The best thing about riding eightyish miles per day, most days, for two months, is—of course—the people you meet. … Psych!
No no no, seriously, it’s the scenery. … Jk!
For realz this time: it’s the deep sense of accomplishment. … Still. totally. messing. with. you!
Here it is in plainest language: it’s being able to eat whatever the fuck you want, whenever you want, and your body just uses all those calories to endure what you’re putting it through, and you end up looking way hotter than when you started the journey. Period.
Okayyyyy, maybe I’m being glib. Maybe.
So then, let me temper my superficiality a tad: I’m willing to concede that the other stuff may be as important, or perhaps of even greater value. More than anything, it’s those human connections I make out here in HandlebarconfessionalLand that stay with me, and those unforgettable moments of grinding up a mountain pass and speeding(ish) down the other side, and the quiet, serene aloneness-peeweeness-yet-significance I feel among the majestic landscapes and skyscapes I encounter every day, sometimes all day. These elements of the journey doubtless last longer than the ephemeral—yet confessional-worthy—sublimation of body fat and the revelation of a slap-worthy set of abdominals. … Right?
But the body-image bump is a benefit, a bonus by-product, a boon. A bonafide bonanza. And a cause for befuddlement and bonkersness.
On my most evolved days, I’m striving to be all about loving myself as I am, at any given moment, in the here and now. To that end, I recently have been reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology to investigate more about how. Which is hard.
Why is it hard? First of all, her writing is so direct, so conversational, so in-your-face-loving-and-positive that it’s confronting af! And Sonya’s premise requires a radical shift to rethink and recontextualize some of the ideas we may already espouse and promote about ‘body positivity.’ Her movement is a rallying cry to end systems of oppression that “thrive off our inability [as humans] to make peace with difference and injure the relationship with our own bodies.” (Taylor, Sonya Renee. The Body Is Not An Apology. Berrett-Koehler, 2018. Buy it here) Sonya is exhorting us to dismantle that whole system of oppression that promulgates violence toward bodies that are considered less-than (i.e., Black, brown, queer, trans, alternabled bodies), and this violence includes our own self-harm. The Body Is Not an Apology invites us to wake up, challenging us—sans BS—while being completely loving, which is Sonya’s style. She tells us that self-acceptance, while a fine concept, is merely a “cease fire” after a lifetime of being in battle with our own bodies (and with those of others). She suggests that we can have more than self-acceptance and self-confidence; we can have radical self-love. That’s not conditional where bodies are concerned, say, only after you’ve achieved a certain weight, or look a certain way, or gain the acceptance of a certain group or culture. Or person. Like your mother. (Not possible in my experience.) In the book, Sonya provides tools and resources to confront systems of oppression and work through your shit. Challenging, like I said, but a gift!
So while I’m exploring (in 2021) Sonya’s vision for a world where bodies are not shamed or shunned or violated or destroyed because they don’t fit into the dominant culture’s version or vision of what a body should be, I’m simultaneously scrutinizing a selfie from July 2018 that I took in Missoula, Montana, having ridden my bicycle 2,892 miles to that point, and then used as my primary photo for a Scruff account.
And now you’re being invited to examine it too. Cue thirst trap fears. Scroll down.
As we can see, it’s more revealing than other photos I post, but not naked or even shirtless. I’m sweaty, just having finished a short run in Spartan Park (don’t want to forget how to do that throughout all this cycling). I’ve got my tank in my teeth and am showing off my flat, hairy belly. Looking directly at you, I’m expressing confidence in my appearance, in my sexuality, in my desirability. And/Or, at the very least, I am performing that self-assurance. From her magnified bubble bath bottle, Hello Kitty is witnessing the proceedings. She wants to see where this is headed…
Like many, I have a complicated (and evolving) relationship with my body. I have pushed it to its limits in a multitude of ways—many beneficial, many damaging, some both, some jury’s-still-out-on-a-particular-valence. I have abused it for sure, with chemicals, with a hard-to-break cycle of reward and restriction, and with my words and obsessive thoughts and opinions and stories and jealousies. Self-harm is quite the shapeshifter.
I’m a recovering drug addict in a 12-step program—and I’m also in recovery from what the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) once labeled as “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” as per my medical chart from drug rehab in 2012. The DSM-V came out a year post-treatment, so I just missed my chance to be diagnosed with the retooled version: “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders.” (Bleh. Personally, I prefer the noncommittal old-school EDNOS over the nomenclated-afresh OSFED. But what fun names for a pair of future kitten adoptees. “Aww, Eddie, you’re the slightly cuter one, I hope you live longer! Our little secret. *Boops tiny pink nose*…HEY, stop scratching the ottoman, Ossie!” *Squirts water bottle*). I have a lot to write about these particular experiences and behaviors of mine, minus the feline interludes, and have done so in an essay called The Specifics of Not Otherwise Specified which you may absolutely read, once it’s published somewhere else. But not here. Too personal. Hahahahahahaha!
