I’m getting changed for a swimming lesson, surrounded by other boys in my year. We wrap towels around our waists and pull on our trunks in private. Nobody wants to be naked. When we walk out to the pool, the chubby kids get made fun of. I shouldn't be worried. I’m thin, tall, my chest and stomach flat. My shoulders are broad. I have no belly. And yet standing in front of the boys and girls in my class, I consciously pull my stomach muscles taut, determined that no one will ever make fun of me for being fat. I’m 9 years old and my body is in competition.
It’s a school holiday and a local radio station is hosting a pool party at the leisure centre in my town. The party has music and games and prizes. I volunteer for the Mr Baywatch competition and line up with other boys along the edge of the pool. We strike our best poses. The host goes down the line and asks the kids in the pool to shout for who they think is best. Kids who lose get pushed in. I get down to the last two. The other kid is a couple of years older. His body is better, I think. The kids in the pool vote. I win. I get a T-shirt. He gets pushed in. I’m 11 years old and my body is being judged.
I’m measuring myself against the side of a cabinet in the kitchen. I was always one of the tallest in my class and now everyone is catching up. I make a pencil mark, happy to see I’ve grown a little. But my mum tells me the pencil was at an angle. Here, she says. I’ll do it. Her mark is in the same place as the one from last week. I tell her she did it wrong. I look up the cabinet and see my twin brother’s pencil mark. He’s now 2 inches taller than me. I need to grow. I have to grow. I’m 14 and my body is letting me down.
I get my first barbell set for Christmas and start lifting at home. A little while later I join my first gym. Everyone there is older, in better shape. I want to be bigger, fitter. I'm long past worrying about height. I'm taller now. And still growing. This is different. Unlike the acne that plagues my face or the various anxieties of adolescence, this is something I can control. This is something I can change. I’m 16 and my body is an obsession.
I’m at a local bar with friends. I’m not drinking. My diet is strict. I spend two hours a day in the gym, five days a week. I wear tight T-shirts. I want everyone to notice me. My friends get drunker and ask me for training tips. Strangers make comments: Look at the size of this cunt. It’s always men who notice, who want talk to me about my body. When you’re in shape you learn that straight men are infinitely more interested in you than women ever will be. I've built a wall that keeps people out. I've made myself solid. I've made myself boring. I’m 21 and my body is the most interesting thing about me.
I’m at a casting call for some sportswear company. Your face is fine but your body is all wrong, they say. Much too big. Not what we’re looking for at all. A week later I get a job because I’m tall and muscular. Two weeks after that I book a commercial because I can do the accent they need. They ask me to stop lifting weights for a month beforehand. You’ll make the girl we’ve cast look like a doll, they say. I do a job where they need only my legs. I do a job where they only use my shoulders. Someone pays me to waiter a party topless. I almost book a job as a lighting double for Hugh Jackman. Your body is fine but your face is wrong, they say. And you’re too tall. I’m 24 and my body is a commodity.
Walking home I see a guy acting strange, following a young woman. I catch up with her and let her know. She says she noticed him too. I ask if I can walk with her and she agrees. To put her at ease, I tell her about my partner, about how I live in the area too. After a couple of blocks she says her house is close and thanks me. I realise she doesn’t want me to see where she lives. I wish her well and turn back. What did you expect, my partner says when I tell her. She was probably terrified. There were two strange men following her home. I’m 6’3". Built. Strong. I never considered I might be intimidating. I’m 28 and my body is a weapon.
I’m on holiday with my partner. She’s at the beach. I stay at our rental home. I have some writing to do, I say. I used to love the beach. I used to love the water. I used to love my body. A long-term depressive episode has undone much of my work, all of my pride. My T-shirts are a little looser. I don't want everybody to look now. I joke about it. The muscles are still there, I say, under this winter coat. It isn't funny. I'm not in control any more. I don’t swim the whole holiday. I stay inside and I read. I’m 30 and my body is a stranger.
At a family wedding the photographer tells me I look like a fat Leonardo DiCaprio. My inner 9-year-old cringes. I shouldn't care. I'm working on it. This isn’t a fight. There aren’t winners and losers. I know I’m not grotesque, but nobody is paying me to take my clothes off, either. Not that I’d want them to. I stopped going for modelling jobs because being valued for your looks alone is miserable. I stopped because I wouldn’t let other people treat me like that. And yet it’s how I treat myself. I still find it hard to believe when partners tell me they like my body. You should have seen me before, I say. I need to let go. I’m working on it. I’ll always be working on it. I’m 33 and my body is a work in progress. I’m 33 and my body no longer defines me. I’m 33 and my body is enough.