Seeing Myself in Donald Trump’s Image

This piece was originally read at the Godless Perverts Story Hour, on August 27 2016 at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. [Note: Includes a lot of discussion around body image, especially having to do with the nude statues of Donald Trump.]

I think it’s fair to say that I don’t usually feel much in common with Donald Trump. On the contrary, merely the feel of his name on my tongue arouses a visceral loathing and makes me want to go wash my mouth out with some kind of astringent fluid. Like a lot of people, I’ve been making myself sick with anxiety watching every little twitch and spasm of the graphs on FiveThirtyEight, not merely with the horror that something could happen to make him president, but that so many people think that he’s a legitimate candidate at all.

In short, I don’t like Donald Trump.

So it was disturbing when something finally happened to make me look at Donald Trump and see myself. You probably know what I’m talking about: A little over a week ago, the group INDECLINE put naked statues of Donald Trump in five cities throughout the United States.

I wasn’t alone, fortunately. A lot of people who aren’t Donald Trump and who have no desire to be Donald Trump saw themselves in those statues, and the result was a broad-based backlash against them from the very groups who hate and fear Trump the most. One of my favorite condemnations of the Trump statues came from Alex Morgan, a sex educator based here in the Bay Area, who wrote on Facebook:

People with micropenises, trans people, intersex people, people with megaclitorises, fat people, and aging people do not deserve to have their—our—bodies used to mock a genuinely cruel person.

There is nothing wrong with his (imagined or actual) body and everything wrong with what he’s said and done. Hit the right target or put the tool down.

That cuts to the core of the problems with the statues. Although they may have been aimed at Donald Trump, they really struck at the fears and insecurities of every person who has ever wanted their body to be seen as masculine, or who tried unsuccessfully to live in a masculine body.

At first, it was easy to laugh at the statues, because Donald Trump’s entire image is based on a blustering, ferocious masculinity that crumbles under the most superficial examination. Trump is, to my knowledge, the first serious presidential candidate who’s explicitly bragged about the size of his cock while on the campaign trail. I’ve seen other politicians do it symbolically by waving missiles, flagpoles, and rifles around, but Trump has been so brazen that it seems like an act of restraint on his part that he hasn’t actually suggested that the voters might like to go down on him. Maybe that comes later. Maybe he plans to include public fellatio as part of his presidential inauguration. Which, to be honest, might actually be an improvement on the traditional swearing in on the Bible. I can clearly say that I’ve always found oral sex a lot more enjoyable, enlightening, and genuinely moving than reading the Bible. On the other hand, none of my oral sex experiences have involved Donald Trump, a man who has raped at least one of his wives. I for one would like to keep it that way.So, at first glance, the statues, collectively titled “The Emperor Has No Balls,” seem to strike at the very heart of Trump’s brand.

But here’s the thing: Like I said before, there’s too much of me in that statue for me to laugh very long. There’s too much in that statue of too many people that I know or care about for the joke not to taste bitter and cruel after more than a few moments. While social justice movements have been working to build intersectional organizations and solutions, INDECLINE managed to come up with a perfect storm of intersectional cruelty.

A lot of the conversation about the Trump statues has centered around trans and intersex bodies. Here in San Francisco, a trans man named Shane Brodie stood naked in the Castro, in the same spot where the statue had been glued to the sidewalk, showing off his own body for comparison. Brodie spoke poignantly about the inherent problems of INDECLINE’s project:

I also think that the statue itself was very lazy as an art piece, since it riled up prejudices without any examination of them and did not consider the impact of the message. It was the status quo and more of the same… and not an exploration of something further at all. In fact, the reactions to the statue are similar to the bigotry displayed at Trump rallies.It’s a very good thing that whatever INDECLINE’s intent, it resulted in conversation about trans and intersex bodies, which are so often neglected even in feminist and alt-sex circles.

But those are bodies that belong to other people, and I can’t talk about them the same way I can about my own. So I’ll say this: My forties have not been kind to my self-esteem, especially to my body image. I’m 47 now, and I haven’t been dealing with that very well at all. That’s tied to many things, not just my body. As with most things, some of it has to do with money and work At 47 years old, I find myself struggling with the sense that I wound up getting older while missing out on the becoming an adult part. And as always, my brain keeps looking for ways to kill me through a combination of depression and epileptic seizures.

