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I struggle with body dysmorphia. If you’re queer, you probably do, too.
Every time I post a half-naked selfie, someone online calls me “thirsty.” Does one have to be desperate for attention to enjoy how they look? If this is “thirst,” I assume we all share thirst equally — a global, universal need for validation. I don’t know anyone hardwired with the confidence to float through life without occasionally needing a boost from others.
Here’s the truth: with most people I meet, I think their body looks better than mine. I still see my body as it was four years ago when I was newly HIV-positive. The drugs gave me weird fat deposits on my shoulders, face, and belly. My skin broke out. I hated the drugs and stopped taking them in San Francisco. It was a dark time in my life.
It’s been two years since then. I’ve restarted meds and switched to a better drug. Today I’m healthy and undetectable. I still have selfies from that time, and they don’t look good. I was lonely, depressed, skinny, and sick. I was escorting in a strange city. I wasn’t doing anything special or interesting, but I was in San Francisco and that was enough, or I thought it had to be. Living in an iconic city was, in my mind, worth the day-to-day struggle. Then life took me to Los Angeles, which was not as hard. L.A. got me to a better place. Then the drugs started.
Starting a drug habit when you’re already HIV-positive and not on medication is a bad idea, and I got sick very quickly. I lost a lot of weight. When I realized I needed to make a change, I went to the Los Angeles LGBT Center and talked to some people there. They understood my concerns, but they also stressed in no ambiguous terms what my outlook was: if I stayed off meds, eventually my disease would progress to AIDS, and it would be hard to come back from that. I got back into HIV care and have been taking meds diligently ever since.
Wellness is a shifting, elusive thing that everyone must define for themselves. Seeking it means more than going to see the doctor when you’re sick. Wellness means taking time to find the parts of yourself that need love. I’ve always had body issues, and I think these issues have been exacerbated by many things: HIV, HIV medication, substances, and much else. Wellness for me now means fitness and drug moderation — casual, infrequent use, not misuse or abuse. That’s what I aspire to. And every now and then I have to take a selfie as a visual marker of where I am and where I’m trying to be.
My idea of wellness is far from perfect, but it works for me right now. To feel better about myself and minimize my anxiety, I go to the gym almost every day and work hard to have a body I like showing off. Yes, I am seeking validation, but seeking validation beats the alternative — hating my body and avoiding people because of it.
I take selfies for myself. Learning how to take them is challenging. I’m learning to study myself in the mirror, what angles to get, how to smile, what facial expressions I like, and how to position myself. The art of taking selfies is absurdly complicated and defeating and difficult, mainly because it looks so easy for some people. And maybe that’s the thing: it looks easy. I don’t know how long some InstaGays spend getting the perfect, effortless-looking shot. I know I’m not willing to devote more time to it than I have, which isn’t much. I’m never going to be an InstaGay. But I do want to be someone who is proud of his body and likes the attention it can get. I want to own that. I have to. I have worked hard to not hate what I see when I look in the mirror.
If you want to show off, show off. If you want an ego stroke, seek it. There are a lot of people out there who blast social media as a place where superficial imagism destroys people’s perception of reality — and it is. But it’s several rungs up the social ladder from social retreat and drug abuse, and underneath the sham of it are real people like me who have histories and are celebrating how far they’ve come physically and mentally.
Vanity is self-care. The next time you like how you look, take a selfie to help you remember that feeling, so that the next time you’re feeling down on yourself, you can pull up the picture and remind yourself that you’ll get back there. You’ll make it.