The Tyranny of Buffness

My boyfriend expected me to be lean and muscular. But I couldn't live up to that standard, and neither can a lot of guys--and we shouldn't have to.
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I didn't know I was skinny-fat until my Russian boyfriend told me so. Actually, I didn't even know that was a thing until he told me so.  

I did, however, suspect something was wrong with my body the first night I stayed over his house.

I went to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, and ran into his roommate, Julio. I don't remember what he said, but I remember where he looked. He seemed to direct his entire conversation--and disgust--at my exposed midsection.

Also known as my love handles.

Julio (gay) and my boyfriend both possess the envious V-shape: broad shoulders narrowing down to a waist that hasn't smelled a carb in years. Their arms are huge, their chests are cut, their abs are visibly defined.

I went into the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror. Sure, I was a professional dancer, and I did yoga, and went running, and watched what I ate. And yes, I was probably in pretty good shape. But I didn't look good enough.

The longer I stared at myself, the more I began to notice what it was that made Julio cringe. My chest was dystrophic. My arms were unformed. My neck was frail. Skin hung over the band of my underwear and, on top of that, I was hairy. Everywhere.

I began to panic. This was the first night my boyfriend saw me naked. He had that godlike body to offer me--and all I could give him was ... was this hairy, lovehandley mess of skin?

I went back to the bedroom and turned off every light in the house on my way there. 

***

The tendency of gay men to emphasize physical appearance is "hard to dismiss," says Dr. Duane Duncan, Research Officer at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. In his article "Out of the Closet and Into the Gym," Duncan acknowledges that the idealized male physique is "a major point of cultural reference in the dominant representation of gay men."

"We're doing this to ourselves," says Dr. David Brennan, a clinical social worker from the University of Toronto. "Our entire culture is showing the same body image. And the question is, does that affect us?"

Obviously, this question is politically charged. Anti-gay politicians are more than ready to pathologize any traits gay men may have in common. On the flip side, many gay-rights activists go to great lengths to deny altogether that there are any identifying features of what opponents pejoratively term "the gay lifestyle." In response to this double bind, some researchers have conducted studies to answer the gay body image question. But even then, it seems as if the methodological frameworks underpinning the studies are influenced by one of these political extremes.

Brennan, a gay man himself, insists gay culture's preference for a specific physical ideal does indeed affect those who fall short of the prevailing standards. Some of these negative effects include low self-esteem, eating disorders, and body dysmorphia. Brennan also says some gay men who don't measure up might even develop "an increased use or dependency" on drugs and alcohol.

And even though the research into this area is fairly recent, Brennan suggests the literature we do have shows that gay men on average tend to experience more body dissatisfaction than heterosexual men. (Some research suggests that gay men and straight men share similar concern for their bodies, but because of the pressures of heterosexual society, straight men don't feel comfortable talking about it. In other words, the differences might be more announced than pronounced, which is the argument offered by the authors of The Adonis Complex.)

But while a conclusive decision has yet to be reached, contemporary gay trends certainly lend credence to Brennan's theory.

Take, for instance, Grindr-a gay social networking app that helps you "find gay, bi, curious guys for free near you." Grindr displays thumbnail pictures of potential, um, "friends" organized by their proximity to your immediate location. Users can scroll through several hundred pictures - an assortment of faces, biceps, and abs - until they find the one guy that tickles their fancy.

Senthorun Raj, a writer at The Guardian, recently described his Grindr experience:

Sorting through each profile makes me feel like I'm a kid in an adult candy store: 'window-shopping' my way through, hoping to find the right guy to fit my current mood. ... I'm in control of who I respond to, how quickly I respond, and the nature of the conversation I am having.

The term "window-shopping" immediately jumped out at me. I've gone "shopping" for men in similar ways, both on and offline. Hm ... that one's balding. That one has gay-face. Oh, the one with big shoulders carrying a briefcase down Fifth Avenue--follow him!

In other words, there are times when I act like I'm on Grindr even when I'm not. What's troubling about this is that, without being aware of it, I've helped to perpetuate the same exclusivity that Brennan says "makes some gay men feel left out or without value."

There's no doubt that there are some benefits to Grindr. In a phone interview, Grindr founder and CEO Joel Simkhai said his company "creates a virtual community" for people who might otherwise feel isolated and alone--think the Middle East or the Republican National Convention.

But when you think about some of the language that characterizes the Grindr experience--"No Asians or Fems!"--you've got to wonder about the kind of community that's being created.

***

The tendency to conflate muscularity and masculinity is widespread throughout gay culture, according to Dr. Murray Drummond. In his article "Men's Bodies: Listening to the Voices of Young, Gay Men," Drummond argues that we often take for granted that muscularity signifies both physical and emotional strength. In gay communities, he says, muscle means something very specific - such as "a sense of control ... [and] an air of resilience."

It's easy to begin to psychoanalyze why this might be the case. There are several different theories about gay muscularity, each one less politically correct than the next. Brennan suggests a view most notably argued by A. Klein in a 1993 book titled Little Big Men. After the AIDS crisis, he says, many gay men hit the gym to avoid looking thin and frail, which might have been taken as signs of being diseased. This new drive to achieve an athletic body was described by Drummond as a form of "protest muscularity."

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Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore. He has written for McSweeney's, The Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Baltimore Magazine.

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