"Homosexual acts are acts of envy." — W.H. Auden
A thing that I think is a flaw in the way stories are told and re-told across the internet is the constant cataloging of hateful commentary.
It's a media culture that would rather keep giving life to the venomous sniping by trolls–who lately have settled their targets on the Texas Rangers' Prince Fielder for appearing nude on ESPN's Body Issue–than muting those comments and celebrating the athlete's body, absent any qualifiers like the word "brave."
Even Allison P. Davis' well-intentioned recap of the negative noise around Fielder's accomplishment uses the descriptor "atypical athelete's body." Although, at BuzzFeed, Tracy Clayton's approach was a welcome reprieve from how these items usually run their course; she indexes the internet's gushing and admiration of Fielder. Better yet is Leigh Cowart's characterization of Fielder's magazine cover for Deadspin: "Sexy as hell."
Fielder is an athlete who agreed to appear on a magazine cover nude. He doesn't seem weighed down by the body image politics that the rest of us negotiate on a daily basis. He's proud of his body, to the point where he's put it out there in the world of the indelible internet.
That is sexy as hell.
I don't believe in Lochness Monsters, the Bermuda Triangle, or even Ursula the Sea Witch for that matter. I have a manageable fear of sharks–the idea of becoming chum won't necessarily going to keep me from going for a dip.
Certainly, there's nothing frightening about the way skyscraper-high waves collapse and bite away at the land. Even when I wade into the water, the idea that broken seashells might pierce the skin at the bottoms of my feet and draw blood doesn't disconcert me. Last Christmas, in Hawai'i, I found a crown of rocks wherein I could hang out. It was just far enough down from the shore where water had pooled up, but not so far that I risked losing my copy of Aimee Bender's An Invisible Sign of My Own to the Pacific Ocean. It was an easy day. The only soundtrack I had was the flapping of palm tree leaves, the cry of island birds overhead, or the rise and collapse of waves.
There was the din of other people. But they were far away from me.
Stepping into this crown of rocks meant forgetting losses, limitations, obligations, and problems–it meant forgetting the politics of being a human. It meant breathing out all of my neuroses and switching off the scales of comparison that I used to measure my own success.
After all, when you're able to synchronize your breath with the rise and fall of the waves, you suddenly realize what truly matters–your breath.
Everything else is fleeting.
Beaches make me anxious when there are other people. They disrupt that breath. It's people's tendency to clique up–based on appearances or other measures of success–that switch those scales of comparison back on.
I think the last time I was skinny by any measure of the word was when I was six years old. There is a sepiaing photograph of me frolicking on a beach, somewhere in India. You can see my ribcage sticking out. Even now, twenty-four years later, chancing across that photograph hits my gut with a pang of envy.
Crowded beaches are a great place for you to live out all of your body-image neuroses.
Make Way for the Ken Dolls
Last summer, I was dating a guy and he asked me on our first morning together, "Do you want to go to the beach? Some of my friends are there, so we can hang out there and figure out something else to do." He was an objectively attractive person–which was proved when his similarly objectively attractive friends at the beach egged him to take his shirt off and he complied.
There were throngs of objectively beautiful men on the beach. Of course they were beautiful–in the way an orchid is beautiful–because all the others were likely indoors, or more sensibly, enjoying bottles of wine on their balconies.
It was a landscape where physical perfection trumped personality. For me, it was like being on the moon without a spacesuit. I stood in that circle as the only one who was wearing a t-shirt and swim trunks. It was already pretty apparent that unlike everyone around me, I had no beach body, let alone any propensity for beach body politics.
Beach body politics is a strange beast.
It's not like casual hook-up body politics. There is so little at stake in casual hook-up culture. It's all about the immediacy, where both of you are willing to overlook physical imperfections for the sake of instant gratification. Both of you want are burning with so much lust that you want just enough to get off–and then you'll discard of the other as needed.
Beach body politics, which happens in broad daylight and out in public, is predicated upon valuing things at first sight–and scrutinizing that superficial value endlessly.
The more disorienting part of what happened after was how all these objectively beautiful strangers seemed to be avoiding conversation with me. Throngs of washboard-abbed hotties were having half-conversations and attempting to spike their Vitamin D intake. Any attempt at non-offensive banter I tried fell on deaf ears. They were basically talking over me.
Even the guy I was dating soon tuned me out until it was time for us to get up and leave.
The whole ordeal was bizarre–and emblematic of the kind of exchanges I thought I had outgrown by choosing my friends carefully. I was annoyed afterwards–not because they didn't think I was pretty enough to pay attention to, but because I had just wasted an afternoon trying to be civil to Ken dolls who had somehow forgotten their manners.
Sadly, with my weird body-shape, I was not even subjectively attractive for my objectively attractive paramour. Whatever he found charming about me simply did not matter–a fold of fat and a six-pack that was stowed in the back of the fridge canceled out wit, an ability to talk, a desire to help this guy be the best version of himself that he could be.
The reflex to blame myself was instinctive: I was not skinny enough. I was not ripped enough. I was too lumpy. I call forth this qualifier: Weird-shaped.
