. You are neither the freak alone in your desire nor the lone hero that sees past society’s mores to sweep in and rescue some overweight boy from his tragic loneliness; you are nothing abnormal, nor anything special.
This both stings and relieves. For me mostly the latter; for Steven I suspect a little more the former.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties we visit XXL again (though not the same XXL; it has moved from its home under the railway arches to a featureless warehouse in a different part of the city). I am fired up, excited to go to a bar where I can relax and feel comfortable and part of the crowd; back in my home city the common destinations on the gay scene are mixed venues, places where I feel increasingly out of place as my age and weight increase. London is the promised land, XXL it’s Heaven; I imagine an orgiastic feast of men equally delighted to be free of the usual gay standards and ready to leap enthusiastically into bed with anyone. With me.
Predictably, this isn’t quite on the mark.
“You know who that is?” says Steven, nodding towards somebody who has come through the door, and I realise that I do—from porn. Not studio porn, but tumblr—at the moment this part of the story takes place we are in its boom, with millions of people posting photographs and videos of themselves, building up huge followings. For ‘alternative’ bodies it has been revolutionary, and it is now semi-commonplace to recognise somebody in a gay bar only to realise shortly after it’s somebody you have once cum to on the internet; the feeling is at first decadent than rapidly becomes domestic. This particular somebody is one of our few ‘crossovers’, and therefore we’ve gossiped about him before. He sweeps into XXL with what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be an entourage.
“He calls himself a bearlebrity,” says Steven, voice dripping with scorn. “And you just can’t bang anyone who uses the word ‘bearlebrity’ without irony.”
“True,” I say. “But he’s still fucking hot.”
“Yeah,” Steven says sadly. “He is.”
Almost certainly he means that anyone who uses such a parodic word at its face value can be discounted as a narcissistic idiot; almost certainly the simple fact that this particular man’s body makes him popular isn’t enough to be a turn-off; almost certainly we are half joking; almost certainly. Almost.
Throughout the night, I deflate. I had had hopes of finding somewhere--finally—where I am somebody to be desired, but instead find myself as sidelined here as anywhere else. It doesn’t take long to figure out the stars of the room: the muscle bears on the dancefloor with their tops off, sweat glistening in chest hair; the cute fresh-faced student cubs in harnesses and rugby tops; the well-proportioned chunky guys with beards and bear-paw t-shirts.
Outside, I encounter Steven’s current boyfriend in the smoking area. He asks how I like XXL, and I inarticulately explain.
“Oh, obviously,” he says. “XXL is a hellhole. Literally nobody here looks at you here unless you’re a muscle daddy. I might as well be invisible here. And I mean, I take up a lot of space, you know?”
It’s a small comfort, and—I discover as I explore more of London’s bear scene—mostly true. But nevertheless as the years move on the feeling sets in deeper, the feeling of falling between the cracks, too fat for one community’s standards, the wrong kind kind of fat for another’s. Don’t take me wrong: this isn’t as simple as being bitter at never getting a shag—in private this is never a barrier, and I hardly live like a nun, but on any given evening in a public gay bar there is always a better choice than me, a more presentable option. Exactly the same as in my teenage years, I feel stranded on the outside of an unspoken standard, amplified because it comes from a group who have ostensibly rejected the very standards they fell victim to themselves. The bear community is salvation for so many former-fat-kids like myself—their ultimate revenge on barren adolescence being to dive into hedonism, their bodies worshipped, their newfound hotness a currency they rush to spend—and I try very, very hard not to resent that it doesn’t offer that kind of salvation for me.
But it is possible to hold two ideas in your head at the same time: I know, intellectually, that this feeling is this season’s iteration of the unnecessarily large XXL t-shirt. It’s unwarranted, exaggerated, the result of looking in a mirror and seeing something that’s entirely different to what’s really there. I know all of that at exactly the same time as I feel it.
Back in the smoking area, alcohol and gloom are mixing into a potent cocktail. By osmosis, we find ourselves part of a larger group, some of whom I know. The ‘bearlebrity’ is among them, holding court. Another is someone I recognise from many years ago, a visitor to our university and friend of a friend. He exclaims when he recognises me, and we chat for a while. At some point he is standing a little closer to me than normal conversation requires, and though this is where it ends, when I get out of the taxi home there’s a friend request waiting from him, and the ensuing messages make it very clear that, no matter what I thought, I wasn’t invisible that night.
The thing about those two things in your head: it’s exhausting.
When I was fourteen, I knew I only fancied boys, but thought I would marry a woman and have children. When I was sixteen, I felt unseen but was deathly afraid of doing anything that drew attention. When I was eighteen, I was thin, but I couldn’t see it in the mirror. When I was nineteen, the guys I fancied were big guys, and although I fancied them rotten, I couldn’t call them “hot” to anybody else. When I was twenty-five I was comfortable with my body, had found a happy medium, but sometimes would wear a tight shaping vest below my shirt to feel comfortable enough to go out in public. And now, in my thirties, not too much has changed.
