Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
My room wasn’t complete without a mirror, a DVD version of Funny Girl, and some dumbbells—the perfect mixture of masculine and effeminate, and a mirror to verify. I hoped, considering this is a math and science boarding school, that my roommate would just ignore my morning ritual and go on with his test-cramming, keyboard smashing, or whatever he needs to do to get by at the Oklahoma School of Science and Math. Moi, however...I’d been staring at the mirror all morning. I’d gone through “too girly,” “too frail,” “too fat,” and “too butch” in less than ten minutes, and my wardrobe truly wasn’t that extensive. Nothing was average enough. I was moving in to a new residential school for juniors and seniors that day, and I didn’t want people thinking I was too gay, too straight, too skinny, or too fat.
Being an openly gay teenager in the rural south was just begging for controversy, and the first remarks I received were something like, “So you’re gay...Are you one of those girly homos, or one of those manly queers?” Even by those who were accepting, I was commonly asked, “Are you the girl or the guy in the relationship?” It seemed as though my life equated that of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in “Bruno” or something. This constant influx of interrogations was the start of a thought cycle that I struggled with for the next year. I’d begun to seriously consider changing who I was to defy this stereotypical image of a fashionable, effeminate “twink” to subscribe to my community’s masculine hegemony. I couldn’t stand the idea of being too fat, too skinny, or—the worst—skinny-fat. By the time I moved in to my boarding school, I’d lost thirty pounds, gained a bit of muscle mass, and refrained from dressing in red skinny jeans because I wanted nothing more than to portray the opposite of what was expected of me.
So, here I am. Earrings, a beard, skinny jeans, an average amount of body fat and muscle, and a plethora of colored jeans in my drawers—and I don’t care what anyone thinks of it. While I hadn’t developed a severe case of body dysmorphia or life-threatening eating disorder, my acquaintance with one of my current best friends saved me from the pit into which I’d thrown my self-esteem. Upon coming to this new school, I met another one of my kind; I met a closeted theatre kid whose dream was to leave Oklahoma and start a life anew. Months of reading through JCREW catalogs, thrifting, and sleeping in each other’s rooms passed by, and he was one of my best friends. Not even my low self-esteem could ruin this friendship.
This friend had a mirror, too. Mirrors aren’t just made for girls—I used to think that when I was a child. I used to think that the witch from “Snow White” made mirrors to distribute to other girls who were just as self-conscious as the witch was. I imagine this friend asking the mirror, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall...Who is the skinniest of them all?” and poking at his meek layers of body fat until he was miserable. And y’know what? That’s basically what he did in the mornings.
A few select people at our school spread a rumor around that entailed what they believed to be our relationship status, and it included our sexual roles. Supposedly, I was the “man,” and he was the “woman.” This rumor hung over us almost all the time we spent together until I walked in on him purging after a meal. The difference between my friend and me happened to be that while I was afraid of society undermining my masculinity, he was afraid of society overrating his. So, in order to keep up these images that people around us had developed for us, we pushed our limits. I abandoned my love for show tunes and glitter, only going to watch drag shows with my obscure, secret friends. My friend quit baseball, took up aerobics, and repressed his hunger to achieve his make-believe goal of negative fifty percent body fat. I was trying to build an image of bear masculinity, whereas he wanted to become the smallest twink alive.
To this day, I never understood why it took us a whole year to fix this stupid problem. All of junior year was spent either bashing our own body images or working out in order to fix them (and by “working out,” I mean Richard Simmons meets P90X style). While we should’ve been waking up early to intently study for finals, we were waking up early to pick out the least girly or least manly outfits for finals week.
So, by summer, I’d decided to pierce my ears. No longer would I worry about looking too gay. I know who I am, and I refuse to be discouraged by societal pressures that want me to stick to their hegemonic masculinity. I’m not interested in the limits of homosexuality, or the limits of how homosexual I can act in public. I’m interested in proving to myself that my body image doesn’t have to answer to some higher authority called the heteronorm. Female body image issues dominate the media and teenage health forums, but my ex-bulimic, ex-starving, ex-insecure friend and I are prime examples of what the media neglects to gossip about. Body image issues in gay teens like the two of us are prevalent, especially in regions where we’re told that we must fit either one of two body types. I refuse to be a bear. I refuse to be a twink. I refuse to find a perfect intermediate. I’m going to wear what I feel like wearing, I’m going to eat what I feel like eating, and I’m going to say what I feel like saying—I feel like saying that mine or any of my fellow LGBT youth’s happiness does not have to depend on the state of being skinny, muscular, effeminate, or masculine. I’m going to be as queer as I feel like being.
And when I came back to school early this year, my friend and I made sure to kick the hell out of his mirror.
Zachery Taylor is a student at the University of Chicago. His essay, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” was the co-winner of the 2013 Queer Foundation essay contest and is reprinted by permission of the author and the Queer Foundation Effective Writing and Scholarships Program.