Deepen (name changed) had just one problem: he found himself ‘thin’ and ‘ugly’. He didn’t know how to fight that feeling – something that constantly made him so negatively self aware that he had stopped meeting people. He craved love and intimacy, but was too scared of rejection. He was 5’11, had a full beard, wore a cap to his sessions with me, a pair of baggy jeans and light colored T-shirts that formed a second skin over his almost perfect athletic physique. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that he looked perfect and that his worries were baseless, because that’s what I thought, not him; and most importantly that’s not how a psychotherapist approaches a client’s concern. However, it did make me wonder how he had grown up to look at his own self and that too, through others’ eyes most probably.
Body image issues, contrary to popular belief, are not actually about ‘the body’. The body becomes the active carrier of symptoms and projects long standing fears of rejection and judgments. While such fears and insecurities are independent of gender and sexuality, for gay men like Deepen, it’s all the more pronounced. It is a part of their developmental procedure (and its effects). Due to rampant homophobia, they inherently and invariably grow up in the acute absence of intimacy and a profound sense of rejection. In these cases, there arises events and experiences in early childhood that could compel one to constantly inhabit a space outside their bodies and disconnect from it gradually. So much that, there comes a time, when they begin to look at their bodies negatively.
Social media and dating apps – though they help build a community and perhaps a fertile ground for potential intimacy – somewhere they are also to be held responsible for accentuating these impressions of oneself. Typification through slots like ‘daddy’, ‘jock’, ‘otter’ and ‘twink’ leaves many others slot-less, clouding their sense of belonging to the community. This further extends to one’s assumption of how one may be viewed or desired. Our idea of beauty and desirability has been primed and influenced by the these very categorisations so much, that not belonging to a certain type, followed by rejections, would seem to render many of us almost handicapped on the desirability spectrum.
My own tryst with therapy, as a patient and less as a practitioner, began with visiting a psychoanalyst (and later a regression therapist) with the basic premise of exploring the contributions of my body type that supposedly brought hazardous rejections in my relationships. The sad part was, while my notion of my own body as a negative object had formed long back, I invariably chose a narcissist partner back in those days. When he proposed to keep the relationship open, I chose to be a martyr and agreed to let him go out and sleep with other people while I’d choose to be one-sidedly monogamous. My self confidence and sense of self-worth was so low that I didn’t think I deserved anything more than that. While through my sessions, I learnt that I had grown up to look at my body with a compulsive need of feeling ashamed about it, it channelised my unconscious to attract such a partner in my life! Much later in life, when I got to be on the other side of the therapy-table, urging people to inhabit their bodies and to be inside it, I began to understand that I could drop this person like a tea-bag.
Deepen came from a family of priests. As a child when he would bathe and come out of the temple-pool wearing a towel over his shoulders, covering his chest, his father and uncles would ridicule and tease him, asking if he was a girl, trying to hide his breasts. While he knew he was different, the seed of that primal fear of being different was already there. This is how he began to develop an immense amount of anxiety, and this is where he started rejecting his body. It’s not that there weren’t any reinforcing events that compelled him to look at his body negatively, but in therapy ‘this’ could qualify as the initial-sensitising-event.
While effects of patriarchy and expectations of hyper-masculinity is ubiquitous in our society, it is astounding and equally dangerous how these effects can drive a person into such psychological dissonance. While it is only through therapy that I came to know my partner’s promiscuity had nothing to do with how I looked or how I thought I looked, I for the longest time, failed to convince Deepen that he looked perfectly fine. More than that, he was one of the most intelligent, gentle and charming people I had met.
He too was a victim of attracting narcissist partners, and every time he would be with them – be it at a restaurant or a disco – he would constantly inhabit their heads and look at his body. The danger of such inhabitations is simple – it’s others’ bodies and its others’ vision. One has to stop moving out of their bodies and be elsewhere. And that’s why for most of our sessions, we solely worked on ways by which Deepen could be and remain in his body (apart from retrieving his self confidence and self esteem).
In my work as a doctor and a psychotherapist, particularly in the area of LGBTQ life and community, I happen to come across way more people fighting against their bodies, than people fighting with coming out issues, or with finding love. While HIV/AIDS or gender dysphoria are areas that require a completely different therapeutic outlook and set of interventions, and I would certainly come back to address them, right now my understanding of this endemic issue of body image reflects the larger question of acceptance. As a community when we are fighting for acceptance and equality, I feel it is imperative for all of us to begin with self-acceptance. And what better than the body to start with.