“To feel strong, to walk amongst humans with a tremendous feeling of confidence and superiority is
not at all wrong. The sense of superiority in bodily strength is borne out by the long history of mankind
paying homage in folklore, song and poetry to strong men.”
Fredrick “Dr. Squat” Hatfield
The story begins, as so many do, with a quest: there is a boy, his blade, and a damsel. We don’t know who she is, but we know she’s dead. The boy, his name is Wander, travels far—riding his horse over marshes and through the grooved tunnels of a canyon under a moon smothered by clouds—to a place called the Forbidden Land.
Inside a crumbling tower, he places the girl on an altar, and a voice in the sky tells him that he must kill sixteen Colossi, giant sentinels of stone scattered across the barren landscape, to bring his beloved back to life.
There was a time when all I wanted was to be my own colossus. At 15, my father took me to the gym for the first time. He reduced me to a series of parts—biceps, shoulder, triceps, deltoids, the all-important core—and showed me how to make them hurt. The only thing that separated me from a world where my body was something more than a receptacle for shame, I learned, was my own capacity for pain.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, my ex-girlfriend and I spent our afternoons kissing in the sweltering trailer her father kept in the backyard. This would have been fine, except she already had a new boyfriend. Over the phone, she told me the guilt of her infidelity had become so unbearable that she’d chosen to pierce her wrist with one of her mother’s brooches.
I’m sad too, I said. And then I lied: I’ve been cutting myself.
Don’t do that, she replied, but I couldn’t miss that note of wonder in her voice—the way our mutual self-destruction seemed to bind us together again.
That night, intent to twist the fib into truth, I walked to the kitchen and made the first incision on my left arm. It wasn’t very deep, but the relief I felt—a deep breath after a long submersion—was so profound that, when she ended things between us a week later, for real this time, I went back, face puffy from tears, and did it again.
It’s embarrassing—cliché—to know it started this way. A teenager, lovestruck and stupid, holding his own body hostage for a bit of attention. More embarrassing, still, to know how long it continued.
I first played Shadow of the Colossus in 2006, just a year before I started experimenting with self-harm. It’s a game that—apart from its strikingly cinematic atmosphere—is most famous for what it withholds.
The player knows almost nothing about Wander, or his connection to the girl, Mono, that he so desperately wants to bring back to life. All we’re told is that he’s in possession of something called the Ancient Sword, the one weapon capable of destroying the Colossi and completing the “forbidden ritual” that will return her to him.
There are no other characters present for most of the game. Just Wander, riding across a desolate wilderness—arid deserts, wide plains of wind-swept grass, seaside cliffs of bleached white stone—inhabited only by the ruins of an old world we learn nothing about, and the giants that the boy must kill, one at a time.
My father has spent most of his life lifting weights. His body shows it: he stands just over six feet, a towering bundle of muscle. Back when he worked for the IRS, he spent so much time at his office’s gym—eating his sandwich at his desk earlier in the day and slipping off to work out during his lunch break—that they asked him to be a personal trainer. When he turned fifty, he bought an expensive bicycle and one of those goofy spandex riding suits. Nowadays, he will often call me after a ride, still breathless, to tell me how many miles he’s ridden, his voice full of the kind of delight one might expect from a child bringing home a good grade.
The Ancient Greeks, who are often credited with building some of the world’s first gyms, had a phrase for the ideal human: Kalos Kagathos. The beautiful and the good. For them, physical fitness and morality were inseparable. To be beautiful, to be fit, was to be virtuous.
For a long time, that was how it felt. If I could just achieve a suitable shape, whatever was weak within me—and so much seemed weak, so much seemed wicked—would be vaporized. I’d become a walking exhibit of desire: women would want me, men would fear me, and the world would open itself, oyster-like, to spill forth its pearls.
My father left copies of Men’s Health around the house, and in those pages I discovered a secret codex for life. Interviews with famous bodybuilders and professional athletes cleared the brush from a hidden path. Eat your greens, your protein. Don’t neglect your legs. Stand with your shoulders squared and shake with a firm hand.
Life was rife with weak points—I need only turn the soft shape of myself into a weapon and learn where to strike.
I never got very good at cutting. For years, I continued using the small knife in the kitchen. The blade was so dull that I had to drag the point across my skin—more of a stab than a slice, really. Afraid my efforts wouldn’t leave any scars, I often cut the same spot multiple times over the course of a few days, reopening the wound.
This insistence on scars bothers me. It reduces the whole endeavor to an extended act of vanity. As I was hurting myself, I never forgot that familiar accusation: you’re just doing this for attention.
That is what my father said when a relative tried to commit suicide. She just wants attention.
I didn’t judge him for those words—I knew he was groping through the dark corridors of his grief the only way he knew how, broken by the thought that a person he loved could ever do such a thing—but I can still hear the verdict in his tone.
How juvenile, how pathetic, to morph the body into a message this way.
