Daily Portrait

Queerness, Sex, Coming Out: Stefan Mesch & Antonio Capurro (Interview)

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A Peruvian journalist contacted me on Facebook:

He saw that I took part in the “Daily Portrait” photo project in 2016 (article about my experience: here)…

…and wanted to know more about my ideas on queerness, privacy, and sexuality.

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The interview will be published in Spanish at La Revista Diversa.

For my blog, here’s the (long, unedited) English version.

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Tell us about your childhood: Where did you grow up?

I’m 34. I grew up in a wealthy, rural town in Southern Germany: less than 2000 people, no train station. Everyone has a car, most people own their house. My childhood was okay – but I missed culture, diversity, intellectual life. I often point out that I didn’t interact with lesbians until 2003, when I moved away for college. There were two or three boys who were whispered to be gay in my high school – but no visible queerness.

What did you study?

I studied Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism; because I wanted to be an author and a book critic. The “book critic” part worked out great, and I’m finally finishing my first novel. There is so much culture – literature, journalism, comic books, TV shows, online projects – that’s important and relevant to me: I’m good at scouting, learning, judging and explaining, and I want to be a part of these larger cultural (and sometimes: political) conversations.

Growing up, did you enjoy being nude?

I’m not an outdoor person, nor a sports person, and I have no great memories about enjoying nudity as a child. Quite early, I often felt that nudity had to do with humiliation: Only powerless people were nude. So I tried to stay dressed and not let my guard down. I don’t tan well, my skin is quite pale, and as a teenager, I thought that people would dislike my nude body.

How did you discover your queerness?

I always liked queer characters or people who fought gender stereotypes. Also, my village was so rural and… tense about masculinity that I felt “queer” and “strange” just for reading books or being friends with girls.

Sexually, I’m more often attracted to men than to women. Romantically, I had more crushes on girls than men. I think that by the time I was 15, I understood that I was bisexual. But the first man that felt like a possible romantic partner only showed up when I was 18.

How was your first time having gay sex?

I had sex with 26, with my first boyfriend. The relationship was exhausting, but worthwhile. Our sexual mechanics never worked out that well. We have chemistry – but we didn’t have much sex.

How was your coming-out?

I was nervous about my dad and waited until 2014 (!) to tell him. He was the biggest hurdle – although in the end, he surprised me. I gradually started talking to friends and family members since I was 20. I did not enjoy coming out because it felt like I gave up power. I felt like I had to tell people: “Here’s something intimate and sexual about me that doesn’t really concern you. So: Are you okay with it? Or are you disgusted? Come on: You may now judge me.”

I came out before I had boyfriends. Today, I love to introduce my grumpy partner to people and say: “Look! He’s great, we’re happy, I’m bisexual!” But before I had a partner, it always felt like saying: “Do you want to know if I fantasize about men and/or women every time I jerk off?” I was passionate about diversity and visibility and talked about that a lot, long before being out to everyone. But my personal sexuality, for the longest time, began and ended with masturbation and some unrequited crushes.

Why did you take part in the “Daily Portrait” photo project? Did you think a lot before you decided to pose for a nude photo?

In 2013, an awesome Berlin painter, Martina Minette Dreier, asked me if I wanted to model for an oil painting. I sat for the portrait in the nude, and it felt great. In 2016, I lost a lot of weight. I always thought that very soon, I would be a balding, sad and awkward man – but when I realized that I liked my current body, I decided to take part in the project.

It still took a long time – 7 months – because I thought about shame, exposure and my credibility as a cultural journalist… but I wrote about this at length elsewhere, in a longer essay: Link.

Why did you decide to start a blog where you post nude self portrait photos?

I love selfies and quick snapshots, and in 2016, I spent much energy and time on Instagram. I don’t know what “exhibitionism” means: If you define that as “I want to surprise people by showing my penis publicly or unexpectedly”, I am not an exhibitionist at all. I would not undress in public, or annoy or shock people with nudity. To me, unsolicited dick picks are a form of sexual harrassment.

