My relationship with my body is complicated, fluctuating between reluctant tolerance to welcoming demonic possession just to avoid dealing with it. This turbulent kinship operates in two capacities: on the surface and below. To which you might say, “Um, that is literally what having a body is.” Yes, it is! AND IT’S A NIGHTMARE. What is a body if not a vessel for inconvenience and pain???? Truly, I can’t think of a more severe punishment than being trapped in this ticking time bomb fashioned out of flesh, ready to ruin well-made plans with a last-minute migraine, or an IBS flare-up just before boarding a flight. Other times, the flesh pouch in which I live ruins my day because the shirt I ordered does not fit like I thought it would, and every insecurity I’ve stuffed away like another pair of underwear into an already-full hamper comes flooding out. My body requires sex to be planned in advance; I need to prepare this rotting meat cage for another human to lick, suck, and/or fuck, and even then, when the moment comes, it might be off the table because of any number of reasons: from the physical (diarrhea) to the mental (catatonic depression), or both. There’s no escape! If reincarnation is, indeed, real, I hope I come back as a gorgeous snake plant, because no matter what form I take, I will thrive in a low-lit, dry air-conditioned environment.
The first time I considered my body a threat, I was almost fourteen. When the other boys in my class were well on their ways to developing deeper voices and facial hairs, I was taking inventory of what I considered oddities compared to boys my age: my high-pitched voice, my lanky arms and legs, the vitiligo—which is a condition where skin loses its pigment cells, resulting in discolored patches—on my right arm. Every other boy in my class seemed to be light years ahead of me in the puberty Olympics, leaving me and my features considered feminine—which, back then, was a target on my back—behind. While I eventually, and finally, went through puberty myself (a week ago), my physical insecurities grew and changed with me. Even though I cultivated a style through an ostentatious wardrobe, I always felt unsatisfied once the clothes came off, the hair came undone, and everything else that had acted as an extension of me was put away, ready to be used again the next day.
Most of my body dysmorphia—a common disorder in the queer community, especially among trans, genderqueer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and other gender variant individuals—was a result of constantly comparing myself to other queer men, who were, more times than not, white, thin, and able-bodied. I was constantly barraged by—and ultimately rejected because of—messages like “no femmes,” “masc only,” and other similar dispatches on gay dating apps like Grindr, internalizing this disdain for the feminine from the very community I had thought would embrace—and encourage!—it, enabling this nefarious display of toxic masculinity to disguise itself in the form of self-hatred. I spent most of my time trying to look like these boys, the ones that were always getting re-blogged on my crushes’ Tumblrs, without realizing that I ultimately did not want to look like them at all, without knowing that there were other ways of being, looking, and existing.
A few years later, I stopped chasing those beauty standards, the ones that seemed to grant automatic access to the island of Mykonos, and I even embraced my femininity, tall hair, and gender-bending wardrobe. Despite this shift, I still nursed a low-grade insecurity when the artifice came off, when I was met once again with my naked body in the mirror. I never felt hot enough, thin enough, butt never tight enough, resulting in a message I transmitted back to myself over and over again: that I was not good enough.
I’d wanted a tattoo ever since I laid eyes on Sporty Spice in 1998. I thought she looked so cool, brimming with confidence and secure in her sense of self. Her look, including her tattoos and nose ring, seemed like an extension of her. I initially wanted a nose ring, too, but while that desire faded—I’ve opted to let dudes with nose rings ruin my life instead—my penchant for tattoos never has.
