Ever since I can remember, I’ve had these red, bumpy spots on about 60-65% of my body; people in my family had it, too, although usually isolated to one or two areas (they called it ‘chicken skin). I never thought much of it until my teen years when growing insecurity in my self-image latched onto every little detail that made me wince when I looked in the mirror. For over a decade I would sweat through blistering Southern U.S. summers in jeans and hoodies because I never wanted anyone to see my ugly, bumpy chicken skin. It wasn’t until one random encounter in my late 20s that I decided to finally stop hating what should have been my most prized possession, my skin, and learned how to let hateful people stop a/effecting my life.
[The bend of my right leg, unedited, 16 hours after my last ‘scrub and slather’. I’ve got more hair peaking through than ever thanks to a fairly harsh and strict care regimen. The exfoliating scrub is like liquid sandpaper, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that breaks the keratin plugs free after years of subpar self care coupled with the insane rate at which my body produces keratin.]
I was at a fast food joint with friends having a fairly unextraordinary meal on a fairly bland and uneventful day. I was already feeling self-conscious because I was out in public in shorts and chucks, no long socks covering all but a few inches of skin like normal, and somehow blissfully unaware to that fact. By this time I had found out I had a condition called ‘hyperkeratosis’ where the body produces too much keratin and, as a result, much of my body hair was trapped inside of my pores, blocked by hard, seed-like keratin plugs. Because my body produces so much keratin, no amount of scrubbing and exfoliating and moisturizing even put a dent toward liberating my hair from its dermal prison. I was just finishing college and beginning my career in chemistry, so the long hours and lack of rest had weakened my give-a-damn level to ‘too tired to care’, so I threw on whatever was laying around.
Well, I THOUGHT I was too tired to care. As I was getting my drink and napkins, I happened to hear a conversation going on about ten feet behind me. All I heard was ‘gay pink shoes’ and immediately knew I was their subject of gossip. That day I had spent some quality time with my aunt, a three-time cancer survivor who was just entering her slow, painful spiral into passing away. Earlier that year I had found bright pink Chucks on sale and bought her a pair (she was constantly wearing Susan G. Komen pink, her favorite color since surviving her first bout with cancer), then decided to buy myself a pair; I knew she’d love that we could twin it up (and she did; I wore them around her every chance I got and it never failed to get a huge smile and giggle). I didn’t let his derision get to me; at first. Then I heard his young daughter giggle and, I guess to keep her entertained, he pointed out my red, bumpy legs. “See? Look at him. He shaves his legs like a fag.”
To his credit, the lack of hair on my legs coupled with my bumpy red skin did, in fact, look like I shaved my legs; but no, it was just from the hyperkeratosis. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to go over, lean in, and emasculate him in front of his family. I wanted him to feel as embarrassed and misunderstood as he made me, a stranger just getting some napkins, suddenly feel. Instead, I went back to the table with my friends. They could tell something was wrong, but I bitterly grumbled it away and let other conversations fade it off into the back of my mind, where it’s fermented until today.
I’m hoping by sharing this I can accomplish a few things. First off, no matter how amusing it may seem, ridiculing a stranger based on your preliminary assumptions is one of the biggest jackass moves you can pull. Obviously the man had no idea what he was talking about, but decided to entertain his family by poking fun at the looks of a stranger (another major jackass move); the level of insecurity stored up in that man couldn’t be measured by human means. Part of me knew that and just let shit slide, regardless of how angry and rightfully insulted I felt.
That’s another thing I hope to accomplish: maybe my experience can help show people that, regardless of the hurtful words others may sling your way, in these situations the message is almost always about the sender. Growing up, I was the first EVER male cheerleader at the middle school level in my region and within my first year had been ranked as one of the most talented athletes among my peers, regardless of respective sport. That level of success came at a price. I was instantly recognizable anywhere I went, and enduring the names, threats, and outright abuse were the dues I paid toward becoming a better person and more focused athlete. When I entered high school I was the first male cheerleader in three decades and then the first ever at my junior college, and the ridicule was something that followed. Through the years I realized that there was nothing wrong with me or my passion for competing; other people were the ones who had a problem with ME, usually due to their own insecurities, secret desires, and resentments. No matter where you go or how long you live, there will always be people around who are ready to sling shit your way; but it’s YOUR choice whether or not to wear that stink or simply let it slide off.
And that’s the final point I hope to make: no matter what people say or scream, it’s YOUR choice whether or not you internalize their hate and make it real. Please understand that when people spread hate, it’s typically from a place of fear or misunderstanding. Don’t engage with people who try to diminish your self-worth or trick you into believing you don’t deserve respect and at least a modicum of common courtesy. They’re wrong, and most likely projecting their own doubts and insecurities onto you; because if they can transfer their negativity to you and bring you down, in their twisted little minds they’ve won against their own demons. However, it’s a fleeting false sense of security, and they have to repeat the cycle again and again until they’re left scared, alone, and completely unable to function in everyday life or with the general public. Which, coincidentally, is how many politicians (and other villains) are born.