The Tyranny of Buffness

Another motivation might have been to overcome the homophobia--internalized or otherwise--that saw gay men as weaker than their straight counterparts. Yet another opinion is that in the late 1970s, the growing physical strength of gay men mirrored the continued social strength they were achieving.

Of course, these theories don't entirely explain why younger gay men who didn't live through the AIDS crisis or pre-Stonewall homophobia hold the same muscular ideals as our forerunners. Not to mention, does there have to be a psychological reason for gay men to like muscles? 

I was 12 the first time I connected muscularity with gayness. I came across an erotic photography collection by an artist named Tom Bianchi who specializes in the male nude and gay erotica. His subjects are muscular demigods who look very much like my Russian.

Looking at Bianchi's images in seventh grade turned me on. Looking at them today--well, alright, they still turn me on. I also feel pressured to transform my body so that I can be accepted into the community that Bianchi represents.

Bianchi told me in a phone interview that while he doesn't want his photography to pressure me, he hopes it serves to encourage me--and all gay men--to realize our physical potential.

"We have the powers of co-creation," he said. "That's a teaching of the Hindu Vedas. It's remarkable how much power we have to change our physical bodies."

But not all gay men are able to live up to Bianchi's standards, even with a rigorous diet and exercise regiment. Patrick Giles, in a critique of Bianchi published in the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, pointed this out. "What about heredity, somatotype, [or] the greater inherent potential of big-muscled people over the smaller-muscled?"

Giles points out that money is also a factor. According to a 2012 LGBT community survey, a higher percentage of gays than straights pay for gym memberships, personal trainers, and weight management programs. This is great for those who can afford such things--but what about those who can't? There's also the question of motivation. Research shows that gay men tend to take care of their bodies more than straight men. But the same research shows gay men are motivated less by the desire to be healthy, and more "for the express purpose of increasing attractiveness."

But whether we're limited by our genes or our funds, it's clear that not all gay men live up to Bianchi's standards. And the fact is - we shouldn't feel like we have to.

As far as Giles is concerned, beauty acts hierarchically in the gay community. Those who have the resources to "Adonize" their bodies are rewarded with power and influence. Everyone else is excluded--and then blamed for not working harder.

Bianchi admits his photography showcases a certain muscular ideal, but he argues that it's hardly unique to his work, or to gay culture. "Our human ancestors recognized that if a man was strong enough to catch prey, then he was attractive."

"Look at Michelangelo's David," he continued. "Muscles have always been signifiers of the power of being, and that's very attractive to us."

But is it true that male muscularity has always been idealized throughout history? Cultural historian George Mosse argues that Bianchi's ideal man is a relatively new invention. In his book The Image of Man, Mosse dates the idealization of the male physique to the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). That isn't to say Bianchi is wrong, it's just to admit that not all historians agree with the assertion that history shows a ubiquitous privileging of muscularity.

In other words, sure, there's Michelangelo's David--but let's not forget about Donatello's.

***

The Russian put me on a strict diet after our first night together: No carbs or sugar - not even fruit. When waitresses offered me dessert, he would tell them we only wanted the check. He took me to hot yoga a few days a week, and the gym on the other days. And there was no more midnight munching.

In five weeks I lost 30 pounds. One year later, I lost him.

The obvious question is, why did I allow my boyfriend to influence how I saw my body? The simplest answer is that I didn't want to lose him. He was a hot, Jewish doctor from Eastern Europe with green eyes and a gorgeous physique. There were plenty of other "qualified" guys for him to date, and so I thought I should try to make my body look like theirs.

But another part of the the more complicated answer has to do with the larger gay community. It wasn't as if my partner's ideas about body image were unfamiliar to me. If anything, he was only echoing ideals I had already learned and internalized from my gay peers and the media--ones that I sometimes also perpetuated.

I wonder if being publicly concerned about our bodies is as much a gay rite of passage as loving Judy Garland or watching Ab Fab.

***

Before I hung up with Tom Bianchi, I asked him if he ever air-brushed his images.

"If it inhibits the essence of the photography, I'll edit it out," he said. "For instance, I see no reason to memorialize the red spot from an in-grown hair on someone's ass."

That blemish sounds like one of the "dappled things" the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about in "Pied Beauty."

"Glory be to God," sings Hopkins, for all things that are "original, spare, strange," for all things "fickle" and "feckled."

Things like finches' wings, and the spotted underbellies of trout.

Things like love handles, and the extra flap of skin that hangs over my underwear band.

Things like the red spot from an in-grown hair.

Bianchi's art tends toward a Platonic ideal of male beauty. Hopkins, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty found in the diversity of imperfection.

To the photographer, the blemish inhibits a subject's beauty. To the poet, the blemish is what makes him beautiful.

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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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