Why I’m Afraid to Take Off My Shirt

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Back in 2014, my very first guest post went up on the now defunct Bedlam Magazine. I figured it would be a fitting, modified re-post here at Your Other Brothers. I hope at least one person reading will resonate with why I’m afraid to take off my shirt.

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As a teenager, I was often teased by my family because I avoided the water so much. My home in Georgia had a beautiful in-ground swimming pool, but even amid those sweltering Southern summers, I wouldn’t dare be found in that pool.

It’s not that I hated the water. Not that I despised swimming or didn’t know how. Throughout elementary school, I’d taken swim lessons at The Y and rapidly advanced from “guppy” to “shark.” I knew how to swim; I liked swimming.

But like Jerry Seinfeld’s staunch declaration to “choose not to run,” I chose not to swim. Somewhere around seventh grade, I told my family I hated swimming. But it was all a lie. The real reason was just too silly and shameful. And that reason?

I hated having to take off my shirt in front of other people.

As I entered those pubescent middle school years of misery, the mere thought of exposing my chest, especially among other males, terrified me. I loathed locker rooms. My pale, limp frame never measured up with those of the athletes, of which there was a vast majority in my grade.

Moreover, I lacked the masculine confidence that all the other guys innately seemed to possess — the confidence to walk shirtless or even naked among other men.

Biologically, I was a male just like any other male in the room, and yet I quite clearly wasn’t. I was always the insecure one with a confusing, clandestine sexuality, clinging tightly to his shirt, desperately wanting what everyone else in the locker room possessed. Confidence.

I learned to lust after the “most masculine” and confident of them all.

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In recent years, I’ve been told by men and women alike that I have a nice body. In recent years, I’ve also joined a gym and committed to a physical regimen, completing a half-marathon and handling heavier and heavier weights as biceps and triceps and other sorts of –ceps have gradually formed.

Now fully exposed before my bathroom mirror, I stand proud of my progress. Would I like more muscles and shapeliness? Sure, don’t we all? But compared with that weak, wiry teen of yesteryear, I beam over my outward transformation. Alone with the whir of the shower head, I see the definite outline of a man in that steaming mirror.

Yet remove me from the seclusion of my own bathroom, those same old voices blare from a decade and a half ago. The mere thought of pools and beaches spurs my heart to race, my head to swell, and my doubts to flurry.

I’m not as attractive as the other guys. Not as cut or buff or hot.

I’m not as comfortable in my own skin. Not my naked skin, especially.

I’m not a man. Not fully. Not yet. Not like all of them. I’m not fooling anybody.

As I approach 30, I still feel like an underdeveloped boy-man sometimes. I often wonder when I’ll “grow up” or grow out of this — whatever this is.

Thankfully, my mid-twenties have brought renewed perspective and growth. Whereas my teens left me largely isolated among my fellow male peers, my twenties have introduced me to some truly solid brothers — many of whom make up this blog. They’ve proved invaluable in my masculine healing process.

You can only live and breathe and believe I’m not a man so many times before these other men who have talked with me, prayed with me, hugged me, and otherwise affirmed me start turning the tides and whispers an altogether different direction and volume.

Eventually, you have to learn to stop listening to those old familiar voices and open yourself up to other ones — scary ones, yes, but altogether new revitalizing voices of truth and love and inclusion, not lies and self-hatred and seclusion.

I don’t pretend to have fully silenced those adolescent clamors. Over a decade removed from middle school, I still feel uneasy around summer waters or even while running down the road in a tanktop on a hot, humid day.

Deep inside, I still wonder whether I’m masculine enough.

But I’m learning only to acknowledge the voices, not embrace them. I’ve come to understand my underlying insecurities, and rather than run from them, I’m facing them head-on. Or chest-on.

I’m now 28, and I’m still afraid to take off my shirt. But I do it anyway.

The funny thing is that when I take off my shirt, the world doesn’t quake. When I take off my shirt at the beach, throngs of eyes don’t shift their collective gaze toward me. When I take off my shirt on hot, humid afternoons, cars don’t stop to honk while I’m running half-naked down the road.

