Trigger warning: Body shaming
Dear prepubescent self,
Oh, what a journey you have ahead of you! Right now, you don’t understand the pressure of hitting adolescence, finding your sexuality and figuring out what to do with it. Aside from your voice cracking and a bunch of hair growing everywhere, your body and mind will leave the playful spaces of your pre-teen existence and thrust you into a confusing space. Where do you stand in the hierarchy of popularity, love, confidence and happiness? It’s going to be a rough journey, but I suppose there’s no running from it.
At the ripe old age of 13, you will come to understand the meaning of sex, but you will find it harder than your peers to navigate the concept of sexuality and where you fit in. Still, this is a crucial time in your development. Learning confidence and nurturing your mind, body and soul may sound like a thing for the older generation, but no one has taught you that it actually starts now. Pay no heed to people labelling you a “fag” before you even know what it means. Sex isn’t promised to anyone, and, as in your case, neither is love. Is there a coping mechanism for when you see everyone around you graduating to the next level of their lives so seamlessly while you still struggle? Therapy? You won’t be woke enough to accept that kind of help yet. Perhaps a sense of humour? It certainly comes easy to you. Maybe there’s power in humiliating yourself before you give anyone else a chance to? This same sense of humour that you use to put yourself down will be detrimental to your self-growth, and before you know it, you’ll be in your twenties. And while everyone around you seems to be finding their true love, you’ll still be joking about how fat you are – not because it’s funny but because it’s what you have constantly been telling yourself. How else can you explain the general lack of interest people have in you?
“Do you understand what self-deprecation means?” Comedian Hannah Gadsby will ask her audience this question on her to-be-famous Netflix stand-up special, Nanette. “When it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins, it’s not humility. It’s humiliation,” she’ll say. These words will become wedged into your memory after you first watch the show on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai in 2019. Gadsby sees you through your phone screen, calling you out for your self-deprecating “sense of humour”. She will be the first person to tell you that you are better than that.
You will spend most of your adult life being called ugly, corpulent or unattractive, and you will begin to believe that these things may even be true. So, every time you meet someone you find attractive, you might feel the need to overcompensate for your looks by joking about how ugly you think you are. Why give anyone the chance to think that you live in blissful ignorance of the “league” you are in. What right does a “fat”, “ugly”, gay man have to confidence? The gays of Grindr will be quick to remind you. But you will much rather listen to those who criticise you than those who don’t, and ignore the few who show any interest in you. If it weren’t for Gadsby, maybe you would still be living in ignorance of the humiliation you caused yourself under the guise of humility. I wish I had the wherewithal to tell you sooner, but hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?
Before your time in the dating arena, gay men relied largely on cruising spots and prayers that the person they were attracted to also played for their team. They couldn’t just casually walk up to someone at a bar and buy someone a drink in the hopes of bagging a date. It was rare; they needed a place to feel safe exploring relationships and consensual sex. (And despite all the modern apps, us gays still don’t feel like we’ve found that space). You will hear of the dating website Planet Romeo in the mid 2000s and start using it. In fact, you will be lucky enough to meet some great people and develop strong friendships that will span the foreseeable future. From the closeted, scared teen trying to figure out your sexuality to the 30-year-old man you will eventually become, you’ll experience more such spaces to meet others like yourself. With time, come more apps. But you know what they say, “mo’ apps, mo’ problems”. Take Grindr for example, it’s like that friend who starts a fight between two people and then steps back to watch as they destroy each other, with no accountability. But perhaps blaming the lack of love in your life on apps is convenient scapegoating.
In your twenties – and I hate saying this – your mental health won’t look so great. Unfortunately for you, it will go from bad to worse, and your twenties will pass you by with your problems left undiagnosed until you’re 28. I know it’s a lot to take in one go, so let me try and find a way to soften the blow. You will develop a taste for great food, and as a result, there may or may not be more of you to… “love”. You will begin to prefer your own company. But sugar-coating aside, the polite rejections will take many forms, such as being “left on read” or totally ignored, but the brutal ones could potentially take a toll on your self-worth:
“You’re ugly”. “You have a face only a mother could love”. “Ew gross, you have no business messaging me, look at yourself”.