But I knew that online, in places like Tumblr and Reddit, people who like my body type sometimes LOVE nude pictures of people, quite similar to me. I have never felt very desired by friends at school. But I like myself right now, and I thought: “Here’s the target audience for your nude body.” I enjoy posting pics to that very specific audience.

Do you like erotic photography?

Yes. I don’t like classic masculinity. Also, young bodies often make me uncomfortable. I dislike many standard poses, and anything with twinks/boyish men.

Do you enjoy porn?

I love amateurs, and any kind of person who shares or overshares online. But I dislike the porn industry, the clichés, the standardized bodies, the exploitation. Lots of it feels sexist, boring and crude.

Do you consider yourself very sexual?

I’m not very sensual, I’m not very cuddly, I don’t enjoy touching many people. Also, I don’t like one night stands and I have spent many years without any sex. So I don’t think I’m “very sexual”. I do enjoy having sex and making out, though – and if I talk to friends, I’m surprised that most of them want less sex or have less energy for sex than me.

Do you consider yourself sexy or attractive?

I only have to be attractive to the one person that I want to attract right now: my partner. He likes me, so all is well. Generally, I don’t think I’m particularly sexy. But I know how to write well: I’ve learned some techniques. I think that in photography and taking selfies, there are many similar techniques. So: I’m learning how to appear sexy in photos. And I think I’m getting better.

What was the most bizarre experience in your life?

Sexuality-wise? Nothing wild. But in a gay bar in 2013, someone tapped my shoulder and said: “Sorry. A stranger just tried to piss on your shoe.” I was annoyed because it felt completely tactless and disrespectful. If you’re friendly and ask nicely (and if I have some extra shoes), I’m the person to say “Yeah – whatever gets you off. Okay.” But to try that, without asking?

What kind of feedback do you get from followers on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram?

I love giving and getting book recommendations, I want to share ideas with many people: I love my profiles and my feeds in these networks. If you ask about nudity: People pay me compliments, and often, gay men from Spain or Spanish-speaking countries contact me to say “I wish I could be as brave” or “I wish I had the confidence to show my body online”. So far, I’ve had these conversations with five or six men; and they’re all Spanish-speaking. Maybe it has to do with catholicism…?

Have you ever meet online friends in person?

Most of the literature and journalism people that I’ve met since finishing university in 2009 were my Facebook friends before I eventually met them in person, yes.

Have you ever blocked people who bother you because they were only looking for sex?

I’ve blocked two or three people on Facebook because of hate speech or personal/political attacks. I never had problems with sexual harrassment. I have met all three of my boyfriends on datings sites – but I don’t like chatting there, and I often dislike the tone that German people use in „kinky“ networks like Gayromeo or Scruff: To me, German „dirty talk“ often sounds too degrading and shame-centered. „Filthy Pig“, „Worthless Fag“, „Pussyboi with Boypussy“ etc.

But even though that tone makes me run, I never personally felt disrespected, no.

What do you do when you are not working?

I love reading – books and articles and graphic novels. But as a book critic, I still can count that as work: Ideally, I just spend 12 to 14 hours a day reading, talking, learning and writing. I love cheap food and very cheap restaurants. And for a while last summer, I was in love with “Pokemon Go”.

What do you think about the new ways to make journalism – like citizen journalism?

If people are paid, they have more time and energy to write. On the other hand, there are passionate experts in every field – who can often do much deeper work because they have much more knowledge. I enjoy book blogs, wikis, fanzines, social media and all other places where people who are not trained journalists still have a voice. But I think that selecting stuff is my personal super-power: You can send me to “messy” sites like Reddit, and I will ignore the hate-speech, the conspiracy theories and the overall unpleasant atmosphere… and just focus on the good writing and the good ideas that are still there. Theodore Sturgeon said that 90 percent of everything is crap/crud. So of course, 90 percent of “citizen journalism” is crap, too. I want to focus on the other 10 percent – in every field.

I’m worried that every artistic or journalistic outlet I know is constantly asking for money: There are so many crowdfunding campaigns and kickstarters and patreon links etc. that I sometimes fear that as a journalist and writer I will never find a publisher who will pay me decently. Instead, it will be our job to constantly ask all friends for money and spend more and more time and effort on these campaigns.