I didn’t seriously start thinking about what I wanted to ink in permanence on my body until I was nineteen or twenty. A lot of my friends at that age—especially my friends from the New York City nightlife—were covered, which made me feel naked. I’m not saying I felt a pressure to conform—by the way, tattoos on the whole aren’t nor have they ever been a trend???? People have been getting inked since, like, the wheel was invented, babe!—but it did reinforce my desire to use my body as a medium for expression. This may sound morose, but I like the idea of being buried with something of permanence that has brought me joy in life. I started thinking about what I wanted to get tattooed first. Shout-out to past Greg for not going through with ninety-nine percent of those ideas, because they were embarrassing! As in going into a tattoo shop on the Jersey boardwalk, closing my eyes, and pointing to the first one on the wall embarrassing. My best friend, Ky, has “Gimme” on the side of one palm and “Danger” on the side of the other, and the first tattoo I seriously considered getting was “Search and Destroy” in the same places, because we used to drive around Brooklyn in my Honda Civic, screaming to Iggy and the Stooges with no fewer than fourteen cigarettes dangling out of our mouths.
But my first tattoo, a few years later, in 2018, erred more towards the sentimental.
Daffodils were my favorite flowers growing up. We had multiple gardens of them in our yard. My dad and I used to walk through the woods surrounding our house with shovels and plastic bags, digging up wild daffodils to bring home to plant in one of our gardens. They come in a variety of colors, but my favorite was always yellow (my favorite color, which, at that age, was my obsession: I wanted a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, my room and toys were all yellow, I only drew on the sidewalk in yellow chalk, everything yellow, yellow, yellow, and…not much has changed actually. Have you seen the cover of my first book?). I’d always liked how goofy they looked to me, like giant trumpets. I'd loved how animated they were. They had a big personality; they instilled a sense of wonder in seven-year-old me by standing out in the garden, exuding pure, unfettered joy.
As an adult, I wanted to find that joy again, so at twenty-eight I started gardening—an actual hobby, which, in any other case, would make me break out in hives because my hobbies are strongly limited to re-runs of Top Chef and Advil PM. But I found respite in visiting my parents’ house, only an hour and a half away from my apartment in Brooklyn, and claiming my own spot in the yard that I had once learned how to ride a bike in. I selected an area that received the right amount of light, prepared it with the right soil and appropriate fertilizer, and watched the bulbs I ordered bloom. There are literally a million different types of daffodils—each belonging to the genus narcissus—and they can be white, pink, red, green, orange, tall, small, trumpet, ruffled trumpet, no trumpet, but I went for the classic. My daffodils—ordered directly from Holland because I COMMIT (to being extra)—are called “Dutch Masters,” tall and strong, with muted-yellow petals and a trumpet a few shades darker, yielding a striking contrast as the sun goes down.
It was one particular night in 2018, when I was sitting out back in the yard, during a spring weekend I was visiting my parents and my jolly blooms, that I made the decision to finally get my first tattoo. I was sitting on a patio chair, bullshitting on my phone, deciding which tattoo I wanted to get. I was leaning towards “Search and Destroy” until I looked up and saw my first tattoo staring right at me. Like, hello, duh, of course. I didn’t even hesitate. I emailed my friend’s tattoo artist and booked an appointment.
A few weeks later, I went to a studio in Williamsburg to get my daffodil tattooed. I went alone, after work one day, and waited in the lobby after filling out some consent forms. I wasn’t nervous about getting the actual tattoo, needles don’t bother me; I was more anxious about my body pulling one of its notorious stunts, like OF COURSE my body would reject the ink and I would break out in hives, or it wouldn’t even be tattoo-related and my appendix would just spontaneously burst then and there, right in front of these Ultra-Cool Tattooed People. Embarrassment hides behind every corner!
Surprisingly, for me, it couldn’t have been smoother. I bonded with my tattoo artist, Virginia, over our mutual friends and books. She was patient and kind, explaining every step of the process, and when the time came to put the needle to skin, it was tolerable, not much more than a mild discomfort. Of course, I was getting tattooed on my arm, a relatively low-pain area. If I was getting tattooed on my ribs, well, RIP.
I left an hour later with a daffodil—in black ink only, a motif I’ve continued to employ with my tattoos going forward—above my left elbow. I couldn’t stop looking at it, smiling every time I caught it in the mirror, this little spot on my body becoming my new favorite body part.
I finally liked what I saw.
