UVA Men Tell Stories of Their Bodies Through Photographs
A word from the photographer, Kendall Siewert
This project began because I believe in the power of people’s stories. When I first photographed women and their experiences with their bodies, I received an overwhelming response to do the same with men. I expected to find lots of differences between the projects. But in reality - at the heart of each person I meet and photograph - the same sentiments are there. Each person has insecurities and triumphs when it comes to their own bodies. Each story is a journey on its own. I am so immensely grateful to these men for sharing their stories with me, and I hope they touch you in the same way they touched me.
Growing up, you’re told men and women need to appear a certain way. Women are supposed to be as thin as a rail with perky breasts and voluptuous curves. Men are supposed to be tall, muscular and big. As a child, I was always thin and very active, but never very muscular. By the age of 12 I started growing. I gained height, and then weight. My peers were behind me, so for a time they were jealous. I always found it to be peculiar to be jealous about another’s insecurities. My pants never fit, hair sprouted on my chest and stomach, and acne developed on my face as well as my chest shoulders and back. The acne was cystic and would not go away. I have been on antibiotics to treat it as well as various creams for 8 years now. It’s gotten better in college. However, I’ve gained weight within the past 3 years, 30 pounds to be precise. Coming to UVA and seeing how fit everyone is, there is this expectation of how you’re supposed to look. I feel very insecure due to the acne, weight and hair on my body. I go to the gym to try to be healthy and I have gained some progress. Last semester I lost 10 pounds and felt great. However, I gained it back over winter break and put on another 5 pounds this semester. I know some of it is muscle, but I still feel like I need to lose more weight. I don’t want to be one of those people that spends all of their time in the gym, nor worry over every calorie I put in my body. How do I feel good about how I look in a culture where beauty is all based on muscle and thinness without compromising who I am as a person? I am sure I am not the only person at UVA that feels this way and hope through this project that dialogue can be created between people of all body types to see how they feel as well.
Showing my body is something that’s fairly new to me. When I was younger, I believed that I was chubby; maybe I was a little chubby, but that’s alright. Myreaction to this belief was far from alright: I counted calories as if my life depended on it. My body became fragile and my immune system suffered; I was sleepy all the time and I was isolated both by my choice and by that of my peers. I started self-harming towards the end of middle school. During freshman year, I told one of the sophomore guys that he was cute. Next thing I knew, the whole school knew I was gay—except, I’m not gay. I tried to explain the lack of importance gender had on whom I liked, but nobody really heard me. The next three years were a whirlwind of excitement, lessons, and the angst that every high school student knows. I was lucky that so many of my peers were supportive; I never had any troubles because of my sexuality. Towards the end of high school, I started to notice old habits popping up and I began my second dealing with self- harm. I had no idea what was wrong with me, I just didn’t feel right. The only time I felt good was when I was with my best friend or my mom, bopping queer and female rappers. When I figured out I was genderqueer, they were the first people I told. My mom cried, and smiled, and told me she loved me before thanking me for trusting her enough to share this part of my life with her. I think that’s why I’m the most likely not to give a fuck what people think: my mom taught me that I don’t have to.
There’s a scene in the film Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius where a little kid eats too much cotton candy. “We were going to see who could eat the most cotton candy,” he moans. Just before breaking down completely, he chokes out a lamentful, “and I won!” The camera zooms out to reveal his almost spherical, computer-generated body, full to bursting with cotton candy.
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was released in theaters in 2001. I saw it with my parents and sister soon after it opened. So here is the scene: I’m a five-year-old, sitting in a blood-red movie theater sharing a package of Skittles with my sister. I’m having a grand time, enjoying my G-rated entertainment to its full potential when the camera cuts to the cotton candy kid. The screen dissolves into loose shapes and gooey colors as my vision gets wet and salty and I can’t hear anything but the polite laughter of the movie patrons as they harmlessly fat-shame this little boy. Suddenly, I feel the syrupy residue of the Skittles on my fingertips and realize that I’m a pig and a fatso and disgusting and that I’m the cotton candy kid and that I’m the one they’re all laughing at. That was 15 years ago and it was still the first thing that jumped to mind when I sat down to write this.
In kindergarten, I started wearing a wetsuit whenever I went to the pool or the beach. By the third grade I was doing sit ups every day in the basement. In the fourth grade I became a vegetarian for “environmental reasons.” In eighth grade I renounced vegetarianism for “health reasons.” Now, I’m in my first year of college and I still feel panicky when my girlfriend hugs me around the waist. All this despite the fact that my whole life people have done nothing but tell me how cut I am, how healthily I eat and how diligently I exercise. And yet, at the end of the day I still lie in bed, staring at my stomach, wishing I weren’t the cotton candy kid.
The trouble is, folks, I see myself through a twisted lens. I have tried to correct the problem by changing the view I look at. But that doesn’t work; everything is warped through a warped lens.
It’s time to accept that my perspective is trash and embrace the fact that I'm somewhat insane. I'm nuts and I'm damn proud of it. After all, how can I not be crazy? I’ve never even fucking tried cotton candy.
Recently, I’ve begun to embrace the fluidity of gender expression. In the past year, I’ve been misgendered consistently due to my hair and feminine characteristics. I used to hate that I had a small frame and more stereotypically ‘girly’ mannerisms; but now I think, there’s a certain strength I have from being outside normalized expressions of gender. My hair greatly influences my personal expressions— whether I am feeling more feminine or masculine. I think these photos help represent the eye of society through which we are viewed as well as a sense of the privileged creativity I’ve found within this space of policed gender expectations.
The first time I heard the word ‘gender dysphoria’, I was already 20 years old. Before that, I didn’t have the language to describe to others or myself how I felt about my own body, how I felt like my form wasn’t masculine enough, and how only time I felt comfortable was when no one was looking at me and drawing incorrect conclusions about my gender. It’s taken years to come to terms with being transgender, and occasionally it’s still hard to look at myself or let myself be seen by others. But I’ve come to realize that this body is what I have to work with, and that when I stop worrying about how other people see me and let myself feel at home in my own skin, it’s freeing. I started practicing Muay Thai kickboxing because physical activity is sometimes the only thing that can help me feel grounded in my body when the gender dysphoria gets real bad. Because when I’m fully present, it no longer matters how people perceive me. I’m just me. Some days I still have to struggle and fight to find that peace and self- acceptance, and it’s hard, but it’s absolutely worth it.
All my life, I’ve felt pressure to change my body. Growing up, I was the chubby kid, self conscious and uneasy about how others saw me. Fast forward to today where I’m short and thin. Instead of feeling pressure to lose weight, now there’s a constant push to be more muscular, stronger, and taller. I’ve learned that no matter what I look like, there will always be this conflict. A pulling in all directions to embody someone else’s definition of a man. Trying to satisfy that definition is a true Sisyphean task and results in a cycle of tension, resistance, and disappointment. Instead, I’ve learned to accept what I am. Only by letting go of and looking beyond all the negativity and urges to change can I find peace with what I look like at this very moment. And in the end, it’s only my eyes that matter.
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