Defining Safe: Samuel Maude reclaimed his body and sexuality at Northwestern

Cassidy Jackson, Reporter

In the latest episode of Defining Safe, The Daily spoke to Medill 2020 graduate Samuel Maude. Four years ago, Samuel was a “scared boy.” He was unconfident in his body, sexuality and career path. But now he’s a different person. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: This podcast contains explicit language.

SAMUEL MAUDE: I really wasn’t seeing bodies that look like mine on my feed. So, a few weeks ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of me just in my underwear.

SAMUEL MAUDE: I’m wearing these pink Calvin Klein underwear that I’d just gotten. I love them. They’re so comfy. Ten out of 10 would recommend. And I am fairly exposed. My hair is kind of messy because I was just about to go to bed. I had just done my nightly skincare routine, which — I’m kind of obsessed with skincare, which is pretty exhaustive. Yeah, I’m really proud of the picture and I think it shows off everything I wanted it to. It shows off my stomach. It shows off my chest hair. It shows off what a different body might look like and if we were a more accepting society of body types, maybe a Calvin Klein ad you may see.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Medill 2020 graduate Samuel Maude posted the photo to Instagram, as sort of a reclamation of his body. But this is far from where Sam started in his confidence journey.  

CASSIDY JACKSON: I’m Cassidy Jackson from The Daily Northwestern and welcome back to another episode of Defining Safe, a podcast about marginalized communities at NU. Just a few weeks ago, seniors dressed up in a cap and gown and watched their commencement ceremony over Zoom. Quite an anticlimactic ending to their college career. So, I wanted to celebrate the personal and professional achievements of a few 2020 grads. Sam is the first one up. As a plus-sized gay man, confidence was far from a linear journey for Sam. But now, as he leaves NU behind, he knows his worth and he’s confident in his career path. Sam’s story is packed full of important themes, but before we uncover his Northwestern story, let’s look back at his high school experience.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where he attended Dowling Catholic High School, a school so religious it was built in the shape of a cross. In his four years there, Sam faced a lot of trauma around his sexuality. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: You know, I had a teacher get fired for being gay in my high school. I had a teacher say, “All gay people are going to hell.” It was not a positive place for queer students. I will never forget this moment. I was sitting in my high school choir. I was a huge choir nerd. I was co-choir president my senior year. And my choir teacher called on me to tell the room what this song meant to me. And this was when I was more comfortable in my sexuality and I said to the room, “You know, I think this song is about God loving us for our differences and loving us for who we are.” And my choir teacher looks me in the eye, fully knowing I was gay, and says, “And he will forgive you if those differences are wrong.” I remember leaving the choir room that day, going immediately to my counselor’s office, and saying, “I’m quitting choir.” Quit choir as choir president. And it was definitely a journey to love my sexuality, which I think I achieved in high school eventually. But it took a while to get there. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam was able to block out the opinions of others and embrace his sexuality through fashion. Four days a week, he wore a uniform, a polo shirt and khaki pants. But he got to be creative and put together his own outfits every Friday. Funny enough, his personal style then was pretty similar to his uniform. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: On jeans days, which were days where you would pay $1 to wear jeans and the money would go to some charity, I would always make sure that I was dressed to the nines. I would always wear a polo in a different color on jeans days and, like, jeans. And I was like, “I’m professional and cute” when I would go to school. And I definitely remember getting flack for always wearing polos to school — you didn’t even have to wear a polo. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam used jeans day to express himself and his differences through clothes, but he discovered his knack for fashion long before high school. His first fashion-related memory happened when he was 8 years old, while shopping with his mom. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: When I was a little kid, we were in Marshalls, which is now closed in Des Moines, RIP, and I definitely remember being in there with her and looking at all the coats and seeing what they had to offer and she needed this new coat and she wanted it to be a warm winter coat. I saw this, like, it looked like bear fur. Of course, it was faux fur but it was just this gorgeous long brown coat and I was obsessed with it. And so I was like, “Mom, you should get this one,” and she wound up loving it and wore it a lot when I was younger. When it started to go out of style, it became her smoking coat which, of course, I do not support her smoking, but I support her use of the coat while she’s smoking. And I think it just kind of started off my interest in fashion and my love of clothing and my love of all things luxurious.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam’s classmates definitely didn’t match his love for all things luxurious. While Sam suited up like a young professional, the other boys wore athleisure on jeans days. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: I was definitely the only kid wearing what I was wearing, so I definitely stood out. At first I thought that was really weird. And I was kind of like, “I still want to wear this, but I feel really weird wearing this.” And then eventually as I progressed through high school, I was like, “Screw all of you. I’m going to look great, and I’m going to feel great while I do it.” And so I think I just started to care less. I remember a really distinct point during my senior year of high school where I even painted my nails in my private Catholic school and I remember so many students being like, “Why would you do that?” and me being like, “I don’t know. I just felt like it.”