In the same chapter of The Body Is Not an Apology, Sonia mentions a sexy selfie she snapped wearing a black corset while readying herself for an event. She initially believed that she would be the only person to see this photo of herself, which she found rather fetching. Six months later, after being inspired by another plus-size woman’s posting of her own photos, Sonya posts her spicy corset pic, banishing fears of being thought of as vain for doing so. The risk of eliciting unfavorable reactions about her appearance be damned! Today, I’m trying out this mad method for myself.
On Day 47, I’m alone at Em’s house in Missoula while she, the husband and kids are camping with a bunch of other families. Only Ace the cat is home. I’m in their downstairs bathroom in front of the mirror that, in my memory, nearly spans a wall. I’m looking at my whole naked body. For the first time in a while.
[Always encouraging specificity over generality, when I read Flint a draft of this bit, she asks, “How long is ‘a while’?” Fair question, but I don’t know, Flint (and Everyone Reading This). Maybe since my first HBC bike trip ended in 2009? … Still jk-ing! Whatta card!
I do have a full-length mirror in my apartment, behind the bathroom door, but there is usually at least one towel and my swim bag hanging in front of it. As ultra-obsessive as I can be about specific bodily areas of concern (e.g., my stomach) as well as the pores on my nose and the errant hair growing out of my ear (god, that parallax phenomenon can drive me in.sane., especially now with glasses), I tend to be avoidant of the view of the whole business. In those moments when I am on full display, I tend to look at my naked body in soft-focus. Sex in front of mirrors, case in point. I like the idea of it, but I have many conflicting feelings while it’s transpiring—excitement and embarrassment, arousal and performance anxiety (and always plenty of regular old anxiety to go around), and, outside looking in, feeling just a little bit pretend-porn cheesy about the whole he-bang—and so it’s a never an experience I wholly commit to…though am not opposed to further exploration…
All this to respond to the above question: I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been totally naked and gazing at/judging myself in a mirror, Flint and Everyone, not least because I wasn’t all-the-way present whenever it was.]
But in that mirror on Day 47, the blinders are off and my innate lens-blurring filter has been sharpened. I honestly like what I see. And, no, Flint and Everyone, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this experience. (Not unrelatedly, I’m not a before-and-after photo-taking sorta person. That can be a good tool for many, but it’s not the right tool for this dude right here. I have no desire for a record of the before. Having an imperfect after pic is terrifying enough!)
In the Magic Missoula Downstairs Bathroom Mirror, I’m both titillated and discomfited that I am taking pleasure in my appearance and by its direct correlation to my intense level of horniness. I’ve been on the road for weeks and weeks and have experienced only one tiny maybe maybe mayyybeee-but-probably-all-in-my-head flirtation in Yankton, South Dakota with the Pint Packer (read about that here).
As fucked up as the following concept is, it’s mine: because I’ve shed some excess body fat and I’m looking strong and lean, now I deserve to have sex. I am worthy of being seen. Like, I’m an exquisitely roasted leg of lamb ready to be extracted from the oven and splayed (hmm…can a single leg be splayed? …ok displayed) over mint-flecked rice. I’m finally good enough to put myself out there, as if I’ve managed to erect a blockade against rejection. As if! But then, as a tempering auto-defense mechanism to prevent the possibility of rejection by others, I rejection-weaponize myself, engineering a smackdown of my moment of pre-radical self-love. My fear of being boastful eclipses this nanosecond of celebration and appreciation, of joy, of reality. (We experience so much pressure to BE attractive per the ‘accepted’ ‘beauty’ ‘standards,’ but the minute we FEEL attractive and acknowledge it, then we’re bigheaded egomaniacs who should be ashamed of ourselves! Catch-22,000,000 with a one million-edged sword.) Ya know, the negative self-talk drill. Sonya gets it too. And lots of you reading this, no doubt.
I’m quick to point out my various imperfections, like who are you to be admiring of yourself when you’re so not the ideal epitome paragon height of manmeat-itude? And, you certainly don’t look as good as you did at this point in the 2009 HBC trip! And also there’s that deflating disappointment that many of us experience with these lame-ass iPhone cameras that goes something like this:
- I look hot af right now. Selfie time!
