‘The worst was physical education. I could hardly walk, let alone throw a ball. I was so ashamed of how I looked that I would cover my body from head to toe, even in the swimming pool. One day in the showers, while I was comparing myself to the slender and muscled bodies of my classmates, I felt a sensation that was new to me. Not only did I want to be like the other guys, I wanted to be with them and touch their bodies. I knew perfectly well what this meant. More than ever, I felt different, and overwhelmed by shame. In order to numb my feelings, I started eating even more.

I withdrew into my own world: every day after school, I would rush homewards, close my bedroom curtains and make sure nothing and nobody from the outside world could get in. I then played computer games by myself, till it was time to go to sleep. My parents bought my clothes online, because there was no way I would enter a clothing store and be confronted with boys who did look nice.

Things changed after I graduated from school. I had tried crash diets in the past, starving myself to the point that I eventually fainted and gave up. But a dietician now taught me how to lose weight and keep it off. Little by little, I saw my body changing and as a result, my self-confidence started to grow.

Image: Elvin Boer

I decided to take the plunge and join a local gym. The exercises turned out to be rather fun and the more I practiced, the more addictive they became. Soon enough I got hooked. As a regular, I became part of this group of gym guys, who were all muscled and rather macho. Although my body wasn’t as trained as theirs yet, they seemed to really like me. It was like entering a whole new world, because for the first time in my life I was ‘one of the bros’.

But I still wasn’t out of the closet and, in my mid-twenties, I had never been with a man. Despite losing weight, I still felt ashamed, and this prevented me from expressing my inner feelings. Besides, I lived in a small town, so closeted or not, I was still the only gay in the village.

‘We dressed in the same hipster style and cultivated our full-blown beards and sassy man buns’

When I heard of a job opening at a clothing store in faraway London, I decided to take the chance. I applied and got the job. Leaving town was scary as hell, but at the same time I had little to lose. It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. My colleagues came from all over the world and some of them were gay as well. I came out and we all became very close. We dressed in the same hipster style and cultivated our full-blown beards and sassy man buns. During the day we worked in the store, at night we discovered the London gay world.

At first, I felt like a scared kitten in the clubs. I didn’t know what to say to people and I had no idea how to flirt. I was mostly approached by men whom I was not really attracted to, like leather daddies and bears. I only later learned that big beards are a huge turn on for men in that particular scene. So I trimmed my beard a bit and soon enough, I attracted the guys I wanted to be with: young sporty lads. They approached me and later on, I approached them too. I made out, hooked up and went on proper dates. I was living the life I always wanted to.

But London is mostly great when you have a lot of money. So one day, I packed my bags and left for Amsterdam.

‘He knew my weak spots. Out of the blue he would call me dumb and a loser’

There I met a guy who seemed to be mad about me and it wasn’t long before I moved into his fancy apartment. It was my first proper relationship. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to him: I felt like a simple guy from the countryside, while he was a flashy city boy who was friends with celebrities. He knew my weak spots and after a while he started to humiliate me. Out of the blue he would call me dumb and a loser for working at a clothing store. Whenever I went to the gym or did my best to look good, he would ridicule me and say I only did that in order to cheat on him. It was an emotional roller coaster that lasted for two years. I’ve never felt so light as when we finally split up.

Image: Elvin Boer

Things only got better. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I recently received my medical assistant diploma. I am proud of myself for following my passion: helping others. I’m blessed with great friends, both gay and straight. We are there for each other and we respect each other for what we are.

My appearance is important to me. I love going to the barber once a month and having my beard taken care of. It creates the illusion that I have a strong jawline, which makes me look masculine and butch. With my beard and muscular trained body, I belong to the gay men I am attracted to. At the gym – which I visit five or six times a week – the guys are competitive when it comes to showing off their bodies. But we also support each other in our shared physical challenges.

‘My beard creates the illusion I have a strong jawline, which makes me look masculine and butch’

I’m trying to lose some weight at the moment. On Sunday night, I prep all my meals for the rest of the week. It’s a super strict regime: I eat at set times and every portion has been weighed. I’m mainly eating meat, fish and vegetables. Some fruit and minimal carbs to keep me going for longer when I am at the gym. There is an element of control to this that I really like.

I am reasonably happy with my body. But I still haven’t got a six pack. And there’s always someone who looks better than I do. That’s okay. I have accepted the fact that I will never be fully satisfied when I look in the mirror. Nobody’s perfect.’

Image: Elvin Boer