SHANE THAMM ON MY PRIVATE PECTUS AND BODY IMAGE
The other week on ABC radio I was discussing boys and body image when the compere asked me if I had ever shaved my chest.
“I did once,” I told him with great enthusiasm, which was actually an attempt to hide my embarrassment.
We were talking about boys and bodies in relation to my novel My Private Pectus, a story that deals with male teenage body image concerns.
The compere, it seemed, wasn’t convinced that body image was something that many boys were worried about.
So I put things into perspective: Australian youth rated body image alongside drugs and family conflict as their three issues of greatest concern in Mission Australia’s Survey of Young Australians in 2008. Twenty per cent of boys and one quarter of girls called body image a serious concern.
Given that backdrop, My Private Pectus and the story of its main character Sticks, is actually very common. Teenage boys, like girls, negotiate body image concerns, often fraught with doubt and despair.
But for Sticks, his life seems even more complicated than that. He lives with a father who wants to him to turn into what sounds like a robotic man. It’s about doing well at footy, and getting into the army. It’s about achievement at the expense of emotion or civility. Sure, Sticks would love to score the winning try (and of course the cute girl), as well as everything else a man’s meant to do, but whenever he tries, it just goes pear shaped.
He falls in love with a girl the boys all hate, he reverses his best mate’s car into a retaining wall, and he vomits on his Dad’s best friend’s Turkish rug. It couldn’t get worse. But of course, it does. He has a secret chest deformity. It’s called Pectus Excavatum, and it rears its ugly head during the teenage years. It causes the chest to concave at the sternum. Sticks keeps it hidden from everyone he can, including his Dad.
My Private Pectus is a rollicking ride about what a boy will do to turn into ‘man’. It evokes images of teenage boys as hormone-driven machines without the capacity to experience doubt, fear, or even love.
Yet these are the things Sticks seems to have too much of. He’s constantly trying to summon strengths that are emotional, not physical; and in moments of intimacy, he’s confronted with very real fears about what people might think about his chest.
My Private Pectus is stacked with those sticky moments that every teenager seems to find themselves in. Those moments we look back on in later life and laugh and cringe.
It is, I think, a great book for high schools, not only because it’s the only book that intimately deals with male body image concerns for teenagers, but because it raises a host of questions about alcohol, casual drug use and relationships.
A few weeks after that first ABC radio interview, I had another one with the ABC in Alice Springs, where I had spent much of my childhood.
The compere told me that My Private Pectus is like a Judy Blume novel but for teenage boys.
“What do you think of that?” she asked.
“Great,” I said, but with reservation. I was actually wondering, who the hell is Judy Blume? What am I agreeing to here?
Thinking the name sounded familiar, I went home and did my research. Considering I had studied literature at university I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this famous American novelist.
I sat back and thought, “Geez, I hope that she’s right.”
– Shane Thamm