Once, my brother punched a hole in the wall along the stairs after a long argument with our parents. It remained there for years, a concave reminder of a different kind of message the body could send.
There are some kinds of shame for which the word shame is nothing but a faded outline, an empty signifier. When you search for its root, you find only a vast network of tunnels, leading both everywhere, and nowhere at all. Another Forbidden Land, complete with its own cryptic ruins, impossible to decipher.
Each Colossus is different. Some of them are humanoid, standing at nearly a hundred feet, while others look like animals: a horse, a salamander, a hawk. Some of them are immediately hostile—they shoot bolts of electricity at Wander from their mouths or their eyes—while others barely notice him until he’s crawled up their granite flanks and begun the work of destroying them.
The Colossi can only be killed by finding their weak points—the glowing symbols hidden throughout their bodies—and stabbing them. When the marks are punctured, they release a rushing torrent of black fluid. After the Colossi die, black tendrils unfurl from their corpses and flow into Wander until he loses consciousness.
When Wander wakes up again, he is back at the tower, spread eagle on the floor. A group of human-shaped shadows stand over him, shoulders hunched—one for each colossus he’s killed.
As the game goes on, this mystery becomes rich soil for doubt. What happens when Wander kills all of the Colossi? Why does the game feel so sad? Who is Dormin, that mysterious presence that delivers hints to Wander from the sky, speaking in many voices all at once?
What kind of story is this?
And yet, despite the player’s growing dread, Wander becomes stronger. With each victory, his little health bar grows.
By my junior year, I was lifting weights twice a day. I liked staring at myself in the avenue of mirrors, my skin glistening with sweat, and knowing that I wouldn’t be judged for my narcissism. There, everyone wanted to be changed; all of us were united in the work of willing ourselves into something new.
The gym was a place where violence against the body was acceptable—celebrated, even. Pain usually meant you were doing something right.
While I worked out, I listened to movie soundtracks. 300. Saving Private Ryan. Fight Club. Gladiator. Troy.
Most of the movies I loved at that time involved men dying—or at the very least, being maimed—in acts of great passion. In Armageddon, Harry Stamper stays behind to detonate the nuke that will destroy the asteroid blazing towards Earth. In Braveheart, William Wallace cries out for freedom as he’s disemboweled. In Starship Troopers, a wounded Watkins blows himself up with a grenade to give the others time to escape. In Scarface, Tony Montana stuffs his face in a pile of cocaine and blasts his way through a room of armed men until he is finally killed, absorbing bullets as he goes, the purity of his rage its own special armor.
Even The Iron Giant finds a way to die: when the lovable robot realizes he’s a weapon, when he finds out that his entire body is nothing but a walking gun, he destroys himself in a blaze of glory. Sure, the movie’s ending implies some kind of renewal—all the broken bits of the giant’s body rolling back to rebuild him—but this is almost an afterthought. It is his sacrifice that earns the swelling music, the eyes misted by tears, the hands clenched tight around our hearts.
The word passion comes to us from the late Latin passiō, which translates to suffering, or submission.
When I was 13, my parents took me to The Passion of the Christ on its opening night. My mother didn’t want me to go because she’d heard about the violence. My father, the kind of lukewarm catholic who likes to go to church for the community, was oddly adamant that I accompany them. It’s the only time I remember him showing this kind of religious devotion.
He needs to see it, he said. He needs to know.
Despite the film’s gleeful emphasis on blood and agony, we are led to believe that this suffering—the whipping, the crown of thorns, the nails through the wrists and ankles—is not in vain. After all, what is being done to this body is being done for us. The suffering and the salvation are rendered inextricable—without Christ’s suffering, there can be no resurrection. No second chance. No forgiveness.
When I turned my face away from the screen, my father shook my shoulder, and whispered don’t miss this.
There is a version of this story where I replace one relationship to pain with another, where my desire to hurt myself with a blade is substituted by a healthy craving for exercise. This is an easier story for me to imagine.
But the truth is more troubling: the more I went to the gym, the more I wanted to cut. The larger I became, the more I wanted to mark that largeness, to make it real.
It feels too simple to say that I hurt myself because, all around me, men were creatures for whom hurt was the only constant. And yet.
I didn’t cut my wrists—only my upper arms. Back then, wrist cutting was something I associated with suicide, with only wanting attention.
Later, lying in bed next to a girlfriend, we will compare scars, and I will explain, quickly, that I didn’t want to die. It wasn’t about that.
Why then? she will ask, and I will answer the only way I know how: I don’t know.
And I still don’t. I can only say that for a long time my feelings were a landscape beset by periods of profound disruption, where the world occasionally shook with such force that it threatened to rupture something essential, and that hurting myself stabilized that particular scenery.
One thanksgiving, I overheard my brothers reminiscing about the shouting matches they used to have with our dad. We almost hit each other a few times, the oldest said, smiling at the fondness of the memory. I think that’s an important thing for a dude to have, growing up. You’ve got to get close to beating the shit out of each other. You respect one another after that.