I used to think I was alone. Alone in my sexual struggles, alone in my battles with body-image, and certainly alone in my sense of masculine inferiority.

But then I shared my story and started hearing the two greatest words in the English language: “me too.” Hearing those two momentous words has changed everything.

As soon as you grasp that you’re not alone in your fears and insecurities, the noose of shame loosens.

What’s more, you realize that you have something to offer others, including those of your own gender. A listening ear, a laugh, a coffee, or a beer. Heck, even a hug.

As men, we often bask in our triumphs while desperately keeping our messes hidden. It’s not as sexy to discuss the latter, but I hope we all adopt this precious art of vulnerability. That we learn to turn our shameful struggles into gloried victories and extend our hands to those still battling beneath us, bringing them alongside in the journey.

I’m still reconciling with almost two decades of shameful residue. But I now know I’m not alone, and neither are you, friend.

My residue is peelable, and I’m getting better at stripping it off, one agonizing liberating shirt at a time.

Have you been afraid to take off your shirt at beaches, locker rooms, etc.? Have you wrestled with body-image and self-worth in any other capacity? Are you “past” these insecurities, or are you still working through them?

* Photo courtesy kylealbert, Creative Commons.

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  • Jeremy

    I sure can identify with the insecurities and the feelings or thoughts that perhaps I was not “man enough” or “didn’t have the balls” for this or that, but I don’t remember feeling embarrassed by my physique when young, not that I had a great physique at all. I guess that was because boarding school does that for one. You cannot not go naked in front of peers. Striped bare in the showers. So shirtless?! No deal at all. Lol! But nowadays my body is old and somewhat showing the sags and wrinkles. I won’t go shirtless today. Lol. Nor will I swim in front of others, unless they are my intimate buddies or family, and even then I might not. Lol! I’m even a little shy to go in shorts and show baggy knees. Lol! So perhaps you’ve yet something to look forward to down the long line, Thomas! Lol!

  • Alan Gingery

    Hmmmm? My parents told me I was chubby when I was 6 or 7 years old and I carried that body shame with me for over 40 years. I was always ashamed in the locker rooms and embarrassed by my body. I had the envy of the other athletes who were muscular and sexy. This was a big part of why I developed SSA. It was early in 2015 when I realized as an adult that my adult body is OK and that I like my body…it is 40+ years overdue, but I am thankful that I can accept myself as equal and not less than other men.

    • It’s crazy how words from family (or anyone, for that matter) can have such a hold on us for years and years. I’m glad you’ve started to find healing over your body-image and masculinity. Thanks for being so open, Alan. Appreciate your sharing!

  • Steven

    I love swimming, but I went for like 5 years with almost no swimming because I didn’t want people to see me without a shirt. I made it through Jr High okay, but the end of High School and into college was bad. While I’ve always been various levels of chubby, I think a lot of it was tied to chest hair. Somehow I ended up with a lot of friends who had none, and of course the media didn’t really show it, so I thought I was a freak. Even when I would actually get the courage to take it off, I would catch people glancing at me and assume they were shocked by what they saw.

    Through looking up statistics and talking to other friends, I realized my friends were more the biological outliers than I was. It’s also been nice that chest hair is less taboo now with changing styles.

    I’m doing better now and have gotten back into swimming, but I still don’t particularly like to be shirtless around people that I know. I still avoid pool parties and such (tho part of that is because I don’t want to be caught staring at the other guys). Sometimes, like you, I start to like what I see in the mirror and walk with a bit more confidence. Still, other more fit guys go to the pool and then I feel very flabby again.

    • Chest hair is weird. I still don’t know what to do with it at 28. I feel you there.

      As for body-image, I feel better about myself when I exercise and work out. If it’s not a hardcore workout, at the very least I like to do pushups in my bedroom or go for a long walk somewhere. Every little bit helps. I guess eating well would add to that feeling, but one step a time for myself. 😉

      • Steven

        Yeah, I’m 29, so it seems more acceptable to have it now than it did ten years ago, lol.

        I just keep mine trimmed so it doesn’t look too extreme. Too short makes me kind of look like a giant baby, plus it’s really itchy.