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam was able to find a solid group of friends at Dowling. But by the time graduation rolled around, he was more than ready to leave. He was ready to leave his small town and go to college, a place he’d imagined for years.  

SAMUEL MAUDE: I hate to bring this movie up. But there’s this moment in “Love, Simon” where Simon talks about how “I’m imagining life will be different in college” and he dances to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” while everyone is wearing rainbow. It’s this joyous moment and I think when you’re in a really oppressive high school, that’s kind of what you think college is. I really thought it was gonna be a gay pride parade every single day. And I definitely thought I would have my first boyfriend in the first few months and I would have sex for the first time and I would experience all these things really quickly.

SAMUEL MAUDE: Come to find out that’s not exactly how it works out and college isn’t what you exactly hope it would be in high school. Let me tell you, Northwestern was so much better than my high school in terms of sexuality, like literally light years ahead. But I think when I came to Northwestern, you know, I was surrounded by a lot of queer men. I was an opera major. I started to get involved in theatre, which both of those have a lot of queer men involved in them. And what I realized was it wasn’t this oasis I’d always dreamed of because there was more to that than I realized. Coming to Northwestern, it wasn’t this paradise that I dreamed it would be because, you know, my body was different. And that was made very clear to me by experiences I had where, like, gay men in the theater community or in the Bienen community wouldn’t even look at me. Immediately I was their GBF, which, when I say being the GBF of a gay man is offensive, I mean that. We talk about how negative the GBF stereotype is, but what I found is, for a lot of gay men, I would become this GBF that they would never even look at romantically. They would never look at me romantically. They would never look at me sexually but would come to me to talk about their hookup issues all while I had a crush on them. And I think it was rooted in the fact that I wasn’t skinny because all the men they would hook up with were skinny men, you know. And so like I came to college, and I think it made me realize that the gay community has problems. It’s not this perfect place, you know. And I thought in high school that the gay community in college would be a perfect place and immediately, I was proven wrong.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam was already insecure about his body before coming to Northwestern. His experiences in NU’s theatre community only exasperated those feelings. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: And I guess your struggles with how you viewed your body, was it mostly things you had internalized from societal standards or was it like you also had people in your life that made you feel unconfident with your body?

SAMUEL MAUDE: In the media, it’s constantly pushing this very skinny or muscular narrative. I think also there are small microaggressions that I don’t think people realize with (their) body. Like for instance, someone saying, “Oh my gosh, your shoulders are so broad.” I remember that comment in seventh grade and I got really hurt by it. Granted, it was someone just pointing out a bodily feature I had, but I kind of felt like it was coded for “fat.” I’ve also received so much negativity on dating apps like Grindr and Tinder. People having things in their bios that are like “fit men only,” or things like that that are just so negative and so unfortunate, you know. Someone I was seeing one time said to me, “I didn’t find you attractive until we started seeing each other,” like that’s messed up. And so I think like a lot of things really contributed to this really negative image.

CASSIDY JACKSON: All of these comments piled up and informed his insecurities. Out of all the comments, one is seared into Sam’s memory.  

SAMUEL MAUDE: Yeah I think the moment that is most salient in my mind is when my mom’s friend made her comment. I remember being in the driveway of her friend’s and me just sitting there, and both of them like talking and stuff. And then her friend turning to me and just going, “You would be really hot if you just started working out.” 

SAMUEL MAUDE: And me just sitting there thinking, “Oh, I have to start working out then. I have to start eating better. I have to not go to Taco Bell anymore,” which is like my one true love. I have to, like, change my bodily habits. And I think it seriously caused significant body dysmorphia for me and it really affected my body. I remember going home that day and just feeling so down on myself and looking in the mirror and being really unhappy with what I saw. Those few instances really clouded my opinion of attractiveness and really made me even buy into those societal standards, which threw me into a really big depression and really affected my mental health and my sanity. I started to get angry when people who hadn’t worked out started working out and started to change their body because I was like, “I should be doing that,” but I wasn’t because I didn’t have as much interest. And I just would wallow in my pain and in my misery. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: It was me needing to change my perception of what attractiveness is. And I think, across the United States and across the world, everyone needs to work on changing what their perception of attractiveness is because what is attractive has been so constructed by society and has been so constructed by people in power, by white men. You know, when I was a freshman in college, the men I thought were attractive were like the very skinny or fit men. I didn’t find people who had my body type that attractive. And when I started to really question my views of attractiveness, I started to realize, “Holy hell, I’m completely not even looking at these other men who are hot as… who are very hot.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sophomore year, Sam abandoned his comfort zone and stage produced Lipstick Theatre’s Burlesque. Sam wasn’t on the stage or in the spotlight, but being surrounded by people who owned their bodies rubbed off on him. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: I did it because I wanted to make myself uncomfortable, and I knew being surrounded by people who were being very sex positive would make me uncomfortable, because I’d grown up like I said in a Catholic school where sex was constantly shamed and put down. I signed on to stage manage, and even though I wasn’t performing, I left that production and that year with so much confidence in my body. One of the performers was a man who is about my size and he had a solo and everyone loved it every night. And to see people cheering and applauding someone’s expression of their sexuality when they aren’t stick-skinny was like a lightbulb moment in my head, like, “People find this man attractive. I should be confident in my body.” And then my junior year, when I produced the show, I finally was comfortable, I felt like expressing my sexuality and who I was and I think that culminated with me wearing more revealing clothing during the shows. I have a lace shirt I wore to a show, and you could see my skin. You could see my chest hair and you could see my tummy and I wore that shirt with pride.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Junior year was Sam’s second and last year being a part of Lipstick Theatre’s Burlesque show. He produced it, and the final night of performances was an emotional moment and somewhat of an awakening, as Sam realized how far he’d come in his self-love journey.  