Suddenly, I realized, I'd rather be up on a balcony sipping on wine, too. I didn't have the stomach, figuratively or literally, for beach outings like these.
Bears. Cubs. Otters. Badgers. Wolves.
Gay male identity is an economy of sex. When we meet one another, we grade each other on our fuckability–and then on their ability to be a decent human. Many of us may not even get beyond fuckability. This economy of sex means that we are more and more becoming conditioned to view one another less as brothers and more as single-serve sex vehicles. It means that there are scores of gay men who are being taught–and reinforced–into thinking that when they meet another gay man, they should be assessing them on how pretty they are, how fuckable they are. It is the rare instance where these exchanges happen and men evaluate one another on how well they get along, the possibility for them to make one another crack up.
I am guilty of this, too.
I am trying to get better at this, too.
Fat as Failure
writes in "Body Image in Gay Men: Acceptance, Control, Acculturation, Objectification and Identity":
Michelangelo's David has represented the ideal male figure for centuries. It is the personification of male beauty in western culture. When you look at his face, you notice that he is more youthful than his muscled body would suggest. Closer inspection shows hands that are not young at all; they are massive and aged like the hands of a laborer. Indeed David is considered perfect for many reasons; he embodies youth, power and strength. He is carved of stone and etched into our collective western mind. In the same way that Michelangelo, a gay man, created David to represent perfection, our society has fashioned the male body, not out of marble but out of flesh. The gay community has placed extra pressure on its citizens to become the living physical embodiment of perfection.
Such disconcerting ideals of perfection surely have to stem from somewhere, yes? Neal goes on:
Body dissatisfaction refers to the cognitive idea that our own body is not as good as it should be, the affective state of discontent with our bodies and the discrepancy between what our body looks like and what society tells us it should look like. Several key factors contribute to body dissatisfaction in gay men. Internalized homophobia has been cited (Williamson, 1999) as one of the contributing factors. It is hypothesized that this self discomfort with being gay generalizes to a greater sense of dissatisfaction with the self. Involvement in the gay community seems to be a second factor leading to body dissatisfaction (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley & Grilo 1996).
Neal's statement illuminates a disturbing fact: A segment of the queer male population is not only choosing friends and rationing affection based on waist size and muscle mass, but they are aggressively enforcing these standards. An imperfect body shape–to these self-appointed arbiters of gay male culture–conveys failure.
Suddenly fully-grown men are making the rest of humanity facepalm with bullshit refrains like, "No fatties," where fatties is a very subjective sub-set of men.
Suddenly, fully-grown men are channeling Regina George.
" YOU CAN'T SIT WITH US!"
Barring that part of my life where I was rail-thin for about a few minutes, I was basically a round little kid who grew up to be a slightly less round teenager who grew up to be an even slightly less round young adult who has now become someone who, on a dating app, might identify as "height-weight proportionate" in a best-case scenario.
I am envious of my straight male friends. They are seemingly given more leeway to be doughy, to be imperfect, to look like humans. They are, after all, participants of the same culture that pairs Kevin James and Leah Remini in King of Queens–and then replicates that formula of hilarious chunky oaf-with-beautiful wife comedy ad nauseam.
Conversely, gay male culture is at a dangerous tipping point where Ken dolls are dictating the norms. They are doing so aggressively. They are rationing affection, love, and respect on body types. Pride parades the world over have become less about body acceptance and more about showmanship.
"You must be this beautiful to be respected."
I was on Grindr a while ago and a not-terribly-ugly shirtless man without a head pinged me. "Sup?" he enquired.
"Oh not much," I said. "Watching TV, mellowing out."
(I was actually watching 30 Rock reruns.)
"Eh, maybe. For the right guy."
"Well are you a top or a bottom?"
(Sometimes I think our culture's obsession with binaries will be our greatest downfall, because a hook-up is a hook-up and aren't we all just looking for a little affection?)
"I'm a top."
(At this point, Liz Lemon had just made a streak of LOL-worthy outbursts and I forgot about this conversation–and came back to it six-to-eight minutes later.)
There were two messages sent in rapid succession, reading, "Hello?" and "Are you there?"
"Sorry, I got distracted. So, what's up?"
"What's your stats?"
"I'm not a bear, not yet an otter."
"Sorry, not into fat guys."
I shrugged it off. I've gotten very good at shrugging. Shrugging is a much more preferable response than getting the idea into my head that body shape should preclude me from sex and romance. What an alien concept! This concept is just as alien as the idea that all gay men need to kill themselves to look like Ken dolls in order to be respected.
Yes, exercise is probably a good idea in life. But so are having a sense of humor, learning about the world, and being a compassionate person.
Our sex-á-la-carte gay culture finds it all too easy to skip compassion.
Maybe It's All In Your Head
I think back to the throng of Ken dolls on that sunny July day. It's not fair to recount that story without admitting bias, without admitting to some degree of projection. A throng of Ken dolls can be among the nicest humans in the world and still be socially inept.