        • Brian

          I wish I had more chest hair…..I wish I had more hair on my arms and body. I look at guys who have more hair on their bodies then I do and compared to them I feel like a little boy.

          • Steven

            I guess the grass is always greener on the other side :/

            Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand, because it just seems like a burden to me, but it makes sense that that could be tied to a sense of being a “man”, just as muscles are.

  • I never had an issue with my shirt off really except during my mid-high school years when I gained a lot of weight. I did however witness my older brother resist swimming because he felt insecure. He would rarely go swimming and when he did it was always with a shirt on. I don’t think I’ve seen his chest since elementary school.

    Your post reminded me of a song called “Against the Voices” by Switchfoot.

    If they ain’t singing
    If they’re just talking
    Let them keep talking to themselves

    Cause everybody knows
    That the hardest war to fight
    Is the fight to by yourself
    When the voices try to turn you into someone else.

  • Brian

    I’ve always been afraid of taking off my shirt and still am. Back in school I was afraid of taking off my shirt at the locker room, afraid of taking off my shirt at a water park, a pool party, etc. I was always on the chubby side and overweight and right now at 30 years old I’m trying to eat more healthy and not use food as a source of comfort as I did before. I was always unhappy with the way my body looks and at times I wonder what my body would look like if it was more in shape, muscular, and toned. Actually there are times I’m afraid of what I would look like if I was in shape, if that makes sense? And that fear keeps me going to the gym and working out. And I wouldn’t dare wear a tanktop so Tom you’re a whole lot braver than I am. If I wore a tank top I would imagine stares coming from every direction. I would always compare myself to the muscular guy who seems to exude confidence and compared to that guy I feel so small.

  • Me too. I have always hesitated to take my shirt off, but now as I’m getting older I pretty much never do any more. I usually joke that I want to be considerate of people around me so they don’t have to be subjected to such an unpleasant experience.

    Actually I am thinking about shaving all chest hair visible when I am wearing a shirt. Gray hairs are starting to appear and I think most of us would agree that gray chest hair is better kept hidden, even if hair in general is ok.

  • Kevin Frye

    You’ve read my book, so you already know most of the stuff about my ordeal with nudity. I don’t really struggle with body shame anymore, but I remember doing a lot of what you’re doing now. I had to really push through and force myself to take off my shirt, to get naked, to change clothes, to go swimming, even when I didn’t feel like it, because I knew it was good for me. After a while, I became more comfortable with showing skin and I realized it is what I always wanted to do. It had just been covered by shame and lies before. I like to think this kind of transformation that takes place as people grow closer to God and grow more mature is not really us becoming new or different people, but rather becoming the people we were always designed to be from the beginning.

  • C. Marque

    Yeah, I’ve had to work through body shame, but It’s been kind of different for me. My parents didn’t want me to not go shirtless in public, so I’ve almost always worn a shirt to go swimming. Part of me would be jealous that I couldn’t be shirtless, yet part of me didn’t want to either. It’s almost like it was a tossup between having-to-wear-a-shirt shame, and body shame… The older i’ve gotten, the more I understand my parents good intentions. I still wear a shirt when I go swimming, but it’s more of a conviction than a body shame issue now. Fortunately, I’ve gotten comfortable with being shirtless around other guys in non public settings when I need to. Even using the urinal in restrooms has been no small accomplishment for me! I’ve literally thanked God for the ability to use a urinal!

    • Kevin Frye

      I’m right there with you about the urinal thing, man. I love using them now. There’s something about doing it, about hanging my dick out in a semi-public place, and it being okay, that feels so manly, so empowering. I’m grateful to God, too, for this change he has done in me and in you.

      • Bryon

        I still have a shy bladder and it has gotten worse over the years. I started sitting down to go and I think that is where it got worse. I was tired of cleaning up splatter so I started sitting down. I have another friend who does the same thing for the same reason. It just seems more practical. Sometimes I can’t use the stall but sometimes I can go with the urinal, but only if there is a divider.

  • Matt ‘Ashįįhí

    Of course most of us have been through these insecurities of our bodies! I know I have in high school and my early years of college. But I got tired of the voices blaring in my head, saying “your not good enough to look like the rest of the ‘masculine dude’.” I had to fight my insecurities through the years, and actually accept them and appreciate my body! Now, I don’t care if I have to take off my shirt, and show that I am skinny. Dude, I love it!