- *Snaps several that don’t capture what one [believes one?] is actually seeing*
- WTF?! I look better in reality than what is captured in this photo. How is that fair?
- If the camera doesn’t lie, then who is? Am I lying to myself?
- Also, who says cameras don’t lie? Seize them!
- WHAT IS REALITY ANYWAY AND WHY AM I AN UNRELIABLE WITNESS TO AND PURVEYOR OF IT?
- *Deletes all except perhaps the least offensive pic which one reserves the absolute right to maybe delete later*
But as my friend and collaborator Pam often remarks—and as any writer knows, or any anything—‘perfect is the enemy of done.’ Bodies, body image, body positivity, radical self-love included! Radical self-love isn’t a concept I’m aware of in 2018, per se, but I do know I’m horny and feel as good as I possibly can about myself. I’m also aware that I’ll never be ‘perfect’ anyway—certainly within Ye Olde Gay/Bi Male Fetishized Standard of Hypermasculinity. (This does fluctuate somewhat among subcultures but giant pecs/biceps/bulge and killer abs are pretty ubiquitous.)
But…As negative as the self-talk can be, it can also be tempered in the other direction and supported by reality and genuine self-confidence. I don’t delete all the pics. I do keep one. I’m like, shit, I need witnesses to this body I’m having right now—maybe even active participants! So, what to do about it? Even though I know I won’t be hooking up in Missoula with anyone (Oh stoppppp, people! I’m visiting friends! Sure, they’re not home from camping and I have the house to myself for a few more hours, butt I’m not really in a place in my life where I’d be cool texting them saying hiiiieeee taking ur car up to whitefish to meet this dude check him out hotttt amirite brb cat is fine btw), I decide to create a Scruff account (or recreate one, since Scruff seems to remember me, though it’s been quite a while since we were, um, acquainted, aka I was active on here).
[Side note: If you’re not up on the dating apps that cater to non-hetero men who are looking for other men, Scruff is quite similar to the more prevalently used and widely known Grindr. There are some differences between the two that you can google if you like, but Scruff is considered to be the scruffier (duh), hairier, bearier, brother of Grindr. Also it’s slightly more mature (in terms users’ age) and less diverse in terms of gender (fewer trans/nonbinary/gender-nonconforming folx). One Scruff vs. Grindr online discussion I was poking around in just now affirmed that, among these other differences, you aren’t going to find a whole lot of guys in rural areas on Scruff. …Oh well…?]
In a pinch, what audience is more readily available to share a this-is-not-an-after-pic-i-look-like-this-all-the-time pic than strangers on a hookup app? This plan has the added benefit of anonymity in the sense that I’m an unknown entity whizzing thru the Western Montana men-seeking-men scene. Get yer fresh meat! Lean ‘n tough cyclist meat! No one back home needs to know I’m trying to court attention and validation. Hehehe! It’s our little three-years-later secret.
Oh no. I just realized that I primed you for a hookup story. You’re now waiting for me to be discovered in my not-even-half-nakedness by a non-anonymous acquaintance traveling through the area and on the app, discovering he’s less than a hundred miles from me, “Danny?! You pedaling slutbag!” Or you’re hoping perhaps that I’ll puncture my friend visitation ethics by riding off with some Montana mountain man and packing gallons of pints and dish it all out here. Maybe even riding off to Whitefish! (Keeping it realer than real, I did have a red-hot chat with a dude in Whitefish, worth mentioning because it is a resort town on the way from Missoula to Glacier National Park. If you read my most recent post, then you already know I have a very tortured relationship with my catastrophic failure to ride to Glacier. The guy I chatted with was among the many incredulous people who could not fathom that I’d be ruining my entire life by skipping out on that experience.) But no. No pint-packing or anything like that. (In this episode anyway…)
The whole point (maybe?) of this rabbit-hole of a post is so that I/we don’t ignore a significant benefit of bike travel, admit that it’s a benefit, and discuss my somewhat tortured, somewhat joyful relationship to that benefit—and at the very least give a nod to the topic of sexual desire, actually connect my body to it. How can I be doing a feat so physical yet leave my body out of it, except of course when talking about sunburn, aches and pains, and the occasional roadside poo? Why don’t I write more about sex? Is it because I’m writing about bicycling? Are they somehow mutually exclusive? I do tread lightly on homo-sex as a topic out here in the boonies. I’ll never forget the stories of lynchings and attacks that were told to me by a gay guy I met in a dot of a town in Kentucky on my 2009 trip. I admit I’m afraid of being gaybashed. I guess that’s the pesky residual trauma from a childhood full of it. Or is this me being too paranoid or judgmental about rural folks? It is true that strangers have posted comments from time to time on the site, a couple of defensive ones when I’ve been snarky about a shit place I traveled through. Sorry/not sorry Milford, Utah. It definitely has crossed my mind that some small-minded small-towner would read me being explicit on here, find me on the road, and [DO NOT insert joke about Deliverance because rape is never funny].