The mirror became less a source of dread and more a celebration of this little plot of joy on my body, a reminder that one day that plot, like my garden, can grow and, ultimately, flourish.
LOL. THAT’S A NICE SENTIMENT, ISN’T IT? And I believed it for a few weeks until my body decided to kick it into high gear with yet another betrayal. This fucking anatomical Judas is just a conveyor belt, churning out one malady after another. In 2018, the same year I started getting tattooed, I was playing Whac-a-Mole with a diagnosis for a nebulous bowel syndrome.
I’ve always had a chronically weak GI tract but in the years leading up to that it had gotten worse, eventually reaching a fever pitch in 2018. It’d always been easier to dismiss it as a “weak stomach” or “nerves,” which, yes, duh, everything gives me anxiety, and my stomach and bowels react accordingly (abdominal pain and diarrhea, respectively). But, after way too many close calls just sitting there, minding my own business, like on the fucking G train and then having to run upstairs at the next stop and dash into the bathroom at a Korean BBQ place like an Olympic sprinter, I decided to finally see a gastroenterologist.
And so I embarked on a long road of tests, tests, and more tests, each trying to determine what it isn’t. I tested negative for colon cancer, Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis; I shit in fucking boxes and dropped them off in labs; I took hours-long breath tests to identify any possible lactose, sorbitol, or fructose malabsorption. I became extremely depressed from how lonely and isolating the whole experience was. I stopped attending any social gatherings, leaving the house only to go to my part-time job in downtown Brooklyn. I stopped having sex with my partner for fear of a bodily emergency, the shame and anxiety of not knowing what’s wrong with me rendering me a shell of a person. After growing up navigating one affliction after another—being hooked up to a nebulizer all night because of severe asthma as a child, lying in MRI machines in seventh grade to figure out the source of daily headaches—this one was the one that broke me.
What used to be a GI condition that I could alleviate by either staying home and letting the storm pass or by popping an anti-diarrheal before leaving had evolved into tip-toeing around a mine field. I never knew when my body would rebel against me, what occasions and moments it would ruin. By beating it to the punch and eradicating any activities that required me leaving the presence of a toilet, my depression worsened from the self-imposed isolation. The beach? No, thank you! A hike? LOL AT THINKING I WOULD EXPOSE MYSELF TO THE SCAM THAT IS THE “GREAT” OUTDOORS BY CHOICE, EVEN IF MY BOWELS WEREN’T TRASH! (I’m sorry, but have you ever been in the woods? It’s a booby trap disguised as a place to “clear your head.” By clear your head, do you mean GET LYME? Can’t we just look but not touch?) Even taking a train ride gave me anxiety. Having people over? My roommate would be like, “Let’s have a house party!” First of all, why would you want anyone in your home ever???? And more than two people and one toilet? I think not!
Eventually, my GI doctor diagnosed me with a small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, SIBO for short, which is an abnormal increase in the bacteria population of the small intestine. This overpopulation is exasperated by certain foods and liquids, and the road to remission is a long one: First, I was prescribed antibiotics the size of a pet’s tombstone that I had to take three times a day for two weeks. Then, I had to go on an elimination diet, a months-long process which, in the end, proved futile. For the most part. My triggers are always changing, and my IBS just seems to flare-up whenever it feels like it. There’s also the risk of more bacterial overgrowth, so it makes differentiating between IBS and another bacterial overgrowth difficult, because guess what? I STILL GET DIARRHEA ALL THE TIME.
If my body was going to rebel against me, I was going to rebel against it. I decided to take back control by getting more tattoos up on this bitch.
My next two were a (small) pair: an inverted triangle on my left index finger, and a small thunderbolt on my right. I got these two a few months after I got my first tattoo. It just seemed like a given: a symbol for queerness and an ode to David Bowie. LOW-HANGING FRUIT, I KNOW. But more than that, it was a visceral reaction to my unruly body; it was a way for me to exercise choice, to have agency over myself again. It was a way to find pleasure from my body, to stop thinking of it as an enemy and instead as a canvas for possibility.
