Have You Ever Seen a Grown Man Naked?

By JEFF BRANDT

 

            As I enter my apartment — the new place I just moved into a couple weeks ago, nestled halfway between the U of I campus and Downtown Champaign — I resist the temptation to flip the thermostat switch from “off” to “cool.” Instead, in quick succession, I unbuckle my belt and whip that bastard out of the loops; shed my polo and undershirt; unbutton, unzip, and depants; and peel down my underwear, kicking it off with a flourish. Having scattered clothes across the floor of my living room and bedroom, I grab a brew from the fridge and collapse lengthwise on the couch like a demolished bridge.

            I gotta say, there are few more effective methods of clearing my mind than walking around naked in privacy. 

 

Gender is a myth, a social construction. That’s one of the first lessons the professor taught my Intro to Gender & Women’s Studies class a couple semesters ago. Masculinity, femininity—they’re both a load of BS. There are no genes of nurturing, passivity, and dutifulness passed on to women that make them clamor for babies and the instruction of knowing husbands. At least not any more genes of that type than men have. The Y chromosome does not come lavished with the traits of athleticism, management, and aptitude in math and science. Genetically speaking, there are more differences WITHIN the range of men’s traits and women’s traits BETWEEN them. When taking into consideration people born without the usual XX or XY set of chromosomes (X, XXY, and XXX are just a few variants), even the traditional method of categorizing everyone as either a man or a woman becomes outdated. So basically, the concept of “manliness” is meaningless. Right?

Well, not exactly. Gender still holds importance because people make it important. From birth, everything from the color of our bedroom wallpaper to children’s TV shows to Happy Meal toys teaches us either Buck up and be a man! or Women should be sensitive and cute! The factors involved in that binary’s development could fill a library, but delving into that history is beside the point.

Then what troubles me, you might ask? Well, despite my knowledge of masculinity as a myth, I still felt like a sissy when I couldn’t gather my wits to protect my joyous nudity by installing the curtains — those damn dust-blue curtains that haunted though they laid prostrate in a plastic trash bag for months, seemingly innocent. Day in, day out, they sat on my living room floor in a bundle: a project I could forget for a few hours or even days but then, stumbling home from a drunken night, vision dizzy and mouth full of booze’s chemical aftertaste, there they were, staring me in the face.

Those blessed, cursed curtains.

 

When I toured my soon-to-be apartment for the first time in April 2008, it seemed near perfect to me. Not perfect in the sense of having marble flooring, a hot tub, and naturally busty women with sleepy consciences lounging topless on leather couches, but perfect in that it had character and sufficient living space. I appreciated its eclectic feel: three different fake wood floors merged into one; some walls brick, some walls not; some walls red, some walls white; none of its rooms lit particularly well. I was satisfied. One month later I moved into my new apartment, where I would live for the summer of 2008 during an internship, and would remain for the 08/09 school year.

On my move-in day, I noticed something odd. Shortly after my parents and I arrived, my roommate — who would spend the summer working in Chicago — left to meet someone or other for lunch. A little bothered by the stale air and lack of light, I parted the living room and bedroom blinds and cracked the windows to let in some light and air. With my dad’s help, I unloaded half of my boxes, and left to load the second half of my boxes in the U-Haul. When I returned, I found my roommate had come home and closed the windows and blinds. Why, I couldn’t tell. Could it be that my new roommate really just preferred darkness and a lack of air circulation? We’re not talking about a gloomy, sun-fearing Dungeons and Dragons geek. He’s in good decent shape, well groomed and skillful with a comb and a can of hairspray, and from what I gathered by the Trojan wrappers scattered across his bedroom floor, not an unsociable guy. It didn’t add up.

 I wouldn’t understand his act until I began to settle in over the next few weeks. Gradually, I came to do the typical things you do in a place where you feel comfortable. Throwing off my shoes in any old room; letting dishes, bowls, and silverware stack up in the kitchen sink; scattering DVDs and plastic cases across the living room floor; piling mountains of fast food bags on the kitchen table; and sooner or later, yes, you guessed it,  proceeding to walk around naked. Not all the time, but on occasion. Every now and then, I’d sleep, watch TV, or even cook naked. I’ve heard that last one is dangerous, but hell, you gotta live a little, am I right?

            After a few days, I began to have doubts about my naked body’s protection from the outside world. Living on a first-floor apartment has its advantages, but you also have the issue of foot traffic passing right next to the window. On the living room couch, only a few inches of wall separated me from any Tom, Dick, and Harry passing outside, none of whom I’d prefer to see the entirety of my bare, ghost-white flesh.

