When I was younger, around 9 or 10 years old, I would perform in front of my floor-length mirror, but not the kind of performance you’re probably imagining. There wasn’t any Disney involved, and I wasn’t pretending to be Aladdin. (Well, maybe more like a slutty version of Jasmine.) Still wet from the shower, I would tease the imaginary audience in my mirror with a risqué striptease. It also probably makes sense my favorite film as a kid was Pretty Woman. While other boys were hoping to be firemen or police officers, I was busy aspiring to be a stripper or prostitute.
Beginning with only a towel wrapped around my waist, I would often dance to a track off Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. Other times it would be “The Strip” from the musical Gypsy, the track in which the show’s protagonist goes from wallflower to full-blown stripper in a matter of minutes.
Like Gypsy Rose Lee, I had my first experience with stripping in public last week when I showed off my goods to a crowd full of ravenous gay men at Daniel Nardicio’s annual Mr. Nude York.
But let’s go back a bit.
As an adult man, I’ve always struggled with body self-perception. For most of my 20s I saw seen myself as too skinny. Trying to gain mass — muscle or otherwise — has always been impossible. Working out often, I’ve always been told by fitness pros that I need calories to turn into muscle, and any cardio I do will automatically void any gains. Lets just say I never really got anywhere.
Then last year, the first year of my 30s, I began to put on weight after spending some time away from the gym. One friend noticed I was finally starting to get an ass, but he also noticed that it came with love handles and itty bitty boobies. That only made me more uncomfortable with my body. I turned to the gym halfway through last summer, seeking to become the men I follow on Instagram.
On social media I’m flooded with images of muscular gay men who ironically pose with pizza. Their abs are sculpted, their chests are massive. I’ve always liked my body, but I know it isn’t quite what gay men label as attractive. And being naked in public has always been an awkward situation I try to avoid.
Many of my Fire Island housemates sunbathe in the nude, frolicking by the pool with their twig and berries out. They don’t care there may be neighbors gawking at a flabby ass. I’m impressed with their lack of inhibitions and love of exhibitionism. I, too, try to do that, but I tend to jump into the pool sheepishly or get back into my speedo. My defense is that I like to keep people guessing, but in reality I’m insecure about showing off my body, preferring to keep it to myself than share it with others.
On the apps I’ve become a bit more adventurous. For years I had a strict ‘no nudes’ policy, envisioning that when I become the gay version of Oprah I can’t have my nudes floating around the interwebs. Moving to New York City quickly changed that, as getting a guy to come over for a fling is nearly impossible without baring the goods. I’ve come to accept the fact that every gay man within a two-mile radius of my apartment has seen my cock and ass. Whenever I see a man with a swish walk by my block, I giggle to myself that he probably knows exactly what I’m working with.
But while I’ve learned to love those parts of myself, I still struggle with loving my body as a whole. I never share nude full-body images of myself. It’s amazing how a man will spy my ‘assets’ and approve, but then I get blocked seconds later when a chest pic or full-body shot isn’t forthcoming.
Now, back to last week.
When I saw the call for competitors for Daniel Nardicio’s seventh annual Mr. Nude York, I thought this could be my opportunity to finally shrug off all that insecurity. I didn’t really know the rules or parameters, but I thought, Why not put my name in the hat? Maybe I’ll actually come out a winner. I messaged him: “I’m in.”
Only a handful of men stepped into the ring for Mr. Nude York 2018, but among them was one furry adonis who’s become a popular go-go boy at Nardicio’s events, an older man who revealed he especially admires Latinos and Asians and another budding writer who said he desperately needed the cash to pay some bills. One thing that made my nude debut even more stress-inducing was spying in the front row a guy I went on a first date with a few weeks earlier. He hadn’t seen me naked yet, but he was about to, along with 100 other horny men standing behind him.
I took to the stage and tried to let my personality do most of the work (my usual ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card when I’m tossed into awkward situations). But when it got to the moment where we had to remove our towels and do a sexy dance, there was no hiding behind a quick wit. But my fear quickly dissolved into the air, and I let it all hang out. I’m not sure what the crowd thought, but I stood there with the towel in one hand and my semi-hard cock in the other, realizing there was no turning back as the flash from cameras went off beside me.
I didn’t end up winning Mr. Nude York 2018, but I did learn that getting naked in a room full of horny gay men is actually more about self-love than sex.
And I proved something to myself: that the only thing standing between me and one of my worst nightmares (or best wet dreams) is fear, and when I conquer that, there’s no telling what I may be able to do.
That night, a few people whispered into my ear that they’d voted for me, and I reassured them I’d be writing a tell-all book next year. I’m thinking of titling it What Happened.
I reclaimed part of my queer identity that night, as I think exhibitionism and a lack of inhibition are part of our collective queer experience. By becoming more in touch with myself, I became more in touch with the queer community I call home. We’re told our bodies don’t matter by many, and then told by each other our bodies don’t measure up. But that night, I said my body matters, as is. Getting naked in front of a room full of people may not be for everyone — and it may not be for me on the regular — but I say dare yourself to try it.
You might end up loving yourself a bit more than you did before.