A Substantial Man

This essay was first published in 2012 on POSKOD.sg

A SUBSTANTIAL MAN: Fat and Gay in a Gym Bunny’s World

There is, to my mind, a gay man’s debutante ball, except it’s quite DIY. Leisurely, at one’s own pace, coming out can be awkward or beautiful, ostentatious or quiet, but it’s a ritual all the same. I was wearing a black shirt, I remember, and I was introduced by my best friend, learned in the ways of gay principalities, to the bars, to the clubs… that district at Tanjong Pagar where men wear tight shorts and hold hands and make out in public, where, in 2008, the air was electric with glances exchanged over traffic crossings, with Top 40s music, with a gurgling of men.

There was for me a sense of breaking through thresholds: between in and out, gay and homosexual, lonely and not, me and you. I’d been gay before 2008, for sure, but that night, I started to learn that being gay works for many people in a much more abstract sense than simply loving men. It’s an energy, a buzzing, silent nomenclature: in Tanjong Pagar, people spoke in clothing, in hairstyles, in the company they kept, in the glances they gave, in the glances they received.

If gayness is a language, it’s a language I’ve never been fluent in. I’ve found that this is because it’s often a language spoken through bodies, and some bodies negotiate it better than others. In a world composed of images, one body in particular rules over it. It is the gym fit body, that perverse paradigm which so commands the gay imagination.

I have a vested interest in saying this, of course. Unlike my otherwise slim friends who complain about their bodies, I am authentically and traditionally fat. It’s being fat which makes me sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, to the power gym bodies seem to have over gay men. Being fat in a world of gym bunnies has meant being stuck on the outskirts of the village for the most part of my 20s, and maybe all of these years of being on the outside looking in have made me disenchanted with the whole gay shebang. Lately, being gay, which had once liberated me, has become a burden again. It’s an ideological, political and emotional struggle against forces in the gay community that are startlingly similar to those I faced growing up in the closet: normalization, discrimination, ignorance, intolerance… which is ironic.

Just what is so arresting about the gym body that no other body can ever be good enough for gay men?

The language of bodies

Gay men are obsessed with fat. The fat body occupies a difficult position in a gay sexual marketplace whose dogma is anti-fat. So much of gay life is a massive inquisition against loose mass: What’s your weight? Do you play sports? Are you fat? How do I burn belly fat? How do I tighten my chest?Where there is fat, it is sought out — never to fuck with, but stared at intently with unease in the hope that it will disappear. The eye is trained to note where the shirt clings to breasts, where love handles spill out, where the face is just one notch too round. Fat makes gay men nervous.

I think the problems that come with being fat and gay stem from the gay rather than the fat end of the equation. For many, to be gay is to play a part, to perform a role, to adopt a look, to put on a hat. It’s a remarkable, collective fabrication of identity, and I think the cult of the gym body has a lot to do with it. This is not to say that every gay man has a gym body, but it’s enough of a phenomenon in urban gay communities everywhere, Singapore included, that I have begun to wonder what it signifies.

There are ways to romanticize the gay gym body. Some have called it a harkening to Greek male beauty, invoking heroic poetry etched out in the lines of the tight, sculpted body. Others attribute its place in the gay imagination to a history of resistance against the debilitating effects of HIV and AIDS, bullying, childhood emasculation, the shame of the closet. A few call it the hallmark of a unique gay way of life, an ethics of the self that sets gay men apart from other men. The discipline of the gym, hardship measured out in reps, is like meditation. The machine-hewn body — carved out for other male eyes — is a symbol of moral excellence and aesthetic perfection.

Whatever the attribution — youth, virility, health, care for the self — most people just see it for what it is: sex. The gay male gym body is not the same as the straight male gym body. It is not built for strength nor for brute maschismo. Streamlined and tight in form, the gay gym body is built for the line, the accent, the pornographic potential of the chest, the ass, the arms, the pleasing masculinity of hard abs and firm shoulders. It takes snapshots of virtual bodies that float in the imaginary — porn, movies, Abercrombie and Fitch — and etches them onto flesh.

Maybe the positive valuation of gym bodies comes from the gay community’s desire to see itself in specific ways. Perhaps just as men battle against their old selves to acquire the requisite pecs and arms (membership badges, if there ever were any, to some kind of exclusive gay club), so does the gay community build a cult around the tight male form as a way to leave behind qualities it would rather not be associated with: weakness, effeminacy, invisibility (for the gym body, bulging tightly from under fabric, calling attention to itself, is nothing if not visible). The gym body is the antidote to the closet. And boy, do we rock it. Posters, films, advertisements… nothing worth promoting in gay circles, not even a gay poetry anthology, seems complete without that body, a place-holder for our collective fixation with whatever it stands for.

But the implication of an entire community galvanized by the gym body is that there seems to be something immoral about leaving one’s body undeveloped. It’s as if not going to the gym, or not working at your body, makes you a bad gay. I suppose this is where my fat body begins to develