"Turtlenecks and Fake Tans"

hig school

“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.” ~The Bhagavad Gita

Trying to be something that you are not is infinitely more stressful than allowing yourself to be what you are.
In many ways it is the difference between floating and steering.

I can remember years and years of awkward struggles. Trying to be cool. Trying to be liked. Trying to look how I should or react in the right way.
Living like that is no fun. It is like constantly being on stage and trying to impress the audience.
Something interesting happens when you try to be something you are not – and fail. Yes, It feels terrible. It is embarrassing. For a young adult, this can be the most painful judgment imaginable.
But the interesting part is that in that situation, we are not being judged for what we are – we are being judged for failing to be something that we are not.
There were kids at my school who embraced their individuality. They dressed how they wanted, acted how they wanted and decided they wanted no part in the reindeer games of the cool kids.
But I was not strong enough to be one of those kids. I probably even mocked them.
I wanted to be cool. Every clothing purchase was 20% “How do I like it?” And 80% “Will people like it? “ Often it was an even more fearful question, “Will this get me teased?”
This went way beyond clothing. I can remember evaluating a girl’s attractiveness based on her social standing.
I can remember deciding that I hated a band because that was general attitude about them at my school.
I look back at that time and wonder who I was? I was living defensively. I was living in fear that my act would be compromised and people would realize that the person who had infiltrated the cool clique was a fraud.
I lived in stress and fear so that I could be someone that I was not. And the reward? Acceptance by other people living charades. Or more accurately: non-ridicule.
When I was in Jr. high, my complexion did its puberty thing like most the other kids. I would obsess about every blemish. I would go into a sort of trance in front of the mirror – picking and popping everything I could find.
My mildly poor complexion was made quite awful due to my picking. My skin tone would take on a splotchy pink every time I would go on a picking rampage. Which is to say my skin was generally a splotchy pink.
I used “skin-tone” Clearasil on the larger red marks I created.
Eventually I reached a tipping point and decided that wearing women’s makeup would be less humiliating that walking around in my splotchy skin.
And so I began wearing foundation and/or powder to even out my skin and hide the effects of my facial picking.
This was an incredibly terrifying time for me. My charade had never been so transparent. I was wearing the evidence right there on my face – and I lived in constant fear of someone noticing.
I would surely be labeled a “fag.” (Which would have been a fate worse than death.)
About this same time I also became obsessed by how skinny my neck was compared to my massive ears. Luckily, I came up with a solution: Wear a turtle neck. Wearing a turtle neck hid my skinnyness and minimized how much my ears stuck out. Problem solved!
Looking back I am shocked at my insanity. I wore a winter turtle neck (alone or with a shirt over it) EVERY DAY. As the days got warmer, I would wear turtle necks with shorts and try not to overheat.
But the turtle necks compounded another one of my worries: What if my face makeup got on the turtle neck?! Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we first start to deceive…
I lived in fear of the discovery, but it never happened.
A year later, I discovered (and became obsessed with) fake tanning cream.
The fake tan would tint my pink blotches and made me feel much better about my skin.
Until one day a friend asked publically, “Dude, why is your skin so orange!?”
I remember the moment vividly. It felt like I was shot in the chest. I was terrified. I was petrified. My heart felt like it jumped into my throat and I could feel my face flush. I eeked out, “I don’t know,”and scuttled off before anyone else could investigate his statement.
I may have even gone home. I know that I thought my world had collapsed. The worst possible thing I could imagine had happened.
Someone discovered that I was not the person I had been pretending to be.
I eased up on the tan crème, softened the orange with some pressed powder makeup, and prepared for social Armageddon. But as is often the case with adolescence, I misjudged how much people cared or paid attention to me. My friend didn’t mention it again and neither did anyone else.
Still, I lived in fear of the other shoe dropping. I avoided pool parties and took extra care to ensure my turtle necks would not be stained around the collar.
About this time I saw my friend Scott demonstrate a type of courage I had never seen before. During some mean-natured ribbing, he resisted the instinct to defend himself or fight back.
Instead he said, “Wow, it really hurts my feelings when you say things like that.”
This was a revolution.
It stunned the aggressor and stopped the teasing. Suddenly the crowd’s perception was that the aggressor was being a jerk.
Scott has decided not to play the game. He refused to maintain the charade. Instead he stood strongly in his truth and confessed his weakness.
But in claiming it as his own, he was not made weaker at all. On the contrary, he gained power. Suddenly the attacks were deflected.
This demonstration changed everything for me and set into motion a quest towards introspective honestly that continues today.
Soon after, someone did notice my odd skin tone. But I didn’t panic. Instead I replied what I had practiced in my mind. “Yes, I use fake tanning lotion.”
They was a minor joke at my expense, but it had no power to it. Standing in truth, there was no weapon to use against me. By claiming the rock as my own, I left only tiny pebbles to throw at me.
If I am pretending to be tan, but I am not – then when my lie is discovered, I am ashamed. I have failed. I have been caught.
But if I simply am what I am, then what power does discovery hold? Sure they can still tease me for this truth, but it holds a fraction of the impact.
There is a line in “The Course in Miracles” that reads, “In my defenselessness, my safety lies.”
Sometimes I imagine the lion Aslan surrendering to the evil forces of Narnia. Or Jesus carrying his cross. They refused to fight back and in doing so became infinitely more powerful.
Years later, when I discovered the web and global self publishing, I returned to this idea. The internet became a digital confessional for me.
The more I would reveal about supposed “weakness,” the more support I felt from readers. The more vulnerable I allowed myself to be, the more powerful I became.
People sometimes commended my bravery, but they misunderstood the grand equation. I was not showing my weakness to the enemy – I was removing the weapon from their arsenal. Once I have told you that I am insecure about my complexion, it is no longer a rock you can throw at me. “Queer Nation” understood this.
But the real epiphany has much more to do with the internal awareness than any outside attacks. If you are trying to play a role, then you are set up to fail.
If I am trying to be cool, and then someone decides that I am not, it hurts. This pain is deeper than the ridicule, itself. It hurts because I have tried to steer a situation and create a perception – but I have failed.
Contrast this with standing in your truth and being ridiculed for that. You may prefer to be liked, but really, what does that have to do with you? If you are being who you are, then how people respond is none of your business. If you act from truth you CANNOT fail. Truth is truth. Does a mountain fail because it doesn’t have enough trees? Only a crazy person would think that. And it is the same type of childish perspective that would judge a person for their truth.
When we sit in our truth with confidence, judgment cannot touch us. Because the judgment – by definition – comes from a place much lower than truth. It comes from weakness. And by choosing not to defend against it, it remains outside of our world entirely.
If someone hands you a gift and you do not accept, then the gift remains in their possession. The same is true with insults and judgment. It does not have to be a part of your world at all.