I think of context.
It was unsettling, I believe, to these Ken dolls, that one of their own would introduce someone alien to them so casually, with no back story–and it was unsettling to them that I should step into their conversations ready to banter and make small talk. Better people are able to connect fluidly with strangers–but I was out of my element here. It was a context where familiarity trumped foreignness. A ripped body would've probably increased my familiarity and my desirability, but the quality of banter would've still left me nothing more than an oddity on the sidelines, sipping on a piña colada, counting down the hours until we'd be seeing Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited!.
Or, this. Perhaps it had nothing to do with how they perceived my body–but everything to do with the energy I was emitting about how I perceived my own body. I'd be lying if I didn't say my aura was probably a little warped that day. Unfortunately, I'm just as complicit in the same media culture that would sooner have you believe there is something wrong with Prince Fielder posing nude for ESPN. (There isn't.) It's a culture that taught me that somehow I'm probably not entitled to the same respect as a Ken doll–a stigmatizing way of thinking that I only began breaking free from in my late '20s.
Or, this. That, at the end of the day, greater souls would simply recognize conversation wherever it was coming from and reciprocate accordingly.
Or, this. If there was a way to get into the heads of the Ken dolls that I dissect here, there would be a different perception–and one where the lack of respect isn't deliberate; it is the by-product of social conditioning.
Walking On Egg-Shells
One time, I was baking cupcakes and in trying to pick the eggs out of the carton, I dropped one on the kitchen floor. There was a sharp splat that cut through the air–and by my toes was the shattered egg shell, yolk oozing out and pooling. This is how hard I tend to fall for the right person.
Hook-ups are easy. With hook-ups, the sting of any rejection doesn't really hurt. You awkwardly explore each other's bodies and if the chemistry fizzles out, you sneak out in the middle of the night, and never see each other again.
By contrast, the prospect of fooling around with someone that you've fallen eggs-on-the-kitchen floor hard for is terrifying. It's more terrifying than a hook-up. You don't get the luxury of creeping out in the middle of the night. Any awkwardness, any incompatibility, any unmet expectations–these all become a parade of elephants in the room. More than that, this is where you lay all of it out on the line.
Suddenly, hitting the gym four-to-six times a week and giving up white rice no longer seem enough.
After all, it's not just a drunken tryst. It's not even like a day out at the beach with Ken dolls. Fooling around with someone you care about means you show up with all of your scars, flaws, and flab. You hope for acceptance and celebration; you hope for compassion. You hope for consistency.
You hope to all your gods that he's not an asshole.
There's the zen philosophy that the men who don't celebrate your body despite its imperfections are probably being weeded out by the universe. It's in your favor. The universe is acting in your greatest good, well-meaning confidantes might tell you.
But at some point, you have to wonder how many dandelions are you going to pull before you find a damn daffodil?
In "It Gets Better, Unless You're Fat," Louis Peitzman hits the nail on the head:
The truth is, the gay community isn't interested in embracing overweight people because we're a blemish on the image of perfection. And much in the same way progressives as a whole can get away with ignoring anti-fat bigotry, gay men never bother examining the way they treat their overweight brothers. Ignore us or relegate us to the butt of hackneyed jokes: We just don't matter. It doesn't get better for us.
This echoes the points made by Neal as well. A large swath of the gay male community has become so obsessed, so consumed by the idea of fitness that they forget their manners, they forget their compassion, they forget their humanity. And many more are becoming conditioned into thinking this is acceptable.
"You must be this fit to be adored."
Even recent attempts to subvert the media-driven standards of male beauty hinge on presenting anything outside the status quo as borderline camp:
"Weird-shaped" is a strange qualifer isn't it? Everything here hinges so heavily on the idea that men who are not a certain size are somehow "weird-shaped"–it hinges on unsteady perceptions. It hinges on a minority of men dictating what is and is not "weird-shaped"–and rationing love and respect accordingly. It also hinges on how many of us are going to buy into this fucking myth of perfection–and into the idea that we're not perfect as we are.
You are only "weird-shaped" if you buy subscribe to that particular reality. I tend to buy into it when someone I've been dating and I don't work out–and he instead opts for someone else with a better build. By classing myself as "weird-shaped," I create a bittersweet pity party. It's comfortable to hang out in the grotto of self-loathing "weird-shaped" enables. You end up acknowledging that you're not perfect, but that you're under no obligation to change the way you see yourself.
At some point, you end up stepping into the light, though. I have conversations with friends. Everyone has these fears of being perceived as "weird-shaped." We're all weird-shaped, friends!
If everyone is "weird-shaped" then perhaps that beautiful minority of folks who are damning us to "weird-shaped" purgatory themselves are a shape that is not normal. But these are double-standards and we're not here to enforce double-standards but to create the kind of culture where people of all shapes and sizes can love one another, unencumbered by media-driven aesthetics.
At the end of the day, it's about climbing out of that grotto of self-loathing realizing you have to be happy with the lump of fat, muscle, and bone that you are.
This is the only body you've got.
Image via Getty.