MY EX-BOYFRIEND was a model. He had biceps the size of oranges, pecs like Superman, and a stomach that shifted into a group of hard,

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Beauty and the Beast

Gay men's body consciousness and the rise of the muscle monster.

MY EX-BOYFRIEND was a model. He had biceps the size of oranges, pecs like Superman, and a stomach that shifted into a group of hard, rectangular mounds when he flexed his abs. Before I ever read Larry Kramer or watched Parting Glances or browsed through www.planetout.com, my ex taught me the importance of having a nice body. And how to get one: Visit the gym five evenings a week. Isolate your muscle groups: chest and biceps Monday, shoulders and legs Wednesday, back and triceps Friday, abs and cardio in between. Eat six small meals a day: Egg whites are good, pasta's bad, sweets aren't an option. Start your morning and end your night with a protein shake. Shaving highlights the muscles.

This Adonis complex has literally shaped gay culture. Why muse upon Michelangelo as gay artist when you're busy trying to look like his David? Unlike men who chanted "gay is good" in the face of bigotry and AIDS during the '70s and '80s, we've learned differently in the '90s. Gay isn't good. Gay is good body. And the gay community has suffered for that belief, becoming just as apathetic and shallow as the broader population.

Odd to think that a few decades ago it was a political act for a gay man to sport a buff body. Trailblazers included Tom of Finland, illustrator of the sexually active, muscled male nude; Bob Mizer, publisher of the beefcake-laden Physique Pictorial; and more than a few boatloads of fit and horny GIs fresh from WWII. Together they sculpted the liberated queer of the '70s. His macho attire and chiseled body—recall the Village People—briefly subverted old stereotypes of the slim-waisted, limp-wristed fairy. He announced that the body is indeed a temple, and that its acts—whether a 10-mile run or a 10-man orgy—are sacred.

For a while, the AIDS crisis gave the Christopher Street clone more to worry about than how his traps looked in the light of the disco ball. But now that AIDS morbidity is down, gay men's muscles have returned with a vengeance.

THE CLONE IS BACK, in denial as ever before. Buffing his body can serve as a coping strategy to deal with prejudice, self-hatred, and childhood trauma. Today's muscle monster might hit the gym to compensate for the dearth of love he received from his disappointed parents, the emotional scars he accumulated as class sissy, or the self-loathing he felt for the skinny body that paled in comparison to that of the studly quarterback he desired. And compared to other remedies (drugs, booze, etc.), pumping iron doesn't seem so harmful.

Now, with parents living states away, classmates long forgotten, and that quarterback crush currently stuck with six kids and a potbelly in the suburbs, the self-made muscle monster is free at last—or is he?

If coming out is a liberation from the hierarchy of the straight world, the muscle monster represents the return to that tyranny. In the gay gym scene, hyper-masculine types rule at the top while nelly weaklings cower at the bottom. Even if a guy manages to join the ber-homos with the help of deadlifts and whey protein, there's always that fear that one missed workout or one pint of Ben & Jerry's will send him hurtling downwards into those old identities he's worked so hard to disavow: fairy, sissy, pansy, faggot.

So who's oppressing whom now?

Moreover, while bodies are obsessively perfected, society remains as ugly and discriminatory as ever. In this way, the gym represents a retreat from politics, marches, and the voting booth.

THE MALE CULT of narcissism also echoes the broader culture of narcissism, where people value material possessions above civil rights. Make no mistake: The bulging muscle is the equivalent of the Tag Heuer watch, the Nokia cell phone, the Gucci sunglasses, the Prada handbag—useless, but beautiful. Our conspicuous consumption has caused virtually every facet of gay culture to become an advertisement for a better body: the posters for our films, the covers of our novels and magazines, the images of our pornography.

Most pernicious, however, is how the never-ending task of aesthetic perfection makes clones of us all, gay or straight. Who has time to develop as an individual when they're so busy trying to look like the buffest guy at the health club? Thoughts of dissent are drowned out by the clatter of weights and barbells.

I recently met my ex-boyfriend for lunch. As he carved into a piece of steak, I told him how I'd come to prefer yoga to weight lifting, how it felt less harsh and more holistic. I asked him if he still worked out so much. With a nod followed by a sigh, he confessed that he couldn't compete with a lot of gay men these days. While they expanded through steroids—prescribed to HIV-positive men to prevent muscle wasting—he'd hit his size ceiling. As I tried to engage him over the latest headlines, he just stared at the piece of broccoli poised on his fork. I could tell he was still thinking about beefing up.

More on male body image: Operation!, a costs/benefits analysis of cosmetic surgery for guys.

 
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