Which authors or writers do you admire and what genres do you prefer?

My favorite classic novelists are Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Wolfe and John Cowper Powys. My favorite living novelist is Stewart O’Nan. I have a soft spot for Young Adult literature (here, my favorite writer is A.S. King) and graphic novels and super-hero books (Greg Rucka). My favorite German writer is Dietmar Dath. Generally, I admire people who get raw and personal. And I enjoy domestic fiction – books about grief, sadness or families, often set in suburbia.

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I took part in a queer photo project, and wrote an essay about it for the Berlin Tagesspiegel (Link). my photo for the article was taken by Mike Wolff.

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Do you remember a gay movie or gay role on TV or cinema?

There are some popular gay favorites that I don’t enjoy: Oscar Wilde, „Queer as Folk“, musicals and pop divas, and many boarding-school novels like „A Separate Peace“ or German queer-ish classics like „Unterm Rad“ by Hermann Hesse or „Katz und Maus“ by Günther Grass.

My favorite German soap opera, „Verbotene Liebe“, started when I was 12 and almost always had compelling and fun queer characters – particularly lesbians. I didn’t like their most famous gay couple, Christian and Olli, because they were both quite masculine and sporty bland characters. In 2006, I was hooked on „As the World Turns“, a US soap opera, and the (dramatic and self-obsessed) gay character Luke Snyder.

In my early teens, I liked lesbian or gender-nonconforming heroines in „Lady Oscar“ and „Sailor Moon“. Today, I love Batwoman and many lesbian or queer comic book characters, often written by author Greg Rucka.

„Ugly Betty“ is queer, cheery and has a diverse and fun cast. As a kid, I enjoyed dandyesque, foppish characters like John Steel in „The Avengers“, Elim Garak in „Deep Space Nine“ or anyone played by Peter Cushing. I liked „Brokeback Mountain“. HBO’s „Looking“ bores me. I have tons of favorite queer authors: Alison Bechdel, Marcel Proust, Hubert Fichte. I loved David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing”.

What is the most comfortable place in your house or outside to ne naked?

I need warmth to feel comfortable, and I need privacy to be nude. There is no warm AND private outside place where I can be nude. Inside, I enjoy taking baths or showers, and I love overheated rooms, botanical gardens, greenhouses and saunas.

Are you thinking of recording videos or to show more your butt?

I move quite awkwardly and can’t imagine filming myself stripping without having to laugh. I think my butt looks okay, but every time I try to shoot a decent photo of it, it looks pale and flabby. Celebrities often post butt pics. But my pictures never turn out like this.

What is the part of your body that men like most?

I’m not flirting a lot, and I don’t ask what men who see me in person like about me. People who see me online sometimes comment on my scruffiness/body hair. But then: hair is just a common fetish.

What is the part of your body that you like the most?

Most strangers seem to understand that I’m usually friendly and interested: I don’t think I’m super-charismatic. But somehow, my body language signals “I’m smart and alert and friendly”, and I like that. I also like my eyes, when I’m not too tired.

If a magazine offered you money to pose nude on the cover or centerfold, would you say yes?

The “money” part sounds weird: I don’t know if I ever want to feel like my sexuality or body can be bought. But yeah – I would partake in nude art, or sex-related projects.

Is there any sexual fantasy you want to make happen?

Bondage. Also, I have never done anything sexual outside/in nature.

How do you see LGBT rights in your country and worldwide?

I think visibility matters: It’s important to see and hear queer people in public, in culture and in schools. I don’t think most people even CAN be „anti-gay“ once they meet so many queer people that „I’m anti-gay“ sounds like „I’m anti-brown-eyed-people“.

I’d love to think that things get better. But the tone, aggression and hate of all these current backlashes – ISIS and Russia, Trump and European xenophobia – shock me almost every day: We can’t take civilization for granted. Or democracy. Or tolerance.

Is there more acceptance in your country?

More than when I was a kid? I hope so. There is no marriage equality yet, and gay couples can’t adopt, and too many people still think that you can’t have „Christian values“ and, at the same time, openly talk about homosexuality in schools. German politicians and pundits talk about „Leitkultur“ (a cultural standard about what it should mean to be a proper, „real“ German) a lot, and I think that as a country, we are obsessed with being „normal“ and „regular“.

