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Body Image and the Physical Side Effects of Being HIV+

By B. Osten

August 3, 2012

Being gay in the mid-'80s, body image was a priority. Working out at the gym was not just a regimen, it was a lifestyle. Looking good for Gay Pride was the ultimate goal. Back then, it was far less commercial and more of a social event for the LGBT community. A sense of belonging and emancipation from the stigma of AIDS. A safe haven for at least one weekend out of the year.

My partner and myself are a dying breed (pardon the pun). Throwbacks from the '80s. Our fashion changes with the times, but our muscular physiques somewhat remain the same. We both take pride in our appearance and work hard at it. We still enjoy taking our shirts off while dancing at clubs and Gay Pride events.

While dancing with my partner at this year's West Hollywood Gay Pride, someone behind us speaking in a loud enough voice for us to hear, commenting on our (slight, but evident) buffalo humps to his companion. Knowing that they themselves were probably HIV+ from the telltale signs of lipodystrophy, we stood our ground. Now, whether it was intentional or not for us to hear, we didn't allow it to bring us down and continued to have a wonderful time dancing the night away with our shirts left off.

My partner and myself are far from being vain. We are only trying to age gracefully. But, it's a constant struggle to maintain somewhat of a seamless body image. It's becoming more and more difficult not to be publicly picked out of the crowd because of the physical side effects of the virus and HIV meds.

Go figure, just when I'm finally at a place in my life where I'm comfortable in my own skin. How ironic is that?

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See Also
More Personal Stories of Gay Men With HIV

Reader Comments:

Comment by: scott (new york state) Sun., Aug. 12, 2012 at 11:31 pm UTC
Try walking around the pool,stepping into the hot tub, and showering at the local YMCA, with a pronounced hump, not to mention lipodistrophy in all the wrong places. People always stare. But after dealing with this hiv garbage for almost 30 years I'm able to just stare back, usually with a "....and you think YOU'RE so perfect!" look. Getting older and being poor doesn't help either. However, as my mom always said, "it could always be worse". Congratulations on dancing the night away and feeling free.
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Comment by: Mico (DC) Thu., Aug. 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm UTC
Even adults with a disease are cruel to other adults with diseases. I don't know why it's in our DNA to point out the perceived flaw in another. It's good you carried on, though it bothers you, evident by your posting and by pointing out the ones who pointed your 'flaw' had their own. Call it a survival thing. Continue to be proud of where you are and who you are with.

As for taking of the shirt, the younger set, a handful like seeing the old folk do it, but most, think of their parents. I do think they view us as the old people dancing in the Beach Blanket Bingo movies of the early 1960s. Even if you may have a far better physique.
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Comment by: Joe (San Francisco) Thu., Aug. 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm UTC
13 years ago, I was one of the first people to show the physcial effects of extreme lipodystrophy. I was in a bar in Laguna Beach with my partner. I was sitting having a drink and looked up to see 5 different guys staring at me from afar, whispering to each other as to how I looked. One even pointed. I was devastated. I thought I was in the one place where I could go in public and not feel "out-of-place". I was trying to understand myself what was happening to me. And now I was being judged.

I realized over time that their comments were not about me. They were merely using me as a "mirror" to express their own fears and insecurities. This "mirror" effect has happened many times over the years. I now have "recovered" my normal appearance, but will forever be enlightened on how people's fear and misunderstanding is the strongest personal motivator and influencer.

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Comment by: Scott (Indianapolis) Thu., Aug. 9, 2012 at 1:30 am UTC
You didn't say what it was they said. If they were making fun, that is awful. If they
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: B.Osten (Los Angeles) Sat., Aug. 11, 2012 at 7:33 pm UTC
Scott from Indianapolis. My partner and myself were referred to as "Humpbacks" and "Dromed(M)ary's".

Comment by: Jim (Los Angeles) Mon., Aug. 6, 2012 at 2:20 am UTC
I really have nothing encouraging or positive to add, except Yeah, I Know Just What You Mean! "Back in the day" I faithfully attended a gym on Silverlake Blvd. Many of my friends went there, I made dates with guys I met there. Then, the owner's lover disappeared one week--"poof!" just like that. Then more and more of my gym buddies and acquaintances. The losses were occurring in every aspect of my varied life; the ones from the gym seemed particularly perverse because the victims were striving to live healthfully. When Lipoatrophy struck I vaguely recall thinking "at least I won't die obese." Kind of a nasty thought in retrospect, but I was so immature--barely 20 in 1978 when I contracted it (four yrs before the first reported case) and believe I stopped growing--mentally and emotionally--at that time. Now, after nearly 20 yrs on SSDI, without one single soul left to me from those times, I find it odd to even care about my physical appearance, but I do. Once a month I slink into WeHo for a haircut, dressed in baggy clothes, hoping my absence of a butt will not be too evident. A seething resentment burns inside me that I am not allowed by SS to save enough money to seek treatment for my missing posterior, and that the US is the only Western Democracy which declines to pay or assist with payments for this operation, considering it's considered a "vanity procedure." Meanwhile I can't sit comfortably on even highly cushioned surfaces for more than 15 mins, must work diligently with my doctor to prevent the development of decubitus ulcers where I sit, and yes, I worry about my appearance in public. This election cycle I plan to vote for whichever candidate promises to mandate burkhas for Gay men. It's a fucked up deal, impossible to understand (I think) by anyone whose body is not misshapen or malformed in some way as a result of HIV. Such is life as a member of a reviled, persecuted or ignored minority in one of the "free-est" societies in the world...
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Positive Thinking

B. Osten

B. Osten

I've been living with HIV for 26 years. I volunteer at various AIDS organizations in my community in the day. At night I like to spend my time at the observatory. I couldn't tell you the names of all the planets offhand, or what a black hole is for sure. But, there isn't a day that goes by I haven't looked up at the night sky and thanked my lucky stars I'm still alive to enjoy it.

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