Then you have the problem of the blinds. The old beige blinds — my only shield of privacy — were crooked and chipped in places, letting in little inches of vision here and there. Not to mention those gaps between the edge of the window and the edge of the blinds where, if you’re positioned diagonally and looking at the right time, you might just be able to look in. I continued to lie there regardless, but with each passing day I’d become a little bit more paranoid that someone would see me.

Sometimes I sat with a throw covering me, but then what was the point of being naked if I had to conceal myself? And besides, if people could see in, it would still be kind of embarrassing. True, they wouldn’t be able to see my naughty bits and what have you, but instead of passing by and seeing a naked guy, they’d just pass by and see a naked guy with a short blanket on him, which is funny enough on its own. I always worried that someone passing my window and entering the building would end up knocking on my door. Each time someone would pass, I’d tense up. I could practically hear chuckling through the halls, then a sharp knock on my door and some jackass yelling “PUT ON SOME CLOTHES OR BUY SOME BETTER BLINDS, FATTY!”

That state of affairs would not do. The prospect of accidental peepers defeated the whole purpose of being privately naked. I’m not an exhibitionist, after all. Other people could tell you about the thrill of others gazing at their naked bodies, but not I. And so I decided to find second layer of protection

I needed curtains.

 

So what makes nudity great? What makes the risk of embarrassment worth it? And why the hell do I keep insisting on my need for curtains in order to remain unseen?

When naked without the fear of judgment, you are you and no one/nothing else. You’re not an advertisement for Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren Polo, Abercrombie & Fitch. You’re not a proud and many-feathered Chief Illiniwek; a blood donor; a rollercoaster “survivor.” You are you, plain and simple, and, unimpeded by words, labels, cotton, rayon, polyester, etc., you can stretch out, feel the amber rays of afternoon sun graze your skin, feel the fabric pills scrape your bare ass, feel the heavy air of transit bus exhaust fill your lungs.

When you are naked, you are real. Not a fake representation of yourself, put on to prove your masculinity or femininity to others. Ironically, in that pure moment when you have full proof of your sex exposed, you are at your least stereotypically manly or womanly. You are not the high school jock with your helmet and shoulder pads. You are not the sultry seductress with high heels and a red dress. In that moment, you, quite simply, are you: a human being who happens by the luck of the draw to have a penis and/or a vagina.

When I get an apartment or house to myself for a weekend, I take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a long, steamy bath with the bathroom door open and prog rock playing obscenely loud from my TV speakers (shit, you think I own a stereo?). To me, a new apartment can’t feel like home until I’ve spent at least one movie, sports game, or prolonged novel-reading session sprawled on the couch in my birthday suit. The apartment I lived in two summers ago felt homier after a few naked chapters’ worth of Catcher in the Rye. I took full possession of my current apartment only when I fixed dinner and watched a Cardinals game in the buff.

Think about it. Do you feel like yourself when wearing a winter coat? Wrapped up from head to toe, armored from the vicious maw of January cold? Breathing restricted by a scarf? Feet and ankles sealed in watertight boots? Fingers sheathed in gloves? Personally, I feel more like the Michelin Man than a human being dressed in winter clothes.

Admit it: you sigh with relief when finally you return home, having nearly broken your ankles trudging over uneven lumps of packed snow and ice on the unshoveled campus sidewalks, and you thaw in a hot shower. In that timeless, naked moment, you finally return to yourself.

            Now, am I advocating a policy of all-nudity all-the-time where everyone and their grandparents should be able to let it all hang out wherever they go? Fuck no! Imagine your disgust at the dampness of sitting at a school desk where someone else just sweated balls for 50 to 75 minutes, feigning awareness during stuffy lectures in stuffy lecture halls. That’s a lot of pressure on that theoretical person, too: trying not to perspire after walking twelve blocks and drinking coffee because he slept four hours the night before and now must grapple with the concept of how inanimate objects exert as much force on him as he exerts on them, all the while aware that everyone around him is also naked and possibly judging him for his hairy back and gut. It’s enough to make a person sweat.

But I digress. The point is that no one wants to sit in a sweaty seat, no one wants to drench a seat in sweat knowing someone else will sit in the same place soon after, and, let’s face it: not all of us were meant to be looked at while naked. And that’s what makes private nudity so great. There’s no one and nothing present to judge you. Except maybe that heap on the floor, a home improvement project demanding your attention.

But you don’t want to heed its call because you don’t feel man enough. 

 

There’s something you should know about me. I am not a handy guy.

