I’ve always had a babyface.
When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I looked 12. When I was 20 and on a Mormon mission, I looked 15. When I was 25 and launching my career, doing marriage counseling for couples who had been together 40 years, I looked 20. And now, I’m 37 and look 30.
It isn’t such a bad thing now that I’m a bit older. I have a dusting of grey at my temples. I lost all of my weight years ago and I’m getting in great shape for the first time in my life, a slow and steady process over the past few years. I look old enough to have some basic respect in my field, though I have much more experience than many think at this point.
Growing up a gay Mormon kid (I know I mention it all the time, but it is my origin story), I was relatively accustomed to never speaking up for myself or taking care of myself. I was firmly in the service to others mold most of my life, trying very hard to cure something. I never thought of myself as handsome or attractive.
At 17, I took a trip to Hawaii with my high school band, a venture we had saved up for for 2 years prior to going. It was an epic week of playing band concerts and getting to see a place outside of southeast Idaho for the first time. Though there were chaperones, and though nearly every kid in the group was Mormon, I was away from all of the craziness going on in my house for the first time, and I remember feeling an epic sense of freedom, the first lesson I had that when things are crazy at home they can still be peace in the world outside.
I remember walking through a giant flea market, I think they called it a swap meet, where local vendors sold cheap T-shirts, art of sand and seashells, cheap hand-crafted clocks, fresh pineapple juice, and hundreds of other items. We were encouraged to barter with the vendors, talking them down from $8 to $7 and feeling powerful for having done so, not knowing the item only cost 50 cents to make. I bought items for my family back home, a coconut shell Tiki head, a little Hula girl doll, a swimsuit calendar full of men for my sister (who upon opening it later found a guy who looked bizarrely like me, except, you know, not 12 and in much better shape).
My friend Jen,a gorgeous girl with short hair that everyone in the school had a crush on, linked arms with me and told me it was time to get something nice for myself. (Many of my friends later told me they knew I was gay. I imagine Jen did also, though I’ve never asked her). She walked me over to a T-shirt vendor and picked out a tanktop for me. She made me try on a pair of sunglasses until she found one that I liked. Then, to top off the ensemble, she picked out a simple shark tooth on a necklace and placed it around my neck. All finished, she had me stand up and she looked me over.
“Chad! You look hot!”, she exclaimed.
I remember feeling a sense of elation, confidence, a burst of healthy ego. It wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I knew she wasn’t in to me like that (and I wasn’t into her), but to have someone take the time to notice me, to compliment me genuinely… it was an amazing feeling.
Later that night, we went to a luau on the beach. I took off my shirt and sunglasses, put on a grass skirt, and kept the shark tooth necklace on. We all posed for photos on the beach.
Fast forward 15 years to when I finally came out of the closet, and started realizing that not only was it okay to like other men, but that men, good-looking men that I found attractive… some of them also found me attractive. It was a powerful feeling, one of wonder.
Sometimes I still feel like that scrawny kid on the beach of Hawaii in a shark tooth necklace, realizing it is okay to feel just a bit selfish, to be just a little bit handsome, to enjoy the attention of others. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of crucial to healthy development.
Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class for the first time. The room was something like 80 degrees and it was packed with people. Beautiful people. Shirtless, shoeless, beautiful people. There was a moment half-way through where were were all in mountain pose, arms to the sky, everyone glistening with sweat as beautiful music played behind us. I scanned the room for a moment, seeing muscular calves, strong backs, lean stomachs, beautiful tranquil views of serenity on faces, fingers pointed toward skies. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror, strong chest and shoulders, thick arms, rooted feet. And I had a beautiful realization.
I have always fit. With those around me. I spent so many years not fitting and it felt wonderful to fit. I too was beautiful. And not because of the size of my calves or pecs, but because I care about myself now. I take care of myself now.
I pictured the shark tooth necklace around my neck and grinned widely, showing my teeth. Then I closed my eyes and, fingers pointed toward the sky, joined the serenity.