In the early 1960s, my parents discovered Nantucket, long before the island became the popular upscale resort it is today. Each summer for a month, we would pack up the station wagon, tie the sailfish (a surfboard-like sailboat) to the roof, stuff the station wagon with clothes, diapers, a crib, my little sister and baby brother. My father and mother would drive us to Woods Hole for the ferry ride to the island. We stayed in a small furnished cottage near the center of town that was part of a property of three cottages. The cottage we most often rented had a plaque above the door that named our summer home, After Cabin.
It was in Nantucket that I learned to ride a bike; I learned that I could sleep through loud thunderstorms that woke everyone else up; that I loved the sounds of crickets in the evening; and I was addicted to the Penny Patch candy store on Main Street.
It was also in Nantucket that, at some point, I began to notice the handsome, muscular young men with an air of self-confidence, good looks, entitlement, and superiority that were plentiful on the island. Some of these guys worked on the island for the summer, and others were sons of wealthier families and sailed, played tennis, or hung around town with their buddies.
In Nantucket, I always felt like an outsider to the world of handsome young athletic men. It’s hard to figure out exactly why I felt like an outsider, but I have a few clues.
Sports were never my thing. I felt clumsy and ignorant of all team sports, including the most important two: football and baseball. I was also overweight as a child. Beginning in third grade until 8th grade, I was overweight. Only when I was fourteen and had a rapid growth spurt to 6’3″ did I thin out. As a child, my grandmother and aunt would regularly offer ‘helpful’ diet tips, which always made me feel terrible. Even in High School, when I had thinned out and was told I was handsome, I still felt inside like the awkward, overweight outsider.
By high school, I was an expert snow and water skier, enjoyed long-distance swimming, loved biking, and was quite a good sailor. But could I throw a baseball? No. Could I catch a football? No. If I couldn’t play baseball or football, then I wasn’t an athlete. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to see myself as athletic or even physically coordinated.
As a recently out gay man, I’m trying to understand where I fit in the gay community and what continues to hold me back. What was it about preppy, good looking, athletic guys that had me both feel incredibly attracted to them and, at the same time, ignore and despise them for their perceived elitism and snobbery? The same fears I had of good looking young men when I was a teenager have not really changed to this day. Flying home from Provincetown the other day, there was a sexy handsome man in his late 40’s or early 50’s on my flight. He was a thin, well dressed, with a beautiful face, I couldn’t stop looking at him. But at the same time, I was aloof and ignored him. I was simultaneous attracted to him and looked down at his preppy good looks.
The world I grew up in lacked diversity. Like our television sets, it was a black and white world. There was only one model for a guy, and it was the Leave It To Beaver all American boy who loved sports; knew how to rough house with the guys; had masculine good looks and was an accomplished athlete. I wasn’t any of those things: I loved arts and crafts; shunned team sports; didn’t banter with the guys; and wasn’t athletic. Which all had me feel terrible about myself from a very young age.
By the time I reached my 20s, my opinion of myself had begun to change. In college, I taught skiing for American Youth Hostels in New York City on their weekend trips to Vermont. I received a lot of praise from my peers on the trips for my skiing and teaching ability, and I began to see myself as more of an athlete than I had thought. While I secretly continued to see myself as an overweight child, I also knew that I was no longer that person. I had thinned out at 14 and kept the weight off for many years into my early 30’s.
I also began to recognize that I got a lot of praise in my jobs. All through college, I worked part-time for design firms in New York City, and it was an incredibly empowering experience. Through work, I saw that I could have a level of attention, success, and praise that I hadn’t gotten any other place in my life.
But inside was the teenager shying away from the handsome men, feeling of being unworthy. I still battle this self-image or self-limitation today. Other than facing my fear and moving through it, I’m not sure how to tackle this issue. Suggestions are always welcome.