They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:
The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”
I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.
“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”
“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”
“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?
I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.
But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.
In Richard III, Shakespeare dramatizes how his title character murders – or conspires to – absolutely everyone in his way to the throne of England. This includes his brother, his nephews, his wife, her former husband, and other nobles who variously block his ascendancy. The infighting all stems from competing family claims to the monarchy going back generations (the War of the Roses, for history buffs).
Richard III eventually dies in the battlefield. Centuries later, his skeleton was found beneath a parking lot.
It’s this self-shaming,this self-hating body image of Richard III, that gives a surprising and powerful figure to the everyday anguishes of our self-perceptions.
And centuries later, we are still fascinated with Richard III’s cutthroat Machiavellianism. The Netflix hit House of Cards draws on his villainy in the character of Frank Underwood. The real-life House of Cards, also known as Brexit, seems to have taken its own cues from the king’s machinations.
We are fascinated with Richard’s ruthless eloquence. The first and final lines he speaks are woven into our cultural consciousness: “Now is the winter of discontent” (1.1.1) and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (5.7.13).
We are fascinated, too, with his “deformity”: Richard was a hunchback with a lame arm, at least as Shakespeare portrays him. Other characters liken him to “bunch-backed toad” (1.3.244). In some of the Bard’s plays leading up to Richard III, characters even rumor he was born with teeth – a freakish sign of evil.
But what I find most fascinating is the way Richard thinks, feels, and talks about his own body. His interior struggle feels very modern. Take this core passage from his famous opening soliloquy:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,
I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scare half made up–
Why, I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (1.1.14-31)
He’s compensating – severely so – for his insecurities. Now, I don’t know anyone who feels entitled to overtake the government because of their sense of rejection. (Well, 2016 might give us some exceptions.) But I do think so many of us – whether we are despising something as vain as our love handles or grappling with something as serious as morbid obesity – spend countless hours before mirrors (or in avoidance of them) in obsessive, agonizing judgement of our own bodies.
It’s this self-shaming, this self-hating body image of Richard III, that otherwise unsympathetic evildoer, that gives a surprising and powerful figure to the everyday anguishes of our self-perceptions.
First, I want to be clear, because I want to be sensitive. I am a healthy white man with a slight build. I can’t begin to fathom the objectification women experience in media, in advertising, in the office, in daily life. I can’t pretend to understand the discrimination persons of color undergo solely on the basis of their looks. I can’t speak to the pain and suffering that persons with actual medical conditions live with. And I can’t deny that there may be nothing more narcissistic (and privileged) than using the great Shakespeare to talk about my own nipples.
Still, I’m not trying to compare or compete. I am only trying to address to the irrationality of body image. To address these little, quotidian, and private acts of self-hatred we are constantly committing against ourselves when we grimace at some well-dressed, handsome fellow – that asshole – strolling along so easily, smoothly, beautifully, looking as if he’s completely comfortable in his own skin. (Or is that just me?)
I’m not sure when I started feeling self-conscious about my body. I don’t recall any taunts from my brothers or peers. But I do remember my doctor telling me to cut out the junk food around the age of ten or eleven, I think. Slightly embarrassing, but it transformed my diet to this day. He was a medical professional. And I was indeed chubby boy – or “husky” as my parents called it, using that euphemism that never made any kid feel better.
Nobody wants to be that kid. That kid’s the “fat kid.”
But at some point in that wretched self-awakening we call puberty, I formed this absurd idea that I looked better, especially without a shirt on, when my nipples are hard. This made swimming a whole ordeal, an otherwise fun activity torturous thanks to public shirtlessness. And wearing a shirt into the pool was, well – nobody wants to be that kid. That kid’s the “fat kid.”
To cope, I developed something of a ritual. After suiting and lotioning up in the bathroom, I’d confront the mirror. I would touch my nipples in this sort of pressing, pinching, swiping, covering maneuver, staring at my torso until it – an acceptance of my body, a tolerance of my body, an exhaustion with caring? – clicked. And it tended to click when my nipples were hard, as I felt only then my chest looked less manbooby. On bad days, I’d even wet, yes, wet my chest with cold water to help the process, the thinking, the click along. I couldn’t approach the pool until this pained OK-ness registered, and even then, I’d walk to the water’s edge with a towel draped over my chest, tossing it onto a chair only after the initial chill of the water did its work on my flesh. I’d claim coldness when queried about this unusual entry. But secretly, I welcomed the “slimming” horripilation the coldness brought – a winter of content that made summer much more manageable.
Since then, my weight has varied over the years. Heavier at times, too thin at others. But this ritual has mostly continued regardless of the scale, done as unconsciously as the way I walk. But the irony is that the compulsive performance of this ritual over the years has exacerbated the very pointy-ness it has sought to suppress. And this has created a vicious nipple cycle.
Much of historical Richard III’s physical condition, we now know, is the embellishment of fiction. But Shakespeare uses it to excruciating effect in developing the psychology of Richard’s body – and the physiology of Richard’s psyche.
Ugly is wrong. Fat is evil. Beautiful is virtuous. Thin is divine. For all his immorality, Richard III lays bare how physical appearance is a matter of morality.
Richard III’s courtship of his first wife, Lady Anne, whose husband she knows he killed, is perverse. “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” he remarks in astonishment at his success (1.2.215-16). He continues, reflecting on his limp and hunchback: “And will she yet abase her eyes on me…On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?” (1.2.233-37).
In other moments, Richard brings his “deformity” forward as an exhibit of witchcraft that his enemies have practiced on him: “Then be your eyes the witness of their evil: / See how I am bewitched. Behold, mine arm / Is like a blasted sapling withered up” (3.4.67-69).
On the eve of his final, climactic battle, the ghosts of Richard’s many victims appear and harass his conscience. “There is no creature loves me,” he despairs, “And if I die no soul will pity me. / Nay, wherefore should they? – Since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself” (5.5.154-57).
In Richard’s mind, because of society’s mind, being misshapen meant he was bewitched, bedeviled, unworthy of love, unworthy even of his own self-pity. How Richard acts on these feelings is no doubt extreme, but the equations between body and soul, between form and character, between beauty and worth, sound all too familiar, don’t they?
Ugly is wrong. Fat is evil. Beautiful is virtuous. Thin is divine. For all his immorality, Richard III lays bare how physical appearance is a matter of morality. Something as small and silly as twisting one’s nipples is a contortion of so many irrational self-evaluations: Am I attractive? Am I liked? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Why can’t I be comfortable in my own skin? What are other people getting that am I not? Am I weird? This is tiring and stupid, so why do I keep doing this? What is wrong with me? Is this just vain? Am I a failure? Am I good? Who will abase their eyes on me that on me…that halts and am misshapen thus?
Not after long, it’s not our shirts that are threadbare. It’s our minds, our souls poking through like a sore and exposed nipple. (And those cheap-ass Mossimo T-shirts do fade, I swear, like, after one time through the wash.)