Every time queer people want to be aknowledged for NOT „being normal“, people get angry quickly: Ideally, queer people, non-white people etc. should just work hard to blend in, and not address discrimination; the idea seems to be that if everyone acts “normal” enough and never complains, no one would be discriminated against, anyways. I admire people who stand out. Or complain. Or fight to be aknowledged. That’s why I love activists, rabble-rousers and politically queer people.

Have you ever been to a gay wedding?

No. I spent lots of time in Toronto from 2009 to 2013, I’m close friends with three gay or lesbian Canadian couples, but I met them after they were married or I wasn’t in Canada when they had their ceremony. I have one German gay friend who is getting married this summer, but I haven’t met his partner yet – we only became friends last year. I wish I had more queer real-life Berlin friends, and I wish I had more older queer role models.

Single? Looking? Dating?

Since summer of 2014, I’m in a relationship with a German florist. Most of the time, I live with him in his Berlin apartment. It’s not an open relationship, and we both hope that we’ll stay together for decades. Everything is more fun when he is around. We’re crazy happy to have each other.

What do you know about my country, Peru?

For a couple of weeks in 2001, my mom had an au-pair from Peru: a very, very shy girl who was too nervous, quiet and demure. We never really established a connection, and she switched to another family. It felt like having a maid – it was uncomfortable for everyone.

I sampled and liked „The Cardboard House“ by Martin Àdán. But I don’t even know any other Peruvian literature.

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Online Nudity, Exposure on the Web: Essay (German version published in the Berlin Tagesspiegel)

daily portrait berlin

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I spent time in Toronto and New York, I’m a literary translator… but I only translate English to German, and most of my journalistic texts are written in German.

There is one article that English-speaking friends ask me about nearly every day.

So I decided to do a quick and rough translation into English:

My original article was printed in the Berlin Tagesspiegel. “Nackt im Netz. Was es heißt, sich zu entblößen” (Online Version: Nov 5th, 2016)

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Nude, Online

As a teenager, I panicked when I had to be naked in front of others. Aged 33, I used an art project to confront my fears.

I had my first kiss with 21. I first had sex with 26. I first had good sex with 29; barely four years ago. Now, nude pictures of me are online, on Tumblr and Twitter. I can’t control who sees or spreads them. For many people, that would be a nightmare.

For me, it was a choice.

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I: The “Daily Portrait” Project

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I’m in a woman’s room, but don’t know anything about the person who lives here; and I won’t meet her today. By the window, her boyfriend Fatih is taking off his clothes. Fatih has just spent two weeks in Turkey to visit his family. I met him eight minutes ago. We talk in English: While I mount an expensive camera on a tripod, Fatih shows me a large flute from Turkey, an old book, a bow and an arrow… props that he wants to use for his photo session. It takes me about twenty minutes to shoot ten or twelve nude pictures.

Two hours later, the picture that both of us like most is displayed online: a thoughtful man with shaved pubes stands between a potted plant and lots of girlish knickknacks, bright windows in his back. He has raised the bow, aims the arrow to a wall that is barely two feet away. It’s an absurd pose that tells a lot about Fatih’s self-image, the decoration style of his girlfriend and about body images, masculinity and ideas of “authenticity” in Berlin, 2016.

In 2012, Czech photographer Martin Gabriel Pavel photographed friends and strangers in a studio in Prague; one portrait a day, for one year. He only showed their heads and upper bodies. This was the first round of his “Daily Portrait” project. Men displayed their naked chests, women wore bras. In 2013, Pavel took daily polaroids in public places around Prague. Once again, his subjects were mostly young local people. In 2014, for “Daily Portrait 3”, he covertly took quick daily digital snapshots of tired commuters on the Prague subway.

Only now, for “Daily Portrait 4”, taken over an 18-month period in 2015 and 2016, Pavel stopped taking the shots himself. Initially, on a visit to Berlin, he took some portraits of new acquaintances. But quickly, he wondered: Why not give up control? From mid-2015 to early October 2016, Pavel’s digital camera was passed through Berlin, from one stranger to the next.