            You know that feeling some men get when they walk in a hardware store? They smell the plywood, gaze at aisles and aisles of nuts and bolts, smile with simple pleasure at the pure chemical smell of paint. They walk in Lowe’s Home Improvement with straight leg jeans and steel-toed boots, can-do American men on missions. Some of them may have white collar jobs that occupy their time on weekdays, but they’ll be damned if that stops them from reverting to their true roots as power tool-wielding laborers on weekends. They will build second-story decks. They will lay flooring. They will build railings for basement steps. They will saw, sand, finish, refinish, paint, repaint, hammer, drill, screw, bolt, and fasten. Some men look at their plain front yards and see what could be: two-foot-tall terraces with red mulch and cactuses! a row of finely manicured shrubs! a row of concrete steps leading to their wives’ gardens! a brick sidewalk to the driveway! The possibilities are endless for these men, and their work never finishes until they become old, run out of money, or move to new homes where they can launch a whole new set of home improvement projects.

            You know how I feel when I walk in a hardware store? Like a failed man. Like someone who missed the boat on all of the fine pleasures of building, tearing down, and rebuilding. I feel oppressed by the tall rows of metal doodads; the gray cement floors; the tall ceilings; the checkout line home improvement magazines and books with covers featuring smiling middle class White families with a mommy, daddy, one boy, one girl, and a goddamn golden retriever with its tongue out, all proud of the man of the house for being so great at building shit; the wise old employees with country drawls, receding hairlines, salt-and-pepper mustaches, and a lot of confidence in their knowledge of which light fixture will work best for your dining room.

            When the choice came up in seventh grade to pick a couple electives for the next school year and most guys ended up in shop class making themselves homemade clocks with a couple pieces of wood and blank CDs, I was in home ec sewing a pocketed baking apron. Not like with my sausage link fingers I was good at threading needles either. Actually, I was pretty terrible. The sewing teacher was insensitive about it, too. She’d watch me try to thread a needle and shoot me the troubled look of a mother whose third grader still needs help tying shoes.  

            “I know this is going to sound a little icky,” she said, “but what I usually do is wet my fingers with my tongue and pinch the thread and pull like this.”

            Yes, I understand that, Mrs. Price. You said that like ten times before, and I tried it myself, only to hit the thread on the loop time and time again, missing the mark like a shitfaced highschooler getting laid for the first time after junior prom. I’m not a dummy; I’m just really bad at threading needles. Christ.

            Sometimes after giving her advice, she’d do it herself and, of course, thread it in the first try. At least I could use the I’m a guy and therefore not good at this kind of thing excuse in home ec, whereas in the shop class my I could have only resigned myself to thinking I’m a guy and I’m still not good at guy stuff; wow, I really suck at life.

             With my ineptitude at conducting projects viewed stereotypically as “men’s work” AND “women’s work” established, you can understand my dismay at my need for curtains in my new apartment. Turns out they don’t put themselves up. They need a broad-shouldered, square-headed family man with two rows of perfect white teeth to easily and confidently secure them into place — not some bumbling lit major who can’t even go a week without spilling coffee. Nevertheless, my will to enjoy a few hours of naked solitude per week led me to mention installing curtains my mom, who soon bought tan curtains for my living room, blue curtains for my bedroom, and two curtain rod sets, complete with esoteric pieces of metal that somehow went together to hold up the fabric.

Of course, I didn’t mention my nudity to my mom. Honestly, I’d prefer not to even use the words “nudity” and “mom” in the same sentence. I don’t want her thinking about me being naked, and I sure as hell don’t want to picture her naked. I don’t even want us to acknowledge to each other the fact that underneath our clothes, everyone is naked. I told her I had no privacy with people outside walking within inches of me and only some ratty old blinds separating us, which is true, too. Whether or not I’m undressed, it’s nice to at least be able to pretend for a moment that other people are not moving around me at all times. Plus, the blinds were too thin to block the street light from pouring in at night, and I like my bedroom as dark as possible when I’m trying to sleep. Preferably as dark as my bedroom at home, where sometimes in the winter the darkness is so full, so complete, so thick, you can almost squeeze juice out of it.

With an assurance that installing curtains would be easy, my mom enlisted the help of brother Alex, an expert in big, manly home improvement projects. I suspect that he feels empty and worthless if he goes a few weekends without picking up one tool or another. Sure enough, my brother lent me a whole zipped canvas goody bag of tools: a plug-in electronic drill, a case of drill bits, a screw driver with a magnetically interchangeable flathead and Phillips head component, a tape measure, and even a spirit level — a puzzling tool with which I had no previous acquaintance. My brother tried to explain how it works . . . something about the single bubble floating around a little capsule of yellow liquid. Honestly, I just like how it sounds like a tool in Ghost Busters used to determine the presence of ghosts.

Each step in the project as Alex explained it seemed simple unto itself, but when put together, the complete act of putting up curtain rods and curtains overwhelmed me. There was a specific order to follow, and I found my mind wandering off into la-la land as he used unfamiliar terms in a familiar tone, confusing me, the unskilled and inexperienced little brother more at home in the floating realm of books and abstract ideas than in the real, physical world of tangible objects. But I needed those curtains and the privacy they would afford, so I returned to Champaign after a weekend home with all the supplies and instructions necessary to get my wish.

