Three days into my first visit to San Francisco, I fell in love with the city the way I hope to someday fall in love with a man. And though I’m not trying to write a love letter, I wouldn’t exactly be ashamed if that’s what this turned out to be. I just want you to understand that when I’m in love with a city, I’m liable to move there. So, I did. And what you also must understand is that when I’m in love, I don’t say the word “love”; I say the word “yes” often.
Yes, San Francisco, I will buy a bicycle redder than Marilyn Monroe’s favorite lipstick. Yes, I will ride that bicycle to El Rio bar for margaritas on Sundays. Yes, I will cheer on the Giants and order another margarita. And yes, when my friend Bob finishes his beer and says that he’s going to his Naked Yoga class, I will finish my second margarita and say, “That sounds great, Bob. Yes, I’ll join you.”
Let’s suppose this is also a love letter to my body. I remember, with surprising clarity, the last time I looked at myself naked in the mirror and said yes to everything I saw without question. I was a senior in high school.
Toweling off after a shower, I stood in front of my reflection and said out loud, “I’m perfect.” Well, my version of perfect. If I could go back to that self, I’d stand and stare a bit longer. I’d say, “Hang on, Saeed. You’re going to hate your body soon.”
Before long, I started to notice how much the men on the covers of gay fashion and culture magazines resembled one another. Tall, tanned, sculpted, lean, with variations on hair and eye color. Repetition is as powerful as any spoken message. This is how you’re supposed to look. This is what we want.
I’d watch my gay friends go the gym every day for hours at a time and talk about calories and spit out the phrase “no fats, no femmes” like the curse that it apparently is intended to be. Even in the midst of watching porn, the perfection of the bodies on screen would stand in contrast to the insecurity I felt about my own.
In the last few years, I’ve gone through stretches of time during which I worked out twice a day. I’ve bragged about how great I look after suffering through a stomach virus that prevented me from eating for a week. I’ve dated guys and broken up with them when they’ve gained weight, and I’ve told them so. I’ve tried to force myself to stick to entirely unrealistic diets only to break down and binge on junk food a few days later.
Let me be clear. Given the alarming frequency with which gay men are diagnosed with eating disorders, I am lucky. My self-loathing is casual and noncommittal. My guess is that my feelings about my body are perfectly normal for a gay, American, middle-class twentysomething. And that is terrifying. We assure queer teens that “it gets better” while sidestepping the fact that grade-school bullies, ruthless as they may be, pale in comparison to the way we bully our bodies.
Typically, I don’t like yoga. The dimmed lights and mood music make me drowsy. I never seem to get the poses right. All of the talk about chakras and energy and flow wears me out. And I’m always worried I’m going to fart in the middle of Downward Facing Dog. Curiously enough, though, being naked helps.
About 30 men showed up for class that day. Yes, there were a few men with chiseled, well-toned bodies and, umm, nice equipment to match. There were also older men and chubby men and scrawny teenagers and all kinds of races represented.
The only awkward moment was when the instructed asked us to partner up, sit crossed-legged, hold our palms to our partners chest and breathe in rhythm. As it turns out, I’m terrible at rhythmic breathing. My partner, a middle-aged Indian guy, however, was a breathing virtuoso. After that exercise, we thanked our partners and went on with the class.
Seeing the diversity of bodies in the room helped me feel more at ease in my own. It was the exact opposite of looking at all of those magazine covers. Minutes into the class, I might as well have been alone in the room; I felt comfortable enough to concentrate on getting the poses right (or almost right). It was as close as I’ve gotten to saying yes to my body in a very long time.