Eventually, you will find that your loneliness starts to become an insufferable (and totally unnecessary) add-on to your depression. Mumbai, a metropolis you will call home, is a big city that will eat you alive and spit you out if you don’t develop a solid support system. Frequent phases of self-destructive tendencies will begin to rear their ugly head, and you may even find yourself getting drunk and acting the fool at work events. The friendships you value most will gradually wither away, and those who mean the most to you now will move on with their lives, without you.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and you’ll feel as though you’ve finally found the solution to your problems: a dating app called Tinder that facilitates finding love for other lonesome people like yourself. Given your sexuality, you’d obviously think to head straight for the gay section, right? Wrong. Thanks to another lonely friend of yours and his internet-savvy ways, you will learn a trick to getting laid – you will change your Tinder settings from “male looking for male” to “female looking for male” and create an authentic profile with a sincere bio and real pictures of yourself. As bi-curious men find you among the roster of women, you will encounter rejections laced mostly with homophobic remarks. Surely that’s not going to be great for your self-worth, right? But you find a way to justify these comments. Your damaged belief in your “inferior looks” will take the edge off the pain when you get rejected by straight men; they’re not turning you down because you are ugly but simply because they are straight. It’s hard to take that personally, and so it will protect your fragile ego. But is this healthy? What are you hoping to achieve? Sure, you won’t be callously shot down based on your appearance anymore – and that will feel great – but you will begin to completely lose sight of the long-term damage this is doing to your mental state. With each straight boy you swipe right on, you will be setting yourself up to experience the feeling of being undesirable. You will allow yourself to accept that you aren’t worth anything more than being a closeted man’s discreet experiment.
Tinder will take you down a rabbit hole of resentment and envy every time you look at people who are conventionally pretty. To you, they will appear to have it all. Doors open up for them. Nightclubs are happy to have them, people want to date them and, you will eventually begin to believe that “good-looking” people don’t have any problems, that life for them will always just be easy.
I know that you speak to yourself about your greatest fears, and your extreme musophobia aside, the one that tops the list is your fear of dying alone, without experiencing what it means to be loved, romantically. I derive no pleasure in telling you this, but that fear will only worsen with time; it is all consuming. Your self-sabotaging and self-loathing ways reek of your desperation to find love, as if there’s some sort of an age limit attached to it. You’ll feel the rush of your youth slipping away and imagine that whatever little you have to work with as far as your looks, will also cease to exist. (God knows, I don’t have a skincare routine. Not even sunscreen).
On a really low day, soon after you turn 30, you will get back on the therapy horse, hoping to talk your problems away. On one of your many Zoom calls with your therapist, you will dive deep into heartbreaks of the past that plague your mind even as you enter a new decade. You will have spent the better half of your twenties pining over someone who didn’t deserve a minute of your attention, and the other half trying to get over him by meeting men who will have used you for a twisted ego boost.
I must end this cautionary letter to you – I worry I’ve ranted on for far too long now. Over the past 30 years of knowing you, by virtue of being you, I’ve grown to understand you – your triggers, what makes you happy, why food has become such an irreplaceable joy in your life. You may feel the need to keep justifying your rapid weight gain to your friends and family, maybe even put up a brave face and pretend your depression and self-hatred isn’t overwhelmingly exhausting to live with, but this letter isn’t to scare you off what’s to come. You want so badly to be appreciated by others, but you’ve forgotten to appreciate yourself. Through the lows of it all, you’ll keep yourself alive. Although many relationships will suffer, there will be some that won’t – value those. But before you begin to nurture any other relationship, fix the one you have with yourself. It’s never too late to start. I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of you. Be good to yourself. And, I look forward to seeing us finally find love one day, someone who also loves us for the way we look, and not in spite of it.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like: Love Language: An artistic reflection on the connected visual subtext of queer intimacy and Hindi film songs from Verve’s Cinema Issue