            And then they sat on my living room floor in the trash bag I used to transport them for a few weeks. A dormant pile. A neglected project. I’d see the pile in the corner and feel dread, but also sometimes a gust of I’ll get to work on this tomorrow! enthusiasm that would satisfy me and enable me to push to the project to the back of my mind. Then I wouldn’t think about it for a week.

I’d make excuses for myself. I needed to catch a movie and write a review for the student-run entertainment weekly. I needed to take it easy after a hard day at work. I needed to pack my things for a trip. I needed to invite a friend over to play one-on-one beer pong and get unreasonably drunk on cheap light beer. I needed to figure out just how well my toaster oven could grill frozen chicken breasts.

Much to my relief, I discovered the living room curtains didn’t require much work because already drilled in place were hooks for old-fashioned curtain rods with a rounded L-curve at each end. My mom had a spare rod, which I brought back with me after another weekend at home, and after only five minutes of struggling to adjust the rod to the right length and fitting it on the wall hooks, I had living room curtains and a slight sense of satisfaction. But the project of drilling holes in the wall of my bedroom remained.

More weeks passed until school began in August. I had waited more than long enough. Finally, I decided my procrastination was ridiculous. Why should I be intimidated by a dumb little project? Why should I feel like I’m not “man enough?” My mom — a woman — insisted installing curtains was simple. And so one weekend day in August, I attempted to cast my fears aside and just do it.

 

I pulled out the drill, plugged it into the wall outlet, and read some instructions. The instructions called for me to use a 1/32” inch bit to drill four holes in the window molding. I looked at the spirit level, scratched my head, and tossed it to the side. Fuck it, I thought, and I found a yard stick and a pencil and traced the screw holes in the grooved curtain rod holder. These tracings probably lined up incorrectly, but I decided that, like all things in life, beauty would come from this imperfection.

            The drill felt powerful in my hand. Like a gun, I worried about what would happen if I accidentally dropped it. Could I drill a hole in my bed? My floor? My arm or leg?  I gripped it tight in my right hand. I stared it down.

            I’m in control of you, you son of a bitch. Not the other way around.

            I revved the drill, listen to it accelerate and decelerate over the course of a second while pulling and letting go of the trigger. I blinked. I breathed. I waited a silent moment.

            The moment of truth had arrived. Would I be able to drill straight holes in a wall on my first try, or would I leave gaping, crooked holes to serve as reminders of my inability to complete simple tasks?

            A couple seconds of drilling with the trigger half-pulled barely scraped the surface. I went again, this time going a little deeper, tiny slivers of white paint and wood scattering around the fresh hole. I pulled out a screw and tried to stab it in the hole. No luck. The hole needed to be twice as long and probably twice as wide, too. I pulled harder and longer, determined. And — shit shit shit shit! — the 1/32” drill bit wiggled furiously for a few seconds before breaking in half and flying somewhere on my bedroom floor.

            That’s fine. I’ll just go up the next step in size and offer to repay Alex for the broken bit.

            I replaced the remaining broken half of a drill bit with a 1/16” piece and tried again, and soon enough, hole one was finished. Relief. Holes two, three, and four followed in quick succession, and all the screws fit. I unzipped the bags containing the curtains, the curtains I had cursed so long, and in a kindergartener’s Christmas Day rush I slid them onto the curtain rods, hoisted the rods, stepped back, and looked at the final product. What struck me as a near-impossible feat was actually not so difficult, just as my mom had promised.

            I felt like a champ after that, like a real man. If only I had a bottle of champagne and a bucket of confetti in that moment! Playing “We are the Champions” just as loud as my laptop could handle, I screamed the lyrics and swung my arms in elaborate air guitar strumming. I even changed my Facebook status to commemorate my achievement.

            Weeks later the irony hit me . . . Why did I need to put up the curtains? It’s not like I can walk around naked with a roommate as my audience. My original purpose was to create a situation in which I could liberate myself from gender roles and others’ expectations for me as embodied by clothing. The project transformed into a measure I took to prove my masculinity to myself. I know men and women are equally qualified to conduct home improvement projects, but gender roles are tricky. I don’t want to believe in supporting them, but as stupid as it sounds, I feel better when I do. I think most of us do. There’s the power inherent in social constructs. They infiltrate your mind and affect behavior in ways you don’t even realize.

            In short, I had been thwarted by the very problem I sought to solve.

            Shit.

            Oh well. At least I can sleep better with less street light pouring into my bedroom. And, of course, occasional opportunities arise when my roommate spends the night elsewhere . . .