Mirror || Man
by Kat Williams
Masculinity is fragile, or so I’ve heard.
My boyfriend and I speak of our attractions to athletes. Men. Which shortstop has the best ass? Which college cornerback’s facial hair is most appealing? I’m into kickers. He likes outfielders. He wonders out of aspiration, out of desire to become. He thinks my perspective is different.
Do you think my perspective is different?
My sister and I used to shoot hoopsin our mom’s driveway. My sister cooperated because I forced her to. I played as Marcus Fizer, Iowa State’s 6’8’’ 265 lb star small forward. I loved that a man six feet eight inches tall could have the word “small” in his position’s name. I loved the dark-haired clefts of his muscled armpits and his smooth-shaven head. I wore his kids’ replica jersey one size too big, number 5 in cardinal and gold announced on my stomach instead of my chest. My sister fed me the ball as I drove to the basket and turned a 180, heaving the shot backwards over my head. Sometimes I imagined so hard that I could feel the cold metal of the rim against my fingertips. My sister hated basketball, but she got pretty good at chest passes.
When Fizer got picked in the first round of the 2000 NBA draft, I cried in front of my dad’s 18 -inch television, TNT coming in fuzzy and inaudible. My dad asked if I was crying and I said no. At school, I said I wanted to be in the WNBA when I grew up, but I was lying. I wanted to play for the Chicago Bulls.
He goes to the gym now. My boyfriend, I mean. He didn’t work out before he started dating me. He now knows what traps are, can distinguish between front and rear delts. I do barbell work--deadlifts, cleans, bench presses with endless varied grips--in order cling to a superior sort of masculinity. But the proof is in the body: he lays claim to a chiseled V of oblique, his pectorals have swelled convex. My pecs have grown, too, but they remain obscured by breast tissue. I am soft and curved still, no abdominal muscles in sight.
Which NBA player’s dick is the biggest, do you think? I hate to admit I’m a size queen. What do you call a man concerned with up-and-out-sizing other men’s dicks? A man, I suppose.
I played sports when I was a child because athletic proficiency gave me access to boys and their bodies. I liked to watch the tendons stretch behind their knees as we sucked down Capri Suns on the soccer field sidelines. Ethan’s were the most prominent, though Matt M’s came in close second. Tyler had egg-like muscles that protruded from the outer edges of his legs just above the knee. At my mom’s house after the games, I would rotate my hips in the mirror, searching for those tendons. I never found them. I found flesh--so much fat, so much skin.
There were boys whose bodies looked as soft as mine, or even softer. Some of them were good at flag football. I didn’t talk to them, didn’t stare. Their bodies were of no use to me.
The placement of a body before a mirror is a plea for self-recognition, and neither the self in front of the mirror nor the self reflected in it are stable. The difference is that the self in the mirror is allowed to be a body, nothing more. Would I be satisfied with leaner thighs and apenis, hulkish traps and ham-hocked, vascular forearms? Me, no. But mirror-me? Perhaps.
My favorite NBA player, once Fizer disappeared into the benches, was Allen Iverson. Every time he committed an inexcusable act, my idolatry of him expanded unchecked. After I read in Sports Illustrated that he went to prison at 17 for (allegedly) breaking a chair over a woman’s body in a bowling alley, I asked for his special edition MVP jersey for Christmas.
My dad worked as a bouncer when he retired from his trucking career and he taught me about the intricacies of bar fights. Never get into a fight over a woman, he told me. The stakes are too high. But sports and politics are fair game. He showed me how to put a bigger man in a choke hold, how to leverage against someone much stronger. I don’t know why I’m showing you this, he laughed. You’ll never have to use it.
I don’t deny that my obsession with athletic men’s bodies is informed by a particular fetishization of the athletic black body. It wasn’t just professional basketball. I wanted to be Tyson, Holyfield, and Mayweather. I wanted a camera to watch me throw an uppercut against another black man’s jaw. Even of the boys on the soccer field with me, the ones I admired most were black.
I didn’t want to be a black man or a black boy. I wanted to be an overworked, televised black body. I wanted a crowd to roar at the exposure of my muscles, my skill, my masculinity.
Kevin Love possesses the NBA’s one white body that has ever transfixed me, though in a wholly different way. I stare at before and after shots of his 30-pound weight loss from the ESPN Body Issue. I run my eyes like fingertips over the places where his skin hugs bone and muscle tightly, the hum of anIT band like a violin string, the hollows beginning to form beneath his cheeks. The shoot’s lighting is meant to highlight every shadow of striation. I look at these photos and I see my reflection as it was in the days before I checked myself into treatment: hungry and wanting, but so satisfied with the degree of want I had achieved.
