The year is 2001. I am in a bar, talking to a gay man. He might be trying to pick me up; I can't tell. He takes another sip of his almost-drained drink and looks me up and down. "How old are you?" he asks, with a mouthful of beery spittle.
"I'm 25," I reply. He surveys me again as if looking at a child's finger painting. Finally, he speaks. "If you want a body, you're going to have to get on with it pretty quickly."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your body," he sighs. "You don't have one. You've no shape. By the time you get to 30, it'll be too late. Start going to the gym as soon as you can." He walks away.
If there's one thing you're going to need as a gay man, it's a body. You can try telling me different, but nine times out of 10 you're not going to get much interest from another gay man just because you look as if you read a lot of books. Looks count, even if they are only a beautiful lid on a simmering pot of ugliness, despair, bitterness and venom. Don't believe me? Fire up Grindr, the social networking app launched in 2009 to help gay men to chat, and, if the stars are aligned, to meet each other and 'date'. When I write 'date' in Grindr terms, it usually means the kind of date where two perfect strangers meet up and fuck. Just so you know.
You select your potential partner by browsing a gallery of tiny thumbnail pictures, lined up together like the world's worst mosaic. Users have less than a square centimetre to make an impression, and while most of us need a pretty face to experience the first stirrings of arousal - or at least a half decent face, depending on the time of day, how long it has been since 'the last time' and how many vodka and tonics you've had - many users decide to cut straight to business and get out their best weapon. No, not that, you're not allowed to show that. No, it's the bod, the rack, the torso - buffed, shiny, preened and, nine times out of 10, headless. Yes, these gods are so confident in the appeal of their sculpted trunks that they don't even bother including their face. "I have a body like this," they drawl. "Why on earth would you care what I look like?"
Flicking through these prime cuts of flesh can be a humbling experience. A few brave or fetishised exceptions aside, everyone has everything in the right place. An array of eye-popping guns, perfect pecs, killer abs and broad shoulders awaits you. It pays not to look down at your own torso while you're surveying the merchandise, especially if you're standing next to an open window at the top of a large building. The urge to jump may just be too strong. You wonder to yourself how they have the time to get bodies like this. And why they want one. What's spurred them on to get so ridiculously pumped that any character your torso had has smoothed out of existence by the tyrannical spin class-loving gym bunny within that they never knew was there?
I partially blame that poster. You know the one, the oh-so-sensitive, muscle-bound babyfather, emotionally cooing over the new-born in his arms, while a universe full of women (and gays) swooned at his beach ball-sized biceps. Until then, musclebound bodies were restricted to wrestlers and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sure, there'd be weightlifters in the gym and selected movie stars who were 'built' but everybody else was either weedy or podgy, with only the odd natural Adonis scattered in between.
Watch some television from the 1970s or early 1980s. Glamour sagas like Dallas and Dynasty aside, everybody is fairly average. Potbellies, scrawny legs and, rather upsettingly, funky teeth are the order of the day. Gradually, as Eighties' aspirations began to be more body-focused than wallet-aligned, everyone started to look a little buffer, more toned. The war against podge had begun. Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer ripped off their vests in Top Gun for a slow-mo, trouser-bulging volleyball match and suddenly, every man wanted to be able to disrobe at a moment's notice and not feel ashamed of their tummy.
Some corners of the media held out longer. British soap operas, for example, used to be the last bastion of the ugly. There'd be one token 'phwoar', sure, but everybody else was distinctly average - lumpy, bumpy and boring to know. Shirts would stay reassuringly on. But now those days are gone, and the ugliest and lumpiest of actors are resigned to waiting for the BBC to do another Charles Dickens adaptation so they can play a character part. The younger male stars are all ripped and look like they've just fallen from the pages of the underwear section of the catalogue. They pull off their flimsy cotton Ts at any opportunity, or have scenes conveniently set post-shower, so they can show off their mile-wide chests and xylophone abs. At home, millions of men gulp and resolve to renew that gym membership.
But is it realistic for all of us to acquire this body beautiful? Our 9-5 existences don't usually lend themselves to rigorous, continual exercise, rounds of protein shakes and special eating regimes delivered to our door. Are we chasing the impossible?
I don't want a six-pack, which is handy, as I'm unlikely ever to get one. They look ugly, harsh, as if you don't do anything else except slog at it in the gym to have this alien stomach, which, of course, you are required to show off at any given opportunity. I go to the gym; I've got a 'body', but I've got a real one. There's hardly any fat and a few T-shirt friendly muscles are in attendance, yes, and the tummy's flatter than many men my age, but it's real. It's a body that likes a few beers, has been known to eat badly and likes to go for a run. I can look in the mirror at it and know that it's mine - that it's living along with me and I'm not killing myself to make it look impeccable. And, most importantly, it's not for display. You only get to see it if I really want you to.
So, Grindr galleries, keep your bowling-ball guns and starving stomachs. Work on, if you must, on honing the perfect chest. And knock yourself out when it comes to those abs. Because when those eager eyes tire of looking at faultlessness and uniformity, they'll come looking somewhere else, for something real. And I'll be waiting.
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