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."
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.