Most of us hate our bodies. If we spent as much time doing something constructive as we do looking in the mirror picking out faults, then most of our childhood dreams would be fulfilled by now.
But in the cocktail of hang ups I have sloshing around my brain, my body might be the strongest.
As a teenager, I felt like God spun the ugly wheel and the arrow landed on every possible insecurity. The teenage growth spurt hit so hard and so quickly, parents used to ask to see proof of age when I played sports. My head grew to the size of a moon and the craters were thousands of red spots. A jungle sprouted on my chest at the age of 14.
The jabs from other kids were so frequent and my self-esteem so low I even refused to put product in my hair in case someone said something.
But while I’m a big boy now, the tiny traumas of your youth cling to the psyche like a wasp to a pint. So despite the fact the mere mention of the fetish party in Nice, France, filled me with bodily dread, it was the kind of massive event that could jolt my brain into overcoming these worries.
The belly, vast forehead, and weird chicken legs all quivered in fear. Behind clothes, I could shield myself. At Nice So Fetiche, my body – my insecurities – would be laid bare.
Finding confidence from others
I spent the whole day of the party wandering round Nice, panicking.
Would they judge me? Will people reach into my mind and drag the playground insults out for all to see? I drowned the thoughts with wine, but knew I needed a more stable solution.
I contacted the president of Evidence (the organizers behind the fetish festival, Nice So Fetiche), Roberto Campillo, for some advice.
Evidence run fetish parties in both Paris and Nice since 2016. They provide a safe space for lovers of fetish to find a community and party together. It’s a funny sight, walking through the cobbled, pastel-colored streets of Nice and seeing crowds of men in head-to-toe leather storm through. Liberating for me, but it’s enough to make my grandma faint on the pebbled beach.
I met Roberto at the LGBTI and feminist bookshop, Librarie Vigna. They hosted leather champions from around the world, surrounded by queer novels, artwork and photos from our past. Mr Leather Spain, Mr Leather Israel, Mr Leather Italy all stood proudly, all different body types, like the fetish Avengers.
I hoped Roberto could quell my fears. How did people get to the stage where they can buck social convention and just… wear the thing they wanted? To be comfortable in their own clothes and skin?
He smiled: ‘First, you are yourself, you dress as yourself, there’s no change. You don’t change your character to be a leather man or a rubber man.
‘For me, I wear my leather all day. I don’t have normal clothes. I go to the supermarket in my gear – it’s normal for me.’
While I don’t identify as a leather fetishist, the message is clear. You can’t become someone else; it has to be you in the moment and in the leather. It’s a freeing thought, even if it meant I had to rely on myself – a man with the self-esteem of a dropped flan.
The chat gave me just enough will to make it to the party. As we left the shop, one of my travel companions lent in and whispered: ‘You know there’s going to be sex there?’
The fetish party beckons
Back at the hotel, Hotel Windsor, I tentatively put on my harness and looked at my fetish companions, Auston and David from the blog Two Bad Tourists.
‘Don’t judge me – my body’s not as good as either of yours,’ I said, before being told the harness was upside down.
For the first time in years, I felt like a Baby Gay. Was I just being pathetic?
Auston looked at me: ‘Look, Tom, confidence is sexy. Start feeling confident and you’ll start being sexy.’
I took one last glance in the mirror before wrapping up for the Nice night. We walked to Club l’Omega in our high socks, looking like subs in a Sunday League soccer team. It’s fine, though – Nice is one of the most LGBTI-friendly spots in France. A raised eyebrow was about as much homophobia as we received.
Roberto waited, smiling at the entrance.
‘You made it!’ He said.
‘I’m wearing a harness,’ I replied, pulling down my top as if I was showing my Dad a drawing.
He nodded approvingly and let us into the club.
There it was. The event that tugged on every one of my insecurities, the fear of revealing my body made physical. The result was two rooms, split in the middle by a two-way bar. To one side, the DJ played while a hoard of men danced with each other, entranced.
Leather men stood powerfully round the edges (it was probably too hot to dance in those clothes). Nearly everyone else was shirtless, wearing harnesses. Nearly every body type was different.
We slipped in, three more men in harnesses. People checked me out as I walked past. As their eyes followed my body, Auston’s words rang in my ears; he Obi Wan, my negative thoughts the Death Star.
In an environment like that, the negative grip on my brain loosened. I grabbed a vodka and Coke and spoke to people in English.
The atmosphere was joyous. People danced, people lusted. It was nowhere near as extreme as I anticipated, though scenes still unraveled in front of us.
A man dragged his pup along on a chain. Two sport fetish fans sat on the sofas, sniffing shoes and rubbing themselves over their trousers. Subs crawled and wriggled across the seating, as their doms demanded.
This is not to say it was entirely comfortable.
Auston left the urinals, gesturing to the man in there and shouted: ‘Well, that guy really likes to look at dicks.’ One shirtless man bounced around, grinding on any flesh he could find, presumably on a cocktail of drugs that would make even Ibiza partiers flinch.
The smell of smoke and skin and leather. The kinds of people all around. It was so positively unique, yet so body-focused, it shrunk the bad thoughts in my mind.
I met a man in the smoking area. The most fetish man I could find. He wore a mask and a harness, with the rest of his body covered in piercings and tattoos. In one hand he smoked the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen in my life.
I found the dark room at the edge of the dance floor. I looked inside – not to sleep with anyone, from curiosity alone. People were giving blowjobs; I don’t know what I expected.
The body world we’ve made for ourselves
It’s so absurd, the more I think about it. The insecurities I have about my body – too fat, too hairy, too ugly – make no sense when surrounded by so many other people. We’re drip-fed images of perfect men on social media and suddenly nothing is good enough.
I’ve replaced the high school bullies with a body hell of my own curation.
But that isn’t real life. That is so far removed from real life that here, this fetish party in France, becomes real life. These are actual people; their clothes might be a form of drag, but their bodies and their existence aren’t fluffed and curated. It’s sweaty, lusty, horny realness, not the sterile sexuality of Instagram.
It’s impossible to destroy these insecurities by going to an event. But sometimes, we need to shock our systems to rewire our thoughts. The mere act of posting this article, with a photo of myself on it, is a rebellion against my constantly critical brain. Typing here feels freeing.
We need to remember that the online world of six packs and biceps bigger than your head is a construct. The voices in our head are a construct.
And nothing quite shakes those constructs like the dynamite of raw sex and leather.