My senior year of high school, I told my dad I applied to five Ivy League schools and he asked if I had heard about work available on fishing boats in Alaska. I think you’d be good at that, he said. Six years later, I told him I had a boyfriend, my first he ever knew of. He made the requisite joke about grabbing his shotgun, but then relented. I guess if this boy needs lesson learning, you’ll wring his neck yourself.
I measure masculinity’s toxicity by the inches of my imagined dick. A tape measure monitors the circumference of my reality-bound chest and biceps. A woman in a white jacket with a pencil through her hair once measured the length of my cervical canal in centimeters to make sure the IUD would fit. Good news, she said. Yours is plenty long. I wish I had been more satisfied to hear this.
He told me he always wanted two daughters, that my sister and I were the outcome he’d hoped for. My mom said he was lying, that during her first pregnancy he had hoped for a son.
I am afraid of how easily I can imagine adapting to life as a man. I am good at interrupting people, especially women. I love to forget my privilege and feel self-righteously wounded when I am criticized. I once sat with my knees widely splayed at a funeral, back hunched with elbows planted on thighs. My sister pressed her knee against mine and whispered, You’re taking up way too much space.
But wouldn’t this apply to life as a cisgender heterosexual man, not the trans man I could be? Oh. Did you think we were dealing in realities, actual bodily earth-bound possibilities? I’m sorry to have misled you.
Wait, I take that back. A man would not be sorry.
At the beginning of high school, I was into skater boys. They had that don’t-give-a-fuck swagger I couldn’t pull off, but they also had bodies marked by lanky sinew, narrow shoulders and streamlined calves. Their bodies never showed in the weight room, where a series of social studies teachers criticized my hang cleans and told me to keep eating, eating, eating. Our school’s state champion shotputter would graduate soon and the coaches wanted me to catch up. But she was 6’2’’, her ass wider than my shoulders. She could bench press two of me. She was black, if you were wondering. We all knew I would never be her.
That weight room, like most weight rooms, was lined with mirrors. The mirrors covered three walls, the fourth wall a floor-to-ceiling window. Through the window I watched the skater boys pop easy ollies and fall off of the building’s entry rails, their oversized t-shirts billowing away from their chests, the points of their knees slicing open their faded black jeans, the air. I lifted a barbell over my head a prescribed number of times and dropped it to the padded floor. Face the mirror, a coach would call to me, and bring your shoulders to your ears.
I always expect a dropped barbell to clang louder than it does.
The simplest way for an assigned-at-birth female to acquire what will be perceived as a man’s body is to become smaller. That is how you lose your hips, bring your waist-to-bust ratio closer to one. The other option is to gain muscle. A lot of it. But genetics govern the results of the second option far more than the first. And even then, mirrors make promises they can’t keep.
The mind is not the same as the body, is it? But without the mind, a body in the mirror can’t be perceived. So the mirror self does not exist--the reflection as existence is an impossibility. Mind, body, mirror: they get in the way of each other’s understanding.
In Laramie, Wyoming, I enter myself in an amateur boxing match held at the Cowboy Saloon. Men in socks and underwear wait to be weighed near the bar’s back wall. There are enough of them for eight or nine bouts. I assume that if another woman does show up, our fight will be first, a warmup for the crowd. When I sign my name on the injury waiver, though, the fight’s organizer claps with excitement. There’s one other girl who wants to fight tonight, he says. You’ll go last. Give everyone something sexy to look forward to.
The bar fills to capacity even though they’re not allowing alcohol. I watch inexperienced bantamweights zip around each other, avoiding, neither of them throwing a punch. I watch one man clad in nothing but swim trunks take a single tepid blow to the jaw and fall over, out cold. When my bout begins, my opponent doesn’t tap the glove I offer and charges me instead, hooking her elbow around my head and throwing me to the ground like we’re in an octagon instead of a smaller-than-regulation square. The ref gives her a warning. In the third round, I work her into the corner and punch her headgear-padded temples until she’s no longer defending herself, slack against the ropes but still standing, and the ref calls a technical knockout. The crowd goes wild. I had them on my side the whole time.
On my way out, men I’ve never seen before and never will again stop me to say things like Way to take that cunt out and You gave the bitch the beating she deserved. I shake their hands or dap their fists and say, Thank you.
Is it too much to want, to want to watch a very straight white woman in red lipstick and a tight black dress choke on my very real black cock?
I am always wanting too much, and wanting the wrong thing entirely.