Thomas Erlank is a musical performer from South Africa. Early in his studies he obtained his degree at the University of Stellenbosch and later furthered his education in London, England at the Royal College of Music. He is currently involved with the international opera studio in Operhaus Zurich, Switzerland. His partner Jonathan Ramírez is a screenwriter in London. The two frequently go on travels together and explore different regions in Europe. Erlank is an individual who desires to see positivity in all that he does and hopes he can inspire others to do the same.

“…it is exactly our imperfections that make us unique.”

I am a tall, ginger, bisexual man who hails from the picturesque Cape Town, South Africa. My name is Thomas Erlank, I am 30 years of age, and I am an opera singer.

For the majority of my life, I believed that I was obliged to follow the media induced standards of what is and isn’t acceptable with regards to my physicality. Due to that belief, my life was governed by the fear of rejection, and the fear of ridicule and mockery. I was self-loathing.

I grew up in a middle-class bubble where one’s image was more important to many than the actual issues of the day. It was better to show the world that all is well even though below the surface worms were feasting away at one’s happiness.

As a child, it was instilled in me by my parents and community, to be acutely aware of the possible thoughts that others might have of me with regards to my appearance, my actions, and my words. I was taught that I should never show to the world my flaws and mistakes, and indirectly to never show the world the truth about who I am. To my understanding, it is but human to have flaws, and to not be perfect, and it is exactly our imperfections that make us unique.

The truth about this community, is that it is prideful. It stems from a very deeply rooted cultural and religious history which one cannot simply ignore. Cause and effect.

Religion had a strangling grip on me as an individual who tried hard to be the best version of what was expected of me. Having said that, I felt safe within the walls of our church, because it was easy to keep up the facade I created, within a place ruled by such strong guidelines. However, it was during my teen years that I started to live a double life.

The journey of me discovering my sexuality became a major source of depression and anxiety. My family spoke of homosexuality (or any kind of queerness) as something that is wrong and going against the grain of what nature intended for the humankind. For a very long time, I believed that I was by my very nature a sin. It was very hard to find comfort from friends or family, so I turned to a youth leader I was very fond of. I shared with him the story of my uncertainty with regards to my sexuality, and what happened next broke my heart. This youth leader didn’t believe me and wrote all I told him off as a fleeting phase that will pass in time, as long as I keep asking God to lead me on a righteous path. It was already then at the age of 17 that my faith in religion started to crumble and my self-discovery started to take a different direction. I started to allow myself to experience life in all its variety so that I could make up my own mind with regards to everything I have been taught up to this point in my life. It wasn’t easy.

My belief is that when one walks around with darkness inside it is very hard to find the light to help one see the good within oneself. I was struggling with exactly that, and due to this struggle, I didn’t care much about myself. I drank excessively, ate rubbish food, and did reckless things, all of which could have been written off against the label of ‘crazy student years’, but in truth it was self-destruction. I gained even more weight and felt even more uncomfortable within my own skin.

Before leaving South Africa for London in 2014, I weighed in at 164kg (+- 362lbs). I walked around with an envious heart, yearning to feel comfortable within myself.

It was also during this time that I started to make use of Instagram more frequently, and with that came more exposure to the unrealistic media standards of beauty. Influencers everywhere. My self-loathing grew stronger by the day.

The shift in my paradigm came through means of some cruel words from an elderly man who directed a production I was a part of, ca. September 2014. He called me out on my weight, saying I will never have a career as a singer if I don’t lose weight. He then added by saying that no one wants to see fat people perform.

Initially, I was shocked that he had the nerve to utter such things in the company of others without hesitation, but in retrospect, I owe this man gratitude. Immediately after, my life changed rapidly. Within 6 months I lost a total of 58 kg (+- 130lbs). Along with the weight loss, my attitude towards social media, and more specifically Instagram changed. I started to use it as a tool to hold myself accountable. The more attention I gained through likes, comments, and direct messages, the more my confidence grew. However, the confidence was directly linked to the ‘performance’ of my posts/videos. Thus the self-loathing continued, but now in a different way.

My fixation soon became unendurable. I realized that I couldn’t rely on the vanity fueled ego boosts that came solely from Instagram to have self-confidence. It was rather poisonous.

A snail pace process started in which I began to see the truth with regards to how one can build a healthy and natural sense of self-confidence, self-love, self-worth, and self-acceptance. It was also during this time that I met the love of my life; a man who has shown me that I am worth loving and that my ‘flaws’ shouldn’t form part of what I see as weaknesses, but rather strengths.

I have an immense sense of pride towards my personal growth over the last four or so years. The process has been difficult, especially because I used to prefer the comfort of what is known to me. However, I speak from real experience when I say that good came only once I started stepping outside of my comfort zone.

One such a step I made was when visiting Berlin with my partner, March of this year. After our anniversary dinner, we decided to venture to a bathhouse/sauna. The reality of visiting such a place did not take hold until we arrived in the changing room. Every little flaw about my physicality became visible to me as if under a magnifying glass. Stretchmarks around my middle, my belly, and some loose skin. I felt unbelievably ugly for a moment, but my focus was shifted to the fun side of this establishment by my beloved partner.

There I stood naked, with but a towel to cover up when I felt the need, in a public space with many lurking eyes. Something I have never done before. My self-conscientiousness was still flaring up like a volcano about to erupt, but I made the decision to try and enjoy our visit there because my so-called imperfections shouldn’t be dictating what I am allowed to enjoy in life or not. Nothing bad happened, and it was a painless, even rather enjoyable experience.

In truth, the image that I carry of myself is one created by myself. It is easy to blame it on the world of today, and the media standards of beauty and attractiveness, but it is, in the end, a choice to pay attention to those things or not. I am 30 years old, and I am still learning how to look at myself in the mirror without always spotting the things I think to be wrong, bad, ugly, or unfortunate. Even though there are so many thoughts of doubt still present in my daily life, the love I have developed for myself is slowly starting to outweigh it.

Social media is still a part of my life. I post about my work as an opera singer, my interest such as architecture, art, happy moments in life, and amateur photography. Vanity is still playing a role, but in truth, the more I am making peace with myself, the less I care about it as a construct and what others might think of my online image.
Equilibrium will forever be hiding from me, seeing that by my very nature I live in the extremes, but I have managed to find a way to balance what I put out there, and the way I react to the reactions of my audience. Being authentic to myself is in a way the biggest justification I will ever need for doing what I am doing in regards to social media. I guess the problem at hand is the discovery of what being authentic to oneself might mean. The more I ask myself what is best for me in any given moment, the more I realize who I am as a true individual.

All of this is but a brief view into the world of change that I have experienced regarding my image. It has been and will continue to be a journey of growth through the darkness and light of life. My hope is that there might be some spark of hope through my words for whoever is in need of some positive reinforcement.

My name is Thomas Erlank. I am 30 years of age. I hail from the picturesque Cape Town, South Africa. I am a tall, ginger, bisexual man and I have a belly. I love myself…

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