One day, a stranger showed up at your door and took a photo of you. Afterwards, he or she left the camera with you; and the next day, you we assigned another stranger to visit, take their nude picture and leave the camera with them: a roundabout of Berliners, taking pictures of complete strangers in their homes. Pavel only e-mailed the instructions and the contact data. He maintained the project’s blog, Flickr, Tumblr and Facebook pages and coordinated everyone’s e-mail, but was only present to take the first picture in 2015 and to be the subject of the very last picture in 2016. Some of the participants posed in their underwear. But most of them, as intended by the project, are pictured naked.

I had noticed the project through newspapers and blogs, through the popular Facebook page and because images from the project spread through Tumblr and showed up in many erotica blogs, both straight and queer. In January 2016, I recognized a friend in one of the pictures, and for weeks, I rather pitied her: “Was she mocked? Are people disappointed? What was the worst consequence once people saw that she decided to had her picture taken?”

I wondered how I would deal with glances, reactions, judgements about my body – and judgements because I chose to display myself in such a public project.

In mid-September, my father turned 60. He wanted to celebrate with everyone. He still lives where I grew up, in a village in Southern Germany, populated by less than 2000 people. Some of them already follow my public writing, my blog or my instagram, and think of me as arrogant or narcissistic. To me, it was unthinkable to participate in “Daily Portrait” before my father’s party, and then travel home to confront these people.

In the end, I needed lots of time. I finally took the courage to e-mail Martin Gabriel Pavel, but did not hear back from him for two weeks. I assumed the project had already been completed once 366 pictures appeared online. Then, surprisingly, Martin sent me a very quick e-mail: Was I still up for this? I could become photo subject number 372 and then shoot photo number 373, Fatih.

While I took Fatih’s picture, I asked Fatih when he decided to participate himself. “Only yesterday. I e-mailed Martin at the airport in Turkey.” This is how nearly all the people who make projects like these work seem to function: They’re spontaneous, playful, confident, direct. It took me seven months to decide to have my picture taken. In the finished photo, I’m tense and seem to eye something just out of frame, to my right – as if there was not just a stranger in my room, photographing me. But also a scorpion. Or a snake. Or all the people from my father’s birthday party.

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II: Exposure = Humiliation?

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Even before hitting puberty, I was anxious in locker rooms. My heart raced and I was afraid of nervous involuntary boners. What if some deplorable hides or steals my clothes? What if I ridicule myself by being naked? Why do I lack all self-esteem and turn into a wet blanket the moment crowds can observe my body? I knew that once this panic became obvious to others, they would exploit it. So I did everything to appear calm.

I have never been more thin-skinned or vulnerable in front of other people than in these moments after gym or swim class. Even today, my wardrobe serves as an armor, a corset that holds me up. Once nude, I am all nerves. I panic – because I have to try my hardest not to panic.

In my family, nudity is no big taboo. I have no childhood trauma; my parents were pretty great about sex ed. When I was eight or nine, a group of giggling girls ripped off my clothes at a birthday party where I was the only boy – but at the time, I thought of this as a silly, needlessly nasty prank. Nothing sexualized. Some years later, once boys nonchalantly got in and out of their swimming trunks or took a very public nude shower – voluntarily, and seemingly without any fear or discomfort, even after very quick, not that sweat-inducing single-period gym classes – I was envious and bewildered: Why did they have such thick skin? Was it just me who saw undressing as a HUGE thing?

Every since I saw nude people on TV, I thought of nudity as a power game.

On TV shows and movies from the 80s and 90s, nude scenes are often about humiliation and control. One scene from “Police Academy 2” has the sporty, boorish heroes have their revenge on a scrawny, brainy and tense instructor by replacing his shampoo bottle with epoxy. Gleefully observed by all these enemies, the older guy has to stumble through HIS precinct, both hands glued to his ruined hair, defenseless, naked, surrounded by sadists who won’t stop laughing.

