Swimming With My Shirt Off
When I was 13, going to public pools was painful.
I loved the water, but I was convinced that dozens of judging eyes were on me every time I took my shirt off. I wish I could say this was only a product of my adolescent imagination, but I knew it was not when a swimming instructor singled me out and asked me to wear a shirt during class.
Being the only one with a shirt on was more shameful than being bare-chested. But the instructor was trying to save me from embarrassment, like my parents and every other caring adult around me.
The fact was that I had man boobs, and I needed to get rid of them to survive my upcoming teenage years. My parents took me for hormonal testing because the condition, called gynecomastia, is usually caused by a hormone imbalance.
“You can either exercise or have surgery,” said the endocrinologist. I chose the gym. No one in my class was going to the gym yet. It was around that age when all the boys in the class were obsessed with their naturally developing abs and other gifts from the Creator — gifts that I wasn’t lucky enough to get.
When it came to my body, I had learned that there were things I didn’t like about it. Things that would make my life a living hell during high school unless I found a way out of them.
Besides the issues I had with my chest, I also started to realize that every time I saw other boys, my body would react in funny ways. I was attracted to boys.
But in my world, in conservative Guatemala City in the mid 2000s, boys didn’t have boobs and boys didn’t like other boys. Whoever did was a freak — the joke of the school. I was not ready to be that person. All I wanted was to toughen up, tone my muscles, and turn the page. My visits to the gym were slowly starting to show results, but everything changed when I met someone in the showers.
He was twice my age; he asked if he could touch me. I said no. One thing I remembered from science class was that no one was supposed to touch me like he wanted to. But then I gave in because I was curious. And then I was confused. This was wrong and I needed to put a stop to it. Suddenly, the gym was not an option for me anymore.
No one in our household was a quitter, and whenever we set our eyes on something, Dad was there to remind us that we had to finish it. But that rule became null as soon as I told my parents what had happened in the showers. Dad was angry, Mom was upset, and I was crying my eyes out, knowing that I had failed the people I loved the most, but more important, I had failed myself and everything I stood for.
My parents talked to the gym owners about the incident and told them that we were not coming back. Taking legal action was too much for us; we just wanted to check out of it and start a new chapter.
By the time I was 15, it was agonizing to take my shirt off. Surgery was my ticket out, I thought. The endocrinologist referred me to one of his colleagues.
When I got out of the hospital I immediately noticed that the scars on my chest were bigger than I expected.
“They will disappear after a while,” said the doctor. But as time passed and the scars healed, it was evident that they were not going to fade away. My supportive mom, who was all about doing whatever made me feel more comfortable, saw a doctor on the morning news who was considered one of the best plastic surgeons in the country. She made an appointment.
He said he couldn’t do much about the scars. But some chin augmentation and rhinoplasty could help me a bit, he said.
“His nose is natural,” said my mom. “It runs in the family.” My mom wasn’t going to let him touch my face. She had taught me to love my nose and look at it as my heritage from my loving grandpa. And I didn’t want more knives cutting through my skin unless it was to remove my unwanted scars.
“I think his nose is broken, but it’s your call,” said the confident doctor. He wasn’t going to help me in the way I wanted. I was stuck with my scars forever.
I went home and stormed off to my room as teenagers do in movies when they’re tired of the world. I rarely did that, but honestly, the occasion called for it. I guess my mom was as tired and disappointed as I was, so she didn’t even follow me to my room.
But Dad was there, and he wanted to know how I was feeling. I told him about my unfixable issue. He was a fixer, but the time had come for him to stand still and embrace the fact that some problems couldn’t be solved. He just held me in his arms ensuring me that everything was going to be OK, even though we didn’t know what that meant.
All I knew was that from that moment onward, taking my shirt off in public meant that I was vulnerable to questions. Questions that I didn’t want to answer. No one was entitled to know who I liked or why I had scars on my chest, but leaving those questions unanswered meant that people were free to draw their conclusions.
At the same time, I didn’t want to miss the pool time during the trips with my school, so I had to come up with a strategy that would allow me to enjoy the water without being seen. I resolved that the best way to avoid questions was to take off my shirt when everyone was distracted. All I had to do was wait for everyone to jump in while I lingered on the edge, and I would then remove my clothes when no one was watching. Once I was in the deep end of the pool, there was no way they could see my scars. I also had to be the last one out so no one would see me.
But I forgot that there was a group of kids who never went in. They would hang outside the pool, desperately looking for something to entertain themselves. “What happened to your chest?,” one of them asked. He wasn’t trying to make me feel miserable or weird. He just wanted to know.
“I had a little accident,” I said. The truth is, it was kind of an accident. I had never intended to have those scars and I didn’t deserve to feel guilty about them. The surgery was an attempt to feel comfortable in my skin, but it had left me marked forever.
“I thought you had a heart surgery or something like that,” the kid said. “They look badass. You should get a tattoo.”
I had played with the thought of getting a tattoo on different parts of my body, but it had never occurred to me that my chest could be the perfect spot.
The problem was that I always changed my mind about things. There was no way that I could have a permanent mark on any part of my body, because I knew I would regret it immediately.
However, my scars were, in a way, a tattoo. And there was no way to get rid of them. They were part of a painful and difficult story, but they were also a symbol of resilience during a season that I never thought I would survive. People could think of me whatever they wanted, whether I gave them an explanation or not. But these scars became part of my story, and no one can ever take that from me.
J. Martinez-Paz is a writer and filmmaker from Guatemala City.
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