  • Brenton

    Definitely relate to the insecurities involved with body image and self-worth. Like most of the comments below, at the age of 27 I am learning to be more comfortable in my body but there is a lot of work to be done in this arena.

  • Kevin Zimmerman

    Yes. So many awkward moments and confusing thoughts connected with gym class in middle and high school, always hoping to not be on the “skins” team for rec games of soccer, volleyball, ultimate. I think there is still some insecurity with this… maybe it depends on the situation?

    Also, “me too” really are such great words.

    • Thanks for sharing your similar story, Kevin. Me too, me too. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone here.

  • Bryon

    I’m not afraid or ashamed to take off my shirt, even when I was morbidly obese, but being naked near another person has always been very fearful for me. I have mellowed out over many years, and okay with putting a towel in front, but my experience of being massively shamed for my body was so traumatic I developed a phobia. Like you, I dreaded gym. The teacher would hand out towels as we left the shower and kept track of everyone to make sure they bathed. I was always late for the next class because I took so long to dress and I was terrified that if I was caught looking an another guy’s penis I would be outed immediately. Fear gripped me and I talked to no one. I’m still obese, but I stopped fretting over what other people think of me. I’m so glad for this because I can feel more confident and other men seem more comfortable with me for that reason. What still remains though is a fear that if I’m seeing a man naked who knows of my SSA that they will be uncomfortable or fear me seeing them. I suppose some things take even longer to resolve.

  • Bryon

    I just thought about something else; I had gastric bypass surgery 6/6/16 and there is the very real possibility I will have massive amounts of excess skin. I have worried about this and felt that I would not want to take my shirt off anymore. I’m also afraid of dysmorphia (poor body image obsession) and the last time I lost weight, this was the case and I gained 100 lbs more than I lost, doubling my weight. My weight problem has always been about poor self-image, which doesn’t change just because I lose weight. I’m obsessed with NOT having a perfect and attractive body. I’m also afraid that my skin will become wrinkled. I love that people think I am sometimes 20 years younger, but on average people guess 7-10 years younger. I will work on this though and I’m hopeful it will be different this time since I know it is a possibility.

    • Eddie

      I was checking out your post while reading up on others. How are things since your surgery last year? I trust you’ve healed since then and made a full recovery.

      • Bryon

        Thanks so much for asking! I have lost about 160 lbs and although I’m not afraid to be seen without my shirt, as I go to the gym pool regularly, I am obsessed with some extra 10 lbs of lower stomach fat. I am working with a counselor and making a little progress with better eating habits and still not exercising much. Overall, I need to eat more protein and lift weights to lose the rest. Regardless I want to be at peace with the better health and reduced weight so far. Hope you are well. I you want to look me up on Facebook, feel free.

  • Brandon Parrish

    I have definitely had my fair share of insecurities and lack of self-worth and all that stuff. I still struggle with these thoughts, but I am definitely not where I was. I have also been raised in Georgia (still in Georgia, born in Alabama though). Reading through these posts on here makes it great knowing that I am not alone! It makes me want to meet you all in person, is that something that ever happens?

    • We haven’t planned any “official” wide-scale meetups just yet, but many of our Patreon supporters have already jumped into this process on a smaller-scale! Several readers have come to visit Elliott and me in Asheville, and that invitation always stands if you’re ever in the beautiful Blue Ridge.

      • Brandon Parrish

        Cool man, I live in Georgia so Im actually just a couple of hours away. Maybe I could meet you all at some point.

    • Tim Follower

      Hi Brandon, my name is Tim. I have been following YOB now for a little while, and although I haven’t commented, I have received some great insight and encouragement from the stories on here as well! I was browsing some of the stories the other day and I noticed some of your comments. Your story actually sounds kind of similar to mine and I was wondering if you might maybe like to connect through email. I just think it might be kind of interesting and encouraging to share stories. If you’re not interested, that’s completely fine as well. I just thought I might suggest it.

      • Brandon Parrish

        Yeah that sounds good man!