Looking at my body doesn’t help: Stripped naked, I look not unlike the Trump statues, especially the bulging gut and the pale skin. That was the first thought when I finally had the chance to take a close look at the Trump statues online: In profile, they look like me.

The Trump statues sparked a backlash because they served as such a perfect Rorschach blot for the insecurities of millions of people. For them to be truly good art, we would have looked at them and seen Trump. But instead, millions looked at the statues and saw ourselves. People looked at them and saw every way that they’d been tormented about their weight, their age, the size of their cock, their lack of a cock, or a million other ways that the voices in our heads have told us that we don’t quite measure up.

At 47, I feel a lot of discomfort with my body. I’ve never been incredibly comfortable with it, to be honest. Clothes shopping feels like an exercise in humiliation; I’m one of those people who, strangely enough, loves neckties. But I’m weirdly proportioned, so it’s nearly impossible to find a dress shirt with a collar that will close around my neck without strangling me. When I do, the rest of the shirt usually looks like a circus tent on my torso.

But I’m mostly practical about clothing. I find it embarrassing to shop for clothes and have trouble fitting myself, That’s not the main thing that bothers me. It’s that in the back of my mind, it’s a struggle trying to look at myself as handsome, as beautiful, as erotic. Even when I have people like my partner around to tell me otherwise, it’s an effort to believe them.

And of course, I would be lying if I told you that my cock responded the same way it does when I was in my twenties (ironically a time when I had a lot of trouble actually getting laid). If cis men get any message about their body image, it’s that their cock has to be ready for action 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until the day they die. Our country has built mighty pharmaceutical empires upon that one single linchpin of manhood. And I might mock that message, condemn it as a really fucked-up part of of patriarchal, binary, heteronormative gender systems — but at the same time, a hard-on feels really great, and working to keep it doesn’t. The message gets in there, no matter how many feminists and radical queers you keep in your phone.

I’m starting to realize that the first person is being used an awful lot here, and it sounds fairly narcissistic, as if I think that the Trump statues were all about me. That’s not the point that I want to make. If it were just me, the Trump statues wouldn’t be interesting at all. But they are interesting because of how they triggered such universal fears about masculinity. We talk a lot about “fragile masculinity,” but it could hardly be otherwise. Masculinity as we know it is fragile by design, and the Trump statues are like religious icons built to that fragility. While they stood, people flocked to them as if making an impromptu pilgrimage to some flawed saint’s holy place. Taking pictures as if the images were relics that would protect them from the far uglier, more frightening original.

For the most part, there wasn’t anything that obviously unusual about them. They looked like the depiction of an older, heavy cisgendered man. But even that was enough for the media to cackle about how it “couldn’t be unseen.” It was as if they had looked on some unnameable beast from an H.P. Lovecraft story.

Cthulhu reaching out of the depths.
Not a depiction of Donald Trump, nor of myself, nor of a transgender person. Sorry that we need to make the reminder.

I would like cis men like myself to talk more about body image, or at least think about it. It’s true that women and femmes get toxic body image messages beamed at them all the fucking time. While five statues across the country made headlines and went viral, Hillary Clinton gets a constant stream of comments about her pantsuits or her smile or whether a slight hesitation in her manner means that she’s about to drop dead in the middle of the next photo op. But the fact that INDECLINE used this method to mock Trump, thought that this was his weak point, shows how important body image is for masculine credibility. It also shows just how narrow that range can be, even if white cis men like myself get cut more slack than other people. For myself, I think that looking at my own body, and the fears that something like the Trump statues trigger, is also a good opportunity to look at the bodies of others and hear what they’re saying.

In the meantime, I’m still 47, and continuing to progress towards 48 and beyond, and still trying to look beautiful to myself. Even in sex-positive communities, I find it tricky to navigate this territory. Even they tend to favor younger bodies, regardless of gender, and those that don’t have an uncomfortable tendency to lean heavily on the woo. But I’m really grateful for all the different voices that spoke up about the Trump statues. The vision that built them was narrow and destructive, but the result was much broader and more constructive

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Seeing Myself in Donald Trump’s Image

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