THE BLOG
08/20/2015 04:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Naked Truth: How Stripping Down Built My Self-Confidence

In my first foray into the world of Folsom Street East (the largest fetish block party on the East Coast) I didn't know what to expect. A friend of mine had asked me to go with him. Upon our arrival, one of the first tents we encountered was of the Visual AIDS -- an organization that utilizes art to provoke dialogue and supports HIV+ artists. A (very) handsome semi-naked man greeted us cheerfully and invited us to support the cause; "Do you want to take a polaroid for Benjamin's project?" I was in for the thrill of the ride and had promised myself I would let whatever happened, happen. We signed a waiver (which we didn't read) and as we headed down the cue my friend started stripping down. Was there a memo I never got? We were in the middle of the street in broad daylight.

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Being naked in public was basically my worst fear, coming to life. "well, if you can go surfing, you can get naked in front of hundreds of people, it'll be a nice test!" -- I figured. I took my clothes off, leaving on only the skimpy jockstraps I was wearing. Onlookers immediately complimented me for keeping it classic and not branching out with one of those more recent colorful designs. "wow, the real sports jock, that's hot!" Parents and their young children walked by as I laid my clothes down on the foldable table; it was all vonnegutesque.

I had never experienced such freedom. I had never felt so proud about myself, my sexuality and my body, no matter how imperfect it is. Believe me, I was still petrified but somehow, it clicked. I was finally able to accept my body image for what it is. I felt I could stop comparing myself to all the hot bodies I see in the gym, or the porn stars in the movies that everyone watches, but no one cares to admit. I felt like one of them, not apart from them. There was nothing so terrible about my figure. No, I don't have a six pack, yes there are muffin tops (perhaps from eating too many muffins) and my hair doesn't always have the perfect wave, but that's all me.

On my walk home I wondered: do these so to speak "hot bodies" feel 100% confident about themselves? Or do they too sometimes look at people like me and find something they would like to have? Do they also compare and despair?

After turning down a couple of post-Folsom festivities (the polaroid shot was enough of a thrill) I could not stop thinking of how fun it was to let go of all my fears for that moment, to be (semi) naked in front of other people. I thought about Nodeth Vang, a photographer who had once asked if I would pose for him. "I love your hair and how you look in your apartment" he said. I sent him a message; he was thrilled to hear from me. We set a date for our photoshoot. This was an opportunity to see myself as others see me. I wanted to discover how I looked on camera. No, I wanted to find out how I looked naked, on camera. I needed to know whether all my self-criticism was a reality or a fantasy.

I will tell you that the photoshoot was one of the most exciting and sensual experiences I had ever been in. I was in love with myself and my body for the first time in my life. I was completely comfortable naked in whatever scenario imaginable.

A few weeks passed and I received an email from the artist from Folsom, Benjamin Fredrickson. I recalled he was a very sweet guy, talented too; "a real artist" I thought. His work had been shown in museums and art galleries, there was nothing gauche about it. Benjamin sent the polaroid from the fair to my friend and I. We were both happy with the result. The picture was adorable, not at all sleazy (as it could have been) and it absolutely captured our friendship and our relationship: two grown men who deeply cared (and perhaps had the hots) for each other. In the email, he ended with "if you would like to pose for another portrait, don't hesitate to contact". So I did.

Benjamin and I met for coffee one afternoon after work, we talked for over an hour and shared so many interests. He was definitely not a pervert, I felt safe. We set a date and time for our shoot, shook hands and went our separate ways. I couldn't wait to contribute with him as an artist. I wanted to understand what different interpretations might arise from different shoots and artistic visions. Moreover, I wanted to feel that same thrill I'd felt before.

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What happened for me that day was cathartic, I learned to let go of all the shame I had been carrying since my years as a fat kid, and just have fun. Benjamin put me in the most unexpected positions; I simply followed his lead. He told me to bend over, push my ass up, bend my legs over my head, stand up, sit down... I did it all! I felt complete serenity and connected with what those models must have felt when posing for Picasso. There is a connection that occurs, a fire that sparks in the eye of the artist and the way he thinks and interprets your beauty is so personal and unique to him. That is what I wanted to see in the film. At that moment I had no judgement; at that moment I was certain I would never feel ashamed of what I was doing. Whether those images ended in a magazine or an art show, it all made sense to me. At that moment I finally understood the difference between nudity for art and pornography. I know, this could unleash a long drawn-out conversation, but in my head it became simple and neither are bad or wrong -- they simply are.

The last five years of my life have been all about self-acceptance and discovery, I've done things I never believed were possible. I learned surfing, I jumped from the top of a waterfall, I wrote a screenplay and I fell in love. Twice. Loving myself and my body, as it is, was probably my last threshold. I am happy to say I crossed it and will hopefully never go back again. First, I had to come out of the closet, then, I had to be accepted by my gay peers and live up to unrealistic beauty standards. Most of those standards however, lived in my head. Today all I want is to be real and happy. We are all different from each other, there is definitely room for everyone.

Follow Gabriel on Twitter and Instagram or visit his website.