Then, there was “Mann-o-Mann”, a dating show where male candidates who weren’t masculine enough were eliminated through spiteful “girls” that pushed everyone into a swimming pool. No one had to undress – but when they emerged, drenched and dripping, I had a hard time understanding why the audience enjoyed their fall. Regularly, TV invited me to laugh at “unmanly” outsiders: often men who were deemed too nerdy or cerebral. Good-looking, “normal” guys stole or ruined these guys’ clothes, and the masses loved the humiliation.

Some of my childhood’s greatest idols – I immediately connected to them: they seemed extremely brave – were the hapless and reserved older dads and teachers invited to “Hanna-Barbera-Party”, a low-rent German “Disney Club”-type of variety show: Every week, one malicious kid, to celebrate their birthday, challenged some (usually male) authority figure to sit in a public “gunge chair”. Host Metty Krings plus a guy dressed as Yogi Bear plus whole classes of sadistic, angry, power-drunk school mates smiled as this “birthday kid” pulled a lever. Now, the dad or teacher had to show his friendliest “All is well. It’s all in good fun!” face… while being drenched in green gunge. Growing up, I knew that many kids saw me as exactly the kind of stiff and tense know-it-all person who deserved that kind of public treatment.

Today, I’m naked, online. Is this my way to search out “slime shower”-like situations voluntarily – and get them over with? Am I giving up control – to prevent the humiliation and loss of control that I have feared since childhood? A loss of control that, in the end, was never forced upon me, anyways?

If celebrities undress – does it diminish them? So often, characters undress. To make things worse, they sometimes HAVE to undress – for an audience of spiteful onlookers. I can hardly bear to watch these moments of submission. To me, it’s an absurdly heroic, dramatic sacrifice. Videos of military hazings, fraternity rituals, bullying make me angry; and when such scenes are staged, I’m perplexed: Voluntarily naked people (often: movie stars) lend their naked bodies to portray involuntarily naked people (often: victims). Should I pity the characters, or admire the actors?

In 1995’s magical realism drama “Powder”, Sean Patrick Flanery, an omnipresent teen idol and pretty-boy of the 1990s, plays a bald, albino-pale outsider with secret mental powers. A pack of jealous and hateful small-town jocks strip him and push him into mud puddles. I couldn’t believe that someone as conventionally pretty as Flanery, star of “Young Indiana Jones”, at the height of his teen idol career decided to shave his head, get covered in white make-up and show his penis in one of the least flattering nude scenes I know.

Similarly, I could not understand what made 20-year-old Drew Barrymore agree to display her nipple to photographer David LaChapelle, or Sharon Stone to show her vagina in “Basic Instinct”: To me, Stone’s half-a-million-dollar salary seemed barely enough to make up for the humiliation.

For five seasons, Guillermo Diaz played a sexy and charismatic drug dealer in “Weeds”. In 2010, he modeled for an indie gay magazine that displays naked amateurs, “Pinups”. He’s traipsing through an apartment and fiddles with a record player in the nude: a typical “gay bear”, his penis rather small. His career and his standing as sex symbol didn’t suffer. Will such public, surprising displays of nudity make celebs smaller? Or can they make them bigger: multi-dimensional, more complex?

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This is only 1/4th of the text. I will continue the translation over the next few days, until the complete article is online. For now, here is a brief summary:

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When I was a kid, there was a lot of “embarrasment nudity” on TV:

Shows or movies where powerless people were stripped.  

I started to admire these people, especially if they were famous: There is no reason that someone like Sharon Stone or Drew Barrymore had to show their body to a kid like me.

Often, the context of their nudity felt humiliating. Still: These people were brave enough to expose themselves like that, and I admired them for it.

I got older, more confident and independent – but I still thought: “Being nude, publicly, would be the worst thing that could happen to me.”

But gradually, I asked myself: Why is this such a big deal to me? What’s the worst that could happen if someone saw a nude picture of me?

For decades, I’ve admired people who had no hang-ups about nudity. And even though I have *massive* hang-ups about nudity myself and I consider this a huge deal, I finally tried it myself, and it felt like an important step:

In the end, it’s just my body. Being nude felt cathartic, and I’m glad that I did the same “brave” thing that I admired other people for.

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tagesspiegel stefan mesch

the original, German version of the essay. my photo for the article was taken by Mike Wolff.