A few months later, towards the end of 2019, I landed the opportunity to fly out to Los Angeles to pitch a pilot I had written, and to meet with a handful of managers and agents for possible representation. I landed at LAX, immediately cupped Imodium with my hands like I was drinking fresh water from a spring in Maine and plowed that shit directly into my mouth, and ran to catch a shuttle bus to one of the 18,000 car rentals surrounding the airport. After picking up my car, I drove from meeting to meeting, pitching my pilot filled with stupid jokes to development executives and producers, all while praying to all that is holy that I didn't shit my pants in LA traffic, or worse, right in the room while I was trying to get the development executive behind This Is Us to care about a comedy based on my sad, gay life.
It was the sweatiest, most nerve-wracking week I’ve ever had, and eventually, in 2020, I signed with two managers I'd met and clicked with in October. But, while I was in LA, I wanted to remember the experience, because even if that pilot never got made, it had brought me from my Lexapro Lodge in Brooklyn to a reasonably priced Airbnb in Hollywood, and into meetings with people responsible for some of today’s biggest shows on TV. So if my stupid jokes weren't immortalized on the big screen, at least one of them would be on my forearm.
There's a scene in the pilot where the eponymous protagonist, Greg, and his best friend, Toni, are at Party City, bartering for a fog machine. Toni, a tattoo artist, eventually convinces the cashier to give them the fog machine in exchange for free ink—up to the amount of the fog machine. The cashier agrees, and the tattoo he wants is a seahorse, so that is what I got tattooed the day before I flew back to New York.
While the seahorse (which also happens to be another childhood obsession of mine that comes in yellow) signifies a turning point in my life and career, it is also a reminder that I am more than my physical limitations and insecurities. Although my body, TRY AS IT MIGHT, aims to sabotage any physical or mental equilibrium I attempt to achieve, I still—despite and in spite of it—chose possibility over quiescence. As much as I dragged my feet, held on to any object I could get a firm grasp of in an effort to delay doing literally anything that isn’t rotting on my couch watching Charmed, I went and did it anyway.
I just got an old-school Volkswagen key tattooed on my forearm, near the seahorse. My dad had, like, eight Beetles when he was younger, and I had always wanted—you guessed it—a yellow one. My next appointment is already scheduled. I’m getting my literary tattoo: Ramona THEE Pest, my tantrum queen, from the beloved and iconic Ramona children’s book series by Beverly Cleary. I can’t think of a better fit for me. I want to get Storm from the X-Men with her eighties-era mohawk, smoking a cigarette on my outer thigh. There will probably be more, and although I’m not sure what or where they’ll be, I’m excited to find out.
My ideas for tattoos shift and change, but their purpose remains the same.
They are symbols of joy—of past, present, and future—and also rebellion. They are symbolic of the conscious choice to carve a space for myself, even within my physical confines. Also, which of these tattoos am I ever going to regret? Do you really think that one day I’m going to slam down my cup of Metamucil and be like, FUCK DAFFODILS, HO. I’m not going to wake up one day and not be queer anymore. Why would I develop a sudden disdain for seahorses? I know that’s rich coming from me—someone who can find a disdain for anything!—but a seahorse tattoo is highly unlikely to stir regret in me, especially given the meaning ascribed to it.
My tattoos are a record of my past and a host for my future joy in which, no matter what fucked-up shit I go through, offers, at the very least, the comfort of a pleasant memory. They are access points to the rediscovery of my body, little permissions to look into the mirror and appreciate the totality I was born with. Tattoos have helped me reclaim myself, my selfhood. And with that comes finding joy in a place where none used to be. My body, with all its (mal)functions, has started to feel less like a discrepancy in personhood, and more like a plant that needs nurturing and care. Like the perennial I have above my left elbow, I hope I always come back—to myself.
Reprinted here with permission from Read Furiously.