SAMUEL MAUDE: In the final performance of the night, my good friend did the last number and was dancing to “Don’t Stop Me Now” and every show she would run into the audience and give me a high five. And that final show when she gave me the high five, I was standing there in my sheer shirt, and I realized how much I’d grown and how much I had changed as a human being. And when she ran back up stage, she had confetti cannons that she let off. Confetti just rained down on me. I realized that the confetti was washing away but so were the perceptions of attractiveness and of what my body was supposed to look like. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: That allowed me to express my sexuality so much more. I started to wear sheer in my everyday life. I started to be more comfortable with people seeing my body. Like for so long, I wouldn’t even go into a pool because I was uncomfortable taking my shirt off and swimming is one of my favorite activities. And finally, I was able to go into a pool again and feel confident. Burlesque fully changed who I was as a human being and really pushed me in every single direction to challenge biases I had and pushed me in every single direction to grow as a human being, to become a more loving, a more celebratory human being. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam reclaimed his body and his sexuality partly through Burlesque shows, but also through STITCH, a fashion magazine at Northwestern. He joined the publication freshman year and held multiple positions from social media director to eventually editor in chief. Regardless of his job title, Sam pushed back on societal beauty standards through his work.      

SAMUEL MAUDE: I think a lot of people have this perception that STITCH is a white sorority girl publication. When I started out, I think the content was really, really, really geared towards that. Like I will never forget this piece that STITCH published about a Canada Goose jacket and this girl experiencing her Canada Goose for the first time. I would have never published that piece as editor in chief because I’m just like, “Why do we need to amplify Canada Geese more on campus?” you know. And I think it really has changed so much since I’ve been there, and I definitely think I was trying to change it a lot since I started there. Like I wrote this piece my freshman year, it was a personal essay of me painting my nails as a guy and what that experience was like. And I think since I was at STITCH, I was trying to push the content and push what we published by pitching pieces I wanted to see myself. And then when I got into more power positions trying to alter what we put out there.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Can you talk more about your time as editor in chief and kind of what your goal was going into that position, what you feel like you accomplished in that time?

SAMUEL MAUDE: Totally, so I was chosen to be editor in chief with my good friend Nina Wescott. So we ran the magazine together for a year, and it definitely was one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. So Nina and I wanted to highlight more diverse voices, start talking about things that STITCH hadn’t talked about before, like sex. Our winter issue was the sex issue, which was the longest issue STITCH has ever had and tried to feature as many different body types as we could. And we tried to push our staff to think about content more critically and to create more content than we ever had. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Yeah, I honestly loved the sex issue that you guys published.

SAMUEL MAUDE: Thank you.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Seeing like the vast amount of body types that were included, different races, it was just kind of beautiful for me to see. What kind of reactions did you get from that?

SAMUEL MAUDE: I think like first I think something that I also wanted to touch on is, to our knowledge, I was the first male editor in chief and Nina was the first black editor in chief of STITCH. And so I think when you have people in the rooms that have identities that aren’t as highlighted in fashion, it changes the content. People noticed that with the sex issue. So I had people texting me, which I’d never gotten before on a STITCH issue like, “Oh my gosh, I love this issue. Oh my gosh, the shoots for this issue.” I also wrote a piece for the issue, which a lot of people talked to me about, about my first time having sex, and people really loved it, which was also really heartwarming for me because that was a really personal piece I wrote. I feel like we really challenged and had a conversation about what sex is. And throughout the issue, we talked about sex as liberation. Sex as pain. Sex as education. Sex as performative. And I think we facilitated a conversation on what sex can be and how it’s different. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: How did it feel sharing that intimate story of your first time having sex? 

