I loved the idea for Hard-Ish Bodies the second I overheard Mike and Regina talking about it one day in the lobby of The Institution Theater.
I don’t remember who it was, but one of them said, “Yeah, it’s gonna be improvised ‘Magic Mike,’ but with, you know, like, regular body-type guys.” I stopped listening after “Magic Mike” ’cause the first thought that popped into my head was, “Sweet! This is a chance for me to do my Matthew McConaughey impression!” … which is really all I cared about.
I went to the auditions, had fun, did a silly goofy dance, and managed to get cast. It wasn’t until our third or fourth dance rehearsal that reality slapped me in the face like a gold lame banana hammock – I was going to have to dance in front of people practically naked.
Oh. Fuck. I had a full-blown panic attack driving home that night.
Now, I know what you’re saying to yourself right now. “What? Come on, James. Why would you freak out? You’re a retro ’70s fox with a DILF body that drives everyone crazy.” (Look, that’s what you all say in my head, OK?)
Here’s the reality of the situation – something that I keep (or at least I think I keep) pretty well hidden from all but a few super-close people. I have a bad case of body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD for short. What is BDD you ask? Well, here is how the Mayo Clinic describes it:
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance – a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.
When you have body dysmorphic disorder, you intensely obsess over your appearance and body image, repeatedly checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance – sometimes for many hours each day. Your perceived flaw and the repetitive behaviors cause you significant distress, and impact your ability to function in your daily life.
About 75 percent of the time, I hate the way I look. Whether it is the dark, baggy circles under my extra bulbous eyes, my ever-growing bald spot, the stretch marks from my fat pre-teen days. Or the worst offender, my belly and love handles.
There is always something I am criticizing about my appearance. And no matter how much affirmation from loved ones, attention from strangers, or applause I get, that little brain goblin in my head whispers his quiet body shame-filled admonishments.
Even when I was very little, kids made fun of my eyes. “Bug-Eyed Leary” was a popular taunt on the playground. But I don’t think it was until middle school that the insidious, self-doubting tendrils of not liking my body slithered into my brain like dark, inky snakes.
I was a very late bloomer, both physically and maturity-wise. I’d been an only child for most of my young life (my brother was born when I was almost 11), and I spent a lot of time playing my myself.
I also was a pretty skinny kid until about the fourth or fifth grade when my metabolism must have changed, or I subconsciously began to eat my feelings.
I remember going to buy school clothes at Marshalls (my mother’s favorite discount clothing store), and nothing in the regular boys section fit. This is when I first learned about the wonderfully titled “husky” section. This was a ’70s/’80s way of saying “fat kid clothes,” because I guess they thought “tubby” was too harsh.
Anyway, I digress. Back to middle school.
For even the most normal kids, middle school sucks. Something about all those pre-pubescent hormones racing through underdeveloped minds turns kids from 11 to 15 into absolute, complete, cruel, sociopathic assholes. Throw in the fact that I was small, chubby, goofy looking, dressed in last year’s discount fashions, read comics, and played with my G.I. Joe action figures well into eight grade – that made middle school three hellacious years filled with teasing, bullying, insecurity, and an almost overwhelming desire to be anyone but me on any given day.
To say I was picked on a lot would be an understatement. The popular kids, the jocks, the “freaks” (the kids that wore all black and liked Metallica and Slayer before that was cool) got their shots in. Hell, even the coaches made fun of me: “How about you lay off your mommy’s mashed potatoes tonight, Leary? Maybe you’ll lose that gut!”
I guess it all solidified during an eighth-grade church dance. I couldn’t get a single girl to dance with me. Not one. I sat in a corner, dejected, until one of the moms came over to see what was wrong. Stupidly, I told her.
She then marched over to a group of 13-year-old girls, and although I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I knew she was talking about me, given that she pointed right at me. The girls turned, looked, and started laughing. Some 30 years later, that memory is still burned into my brain like a humiliating brand full of searing, red hot shame.