There’s the monstrous egotist. There’s a lot of slow motion and dramatic lighting in this mental version of things. It tells me I’m incredibly, sensationally, irresistibly attractive, that anyone I meet out tonight will instantly want me. I can have anyone if I so decide. They will fall at my feet. They will be… grateful.
There’s also the faltering coward. There’s a low of slow motion in this one too, but the lighting is nowhere near as good. It says I’m nobody’s first choice, anywhere, let alone here. It says that my clothes don’t disguise my weight or shape. It convinces me that if someone runs their eyes up and down me as I pass that they are assessing and dismissing me. It reminds me that if someone were to pinch my buttock it would only be as a joke.
It’s a coin spinning on its edge. Most of the time it just spins; look directly at it and you see both faces at once, imprinted over each other, but on some nights something small will nudge it over and leave one side facing up. It doesn’t take much, sometimes only a tremor. I’ve learned to embrace when it falls on the bold side, write it off as temporary when it falls on the cowardly side. But mostly it spins, both energies co-existing. It’s exhausting, but these days it’s my version of peace. It keeps me moving, keeps me changing.
It keeps me participating.
An epilogue: remember Timothy? My equivalent from other classes, passing in different orbits; when a female friend admitted to dating him we laughed. He was more exuberant than me, more adventurous, but ultimately we were similar figures in the telenovela of secondary school.
In that way you do, we are friends on social, dimly present and occasionally talkative but not precisely connected until I drive back to my hometown one weekend to visit my mum. Timothy messages me, suggesting a drink and a catch-up. He drives over one evening, and given the stunning lack of things to do in this town we end up walking the quiet night streets talking. We cross the square, down to the outskirts of town by the river, and sit on the embankment overlooking the bridge.
In the course of our conversation, Timothy reveals that he now has a male partner. He defines himself as bisexual, but his preferences lie mainly with men. We fall into camaraderie over this, swapping stories of those we knew from our school days who we had suspected might be ‘part of the family’ too, exchange gossip about long-past scandals that one or the other had been party to—who had messed around with who, who hadn’t messed around with who. We confess to each other who we once had crushes on and exchange stories about where those people ended up. It’s a curious feeling: a sense of rewriting history, of taking a second look and realising that the way you saw things the first time wasn’t quite right after all.
“Do you remember Scott?” he says, and I nod yes. “He’s dating Tamsin now.”
This is a ludicrous, impossible proposition. Tamsin was the queen of the mean girls—one of those girls in the corridor, amongst a litany of other injustices. Time has not thus far mellowed my opinion of her, but curiously this new development dissolves my ill feeling. I find her suddenly endearing.
“I actually…” I pause. Even now I’m embarrassed. “I actually used to kinda fancy Scott. Just a bit.”
“Yep. I kinda go for the… bigger guy.”
There’s a pause. Cars cross the bridge in the distance, bright points of light in the dark. It is cold and we are both huddled into shapeless coats, but we are suddenly pointedly aware that my description here matches Timothy too. A secluded spot in the dark takes on new implications.
“Do you remember Rebekah?” he says after a moment. “We went out for a bit. But we never told anyone.”
“Yes,” I say. “I do actually. She went to the same uni as me, and there was a really weird night where I think we almost slept together. She pulled my housemate, but he changed his mind after she got to the house, and so she kinda moved down the ladder to try it with me, but I didn’t figure it out until ages after.” I pause. “Did you know she died? Last year.”
“Oh.” He doesn’t sound sad, exactly, just surprised. It’s a long time ago that he knew her.
The subject wanders, then circles back. “I can’t believe Jack came out in our school,” he says, and I agree. It was stupidly brave then and even more so in retrospect, emphasis on stupid. “I bet he had a great time though—all the closet cases lining up to shag him!”
“I’m not sure he did you know,” I say. “Or if he did, he never told me.”
“I wish we’d known we were both gay back then,” Timothy says offhand. “We’d have had a lot more fun.”
And from here too, cracks radiate.
The idea that even then I was desired undoes everything, all the way back. It’s a knot that repeats its pattern right back through the web: the boys in the bars at university that kissed me but I didn’t think to take home; the lgbt-soc who I learned too late would have happily climbed into bed with me if they hadn’t mistaken Steven and as I as an aloof couple; the bear in XXL who messages later to say “I really wanted you to fuck me back then, didn’t you know?” Over and over, perception and reality disconnected, every time looking in the mirror and picking out an XXL shirt.
In that moment, down by the river, it creates a sudden and astronomical amount of ill-timed sexual tension—not precisely of what might happen here and now (though this hangs in the air for the rest of the night) but the incredible charge of imagining what could have been all this time if we had only known—if only we’d only been a part of things back then, if only we’d know we were allowed to play too. If we’d only participated.