The pandemic has been a special hell for those of us who suffer so-called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a condition that causes obsessive dissatisfaction with the body’s appearance. I haven’t been to the gym since March, and as any old man knows, muscle evaporates quickly without exercise and requires far more effort to regain than it does for the annoyingly young. BDD hisses, “You look like shit, but you’re invisible!”

Then again, the pandemic has made me fall in love with myself. I haven’t engaged in much masturbation since adolescence because, you know, I’m not attracted to myself. Now that sheltering at home requires abstinence, I’ve finally come to pat my penis on the head and whisper, “You’re not that bad. Let’s play.” I’m joking, sort of, but jerking off really has become epidemic. When I bought lube at the Kroger recently, I asked the clerk, “Are you selling a lot of this?” She looked shocked, but laughed and said, “It’s like a paper towel.”

While falling in love with my penis, I’ve also learned the loveliness of porn. Heretofore, it never did anything but make me wonder how anyone could find me attractive. No amount of time in the gym would make me look like Jeff Stryker, the ultimate, macro-phallic porn star of the ‘80s. About 20 years ago when I was in West Hollywood at a gas station, Jeff drove up, mysteriously, in a limousine. As he filled the tank, I said, “Hi, Jeff! My favorite movie is the one where the guy told you to stop because your huge dick was hurting him. You replied, ‘It ain’t no good if it don’t hurt.’” I laughed. He didn’t. I explained — for real — that I was writing my doctoral dissertation on history’s obsession with enormous cocks. “I’d love to interview you!” He stared ahead and silently drove away in the limo.

I make jokes about BDD, but it is actually classified as a mental illness related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The cause is unknown, but estimates are that gay men constitute 40 percent of cases while being only 4 to 7 percent of the population. I think its origin is cultural. Gay men historically learn very young that our bodies are shameful because our most basic instinct — to love other men — is sick. Many of us were also bullied as children and adolescents. This causes disassociation and, to compensate, we try to embody the culture’s aesthetic ideal. We actually organize the bodies of the gay solar system — e.g., bears and twinks — in relation to the muscular ideal they encircle.

Plenty of straight men and probably most women deal with BDD too. My own bullying began with my mother, who regularly told me how unattractive I was. That’s why she threw me in a gym when I was 5. This was projection. Many holidays, my father gave her an envelope containing a picture of a body part she could get fixed. Of course, the gays love cosmetic procedures, but my mother and a bunch of friends have taught me that most surgical procedures are like conspicuous Band-Aids imprinted with pictures of smiley faces. (Except for you, Jane Fonda!)

There’s no personal “cure” for a condition that originates in cultural pathologizing, and it’s not easy for anyone to deal with the “invisibility” of aging, especially when BDD has you by the sagging testicles. That’s why I made the neurotic decision last week to return to a hyper-disinfected, small gym and resume lifting, despite the risk of COVID-19 and the fact that my arthritic shoulder feels a hundred times better since not going. But I do have a sense of humor about myself, I don’t have any desire or enough money to sugar-daddy myself into deeper denial, and I don’t fear talking openly about my neurosis. That helps.

Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist specializing in life coaching for the LGBTQ community: CliffBostock@gmail.com, CliffBostock.com. Catch present-day Jeff Stryker in the Netflix documentary, Circus of Books.

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