And while the immediate pain subsided, the scar that formed would always be there, ever reminding me that I was funny looking, chubby, and not attractive.
In high school, I fell in with the theater crowd and discovered I could make people laugh. I decided if I couldn’t be “hot,” I’d be funny. And I got really good at being funny.
Somewhere between my sophomore and junior year, I grew 5 inches and lost 40 pounds, and I came out of my shell. I stopped getting picked on. I fell in love with performing. I had a great group of close friends.
But I still felt like that chubby kid at the church dance that no one would dance with. While I had a ton of confidence on stage, off stage I would cover insecurity with jokes and funny voices. I was terrified to ask anyone out. If I did, I would fall instantly “in love,” scared that if we broke up, no other girl would date me.
Throw 12 years in image-obsessed Hollywood on top of all of that, and my B.D.D. was a well-entrenched invader surrounded by body-negative barbed wire, and armed with machine guns firing self-hating bullets. I spent years trying every fad diet and work-out craze – Slim Fast, Atkins, South Beach, that fucking cayenne pepper lemonade nonsense, Body For Life, Tae Bo, Barry’s Boot Camp, P90X – doing the 30-pound up-and-down dance with the scale until I was exhausted.
No matter how “in-shape” I was, there always was a little bit more to go.
After my acting career flamed out, I moved to Austin and just said fuck it (to quite a few things, actually), and was drinking like, well the active alcoholic that I was, and eating garbage. I was going to prove to myself that I was truly as unattractive as I thought I was in my head. I got heavier than I’d ever been in my life (which, in hindsight, wasn’t that heavy. But in my mind I was huge), and swimming in a lake of micro-brew high ABV India Pale Ale self-hatred.
When I finally got sober, I wanted to get healthy again. I began eating better and working out. I discovered CrossFit (it’s amazing, just ask em about it), and after about two years, I got in probably the best shape of my life (especially for a dude over 40, if I do say so myself), which was right around the time I overheard Mike and Regina talk about Hard-Ish Bodies (look, I was wondering if even I was ever going to get back to the point, too).
In between getting cast and starting rehearsals, I hurt my shoulder pretty bad, and couldn’t really work out. And the holidays hit. I was bummed about not working out, because it had become a major stress relief and endorphin high for me, but I wasn’t too worried about it. My clothes still fit OK, and the scale didn’t go up that much.
Then we had a photo shoot for our Hard-Ish Bodies calendar. The second I showed up and put on my black lycra tuxedo hot pants, my B.D.D. burs from its bunker and attacked with furious vengeance.
While everyone loved the pics (my girlfriend, the cast, friends, strangers on Facebook), all I saw was belly. Love handles. Flab.
I spent the next five weeks working out like crazy and eating clean. This irrational drive that even in a show called Hard-Ish Bodies – celebrating all body types – I had to be the most in-shape person, or I was somehow a failure, consumed me.
I was terrified opening night. What if none of this worked and we got laughed at for all the wrong reasons? What if it was just like that eighth grade church dance all over again?
The second we hit the stage during our dances and the clothes came off, the crowd roared, and that fear went away. Seeing the joy on the audience’s faces, the freedom on my fellow cast members’ faces, and that not once during 17 or so performances did I ever feel judged, made me realize how special this show was. How it was much more than a silly improv show with dudes taking their clothes off.
Sexy comes in all shapes and sizes, and if you really truly feel sexy on the inside, it doesn’t matter how toned – or flabby, or skinny, or hairy, or short, or tall you are – that sexiness will shine like a supernova.
Hard-Ish Bodies helped me beat back that bastard B.D.D. brain goblin. I haven’t won the war by a long shot (as I go on a renewed workout and clean eating schedule to get ready for filming the short), but I’m gaining ground.
And if this show can help one person feel good about themselves, to feel sexy in the skin they are in – and fight their own brain goblins – then who am I to care if anyone sees my stretch marks through my ass-less underwear, as I swing from the rafters.
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