SAMUEL MAUDE: To be honest, it was one of the most freeing experiences I’ve ever had. To me, this was also one of the first times I’d expressed my sex life and my sexuality in a really tangible way with that specific piece. You know, I think I had been so uncomfortable to talk about sex, to talk about my body, because, you know, I am a plus-sized male. I think for me publishing this issue and really dedicating my Winter Quarter to this issue, it was all I thought about. It was all I did. School was like second to me, which like I know they always tell you not to do, but whatever. It really became this huge expression for me personally. All the shoots, I found like expressed something about sex that I personally have always wanted to tell, and it was so heartwarming to see a room of 90 people also want to tell that. The sex issue is the thing I’m probably proudest of leaving Northwestern and something that you bet I’ll talk about in job interviews, and you bet I’ll talk about for years to come.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam put four years into STITCH and spent two years working on Burlesque shows. These extracurricular activities helped him reclaim his body and advocate for other people like him. When he looks back on those phases of his life, he thinks of them as stepping stones. Two stepping stones leading to one big moment, when he posted his semi-nude picture on Instagram. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: I was so nervous to post the Instagram picture because while I see many shirtless men on my Instagram, on my timeline, I really wasn’t seeing bodies that look like mine on my feed. And it was really starting to frustrate me and really starting to bring back emotions I had had my freshman year that I thought I had gotten rid of. I realized what I needed to do was reclaim my body and maybe expose people to what another body looks like. I think it was really nerve racking because you see people, celebrities, like for instance Lizzo, post a picture of herself in lingerie and the amount of hate she gets from people is absolutely bogus. But like when someone like — like when Rihanna posts a Savage Fenty picture of herself in like, just (a) bra (and) underwear, everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so hot yada, yada, yada.” And when Lizzo does that, she gets so much hate and so I was really nervous with that post that people would be like, “Why did you feel the need to post that?” I sat on it for two or three days, honestly. I asked my sister what she thought about it. I asked people what they thought about the caption. It was definitely a difficult experience. And I think it was kind of this last straw to body acceptance, if you will, and this last moment of me finally saying, “This is my body and this is the body I’m proud of.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: What did you caption it?

SAMUEL MAUDE: Oh my gosh. Long caption. I can, I have to pull it up on my phone.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Oh, it was a long one?

SAMUEL MAUDE: It’s a long boy. Yeah.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Yeah, I’d love to, like, hear you read it actually.

SAMUEL MAUDE: Yes, I can do that.

SAMUEL MAUDE (reading caption): If a super fit man can post shirtless slash underwear pics with no judgment, then why can’t I? Content warning: body. Quarantine has made me think a lot about my body and over the last few months I have made some progress. I’ve never been the fit, athletic kid and as I’ve grown and changed I thought a lot about how that’s influenced me. Society puts down bigger bodies constantly, and I am always feeling affected by the gay community and by society at large. I’m not this twink or jock and often feel written off by other gay men or people I’m around. And you know what? F–k that. I’m sick of showing off my body and people calling me an inspiration, especially when I think my body and my chest hair are hot as f–k. So here’s my little underwear campaign in my Calvin’s with messy hair and bad lighting to reclaim my body a little bit. And before anyone says this is inappropriate or anything, let me just ask, did you blink when you looked at this? If you did, do you blink when you see a fit man posting a similar picture? Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and deserve to be celebrated. It’s time to celebrate mine. 

SAMUEL MAUDE: It is also I believe, let me double check, my most liked picture on Instagram. It is, which felt good, honestly, because I think it was my most personal Instagram post.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Sam recently started a remote fellowship at Advocate Media, managing their social media platforms. But he plans to continue challenging society’s beauty standards. Twenty to 30 years down the line, he hopes to be a high up in a fashion publication or working as a publicist at a brand like Givenchy or Alexander McQueen. I wish him the best of luck in his future! I’m Cassidy Jackson. Thanks for listening! We’ll see you next time for another episode of Defining Safe.

CASSIDY JACKSON: I’ve just enjoyed, so much, like hearing your story. I’ve loved it, and I really appreciate that you’ve shared so much with me and just been really open about your journey. Has that been hard?

SAMUEL MAUDE: When I think back to when I was a little kid, the things that helped me were hearing about other people’s experiences. So when I was the little gay kid going to the Catholic school, reading about like YouTubers’ coming outs or watching their videos was what helped me. And so when I talk about myself, I like to be really, really honest and really, really transparent about the experiences I’ve had because maybe they will help someone. I know it’s so cliche, but I really am an open book. Like I will give you an honest answer with whatever you ask me about because I think it’s what I owe others because so many people were honest with me. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: This episode was reported and produced by me, Cassidy Jackson. The managing editors of The Daily are Sneha Dey and James Pollard, and the summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CassidyKJackson