And, shame too. Is it shame again, really? Fuck, am I just always writing about shame? Or do I mean secrecy more specifically? Or is it merely discomfort with being vulnerable in this way? Hmm, is that the same thing? I’m exposing myself. Literally. (Partially, admittedly.) Courting opinions, positive or negative (they’re both difficult to stomach). And what will my mom think? What non-malicious yet searingly memorable comment would she make about my appearance in this photo?… Ma died last year so maybe I’m feeling a bit freer in this arena. …though it’s not like she would have been affronted by me writing (even obliquely) about sex. …I’m not even sure she was reading these pieces with any consistency. ANYWAY.
What is it that makes me ignore this photo of myself in regard to Handlebar Confessional? For the past three years of writing about this particular journey I’ve had to continually consult the various source materials at my disposal, the king of which is the time-stamped Photos app. This pic, with its come-hither-and-hit-this smile has long loomed in my scrolling of photos, in a sorta which-one-of-these-is-not-like-the-others sorta way. For all these months, I ignored its daring devil-grin as something separate from the bike ride, something private, unshareable, unpostable. Hide thyself, desire-riddled beastie! Begone, vainglorious bastard! Stop/don’t/stop looking at me! Stop looking at yourself, Daniel! SCROLL AWAY FROM THERE THAT IS NOBODY’S BIZNESS NOT EVEN YOURS!!
No! This is the moment! Of reckoning. Of reconciliation. Of integrating these disparate parts of myself! Even now, as I’m writing about it (and knowing I’m going to post the photo), I’m averting my eyes from it. So telling is this factoid: in discoursing about (but before sharing) the photo with Flint–and others** I’ve processed this piece with, I kept yammering on and on about this “shirtless” or “half-naked” picture of me that I’m ruminating on. I only recently reminded myself to actually look at the photo instead of just talking about it. And I discovered something very key: You are wearing a shirt! You are not half-naked. Your avoidance runs deep, boyeeee.
Part of me eschews my vanity and its accompanying self-obsessiveness. Another part embraces it like wow you crazy tell everybody. Yet another knows that this experience is only barely unique because it’s happening on a x-country bike trip. Still another part of me is doubtful of the photo’s worth in prompting an entire essay. Of course, this: the solipsistic writer’s fear of/discomfort with drawing his audience’s attention too close. After making such a huge-ass deal about it, what if you’re like, no big deal, not even worth writing about from any angle? Maybe that’s the worst rejection of all, a worse version of “you’re not all that” than just the regular “I thought your abs would look better than that after so much riding.” Writing about desire is already fraught with pitfalls, cavities dug deeper when the writer may indeed be suggesting that he is an object worthy of it.
But I can’t not write about these issues, confessionalize this moment, because it’s part of the journey I took. And, hell, still am taking, considering the continued impact of these issues and behaviors today. Like, lit.er.al.ly to.day, since recently I re-re-opened that Scruff account, fully vaxxed and in pretty fuckin decent-ass, succulent leg-o’-lamb physical shape, aka deserving, with a keen eye rolled toward some pint-packin’. The requisite selfie nightmare process is intact as described above—but now also with a seedling of Sonya’s radical self-love sprouting shallow roots and tender wings.
Sometimes what a writer intends to omit from a story—whether consciously or not—may actually have more juice than the easier-to-digest stuff, like the people, the scenery, the feat, the food, the weather (ffs!). Hmm. Taking the piss outta myself for being superficial, I conceded above that the most lasting aspects of the journey are these ones. But, shit, maybe I was wrong. Sure, my body didn’t stay the same post-ride, but this is the part of the journey I’m still on, still pedaling through and grappling with. It’s still fraught with energy, still tied to pain and fear, to hope, to growth and fruition, to desire, and to joy.
So, yeah, I’ve created this confessional, and I hereby confess. To all of the above 3,000+ words that may or may not be worth the picture.
**Thanks for listening/opining Alex, Dustin, Erick, Jeremy, mi primo Michael, and Thomas, and prolly others, including my therapist.