In my defenselessness, my safety lies.

In contrast to what we might think, a person who does not defend can be infinitely powerful. Look at leaders like MLK Jr. or Gandhi. They transcended their physical power because they surrendered to ultimate vulnerability. You can beat my body. You can imprison me. But you cannot deny me my truth. From this defenseless truth, the frailest of beings can change the world.

More importantly, we can free our minds.
feb 18, 2010

7 thoughts on “"Turtlenecks and Fake Tans"”

  1. this is a really good post … it’s so relatable and an awkwardness and experience I think we’ve all felt on some level or another

    interestingly … I got this in my email today and was mulling it over right before I read your entry

    To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary.
    Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving.
    It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value.
    Approval cannot be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been.
    It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy.
    Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.

    Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

  2. John,

    I just read your story and am very impressed and proud of you. Very brave of you to put it all out there. Being honest keeps people from guessing what’s going on. I think your story could be helpful to many. Good job.

  3. Great story, so honest and authentic! I was one of the weird kids that wore crazy outfits to school, got made fun of and only sort of cared. I have always been into extreme self expression. I guess I was always pretty authentic, having said that I have insecurities just like most people. I think my lack of self preservation comes from being a only child, a capricorn and great parents! I definitely went through plenty of awkward phases but don’t we all. Thanks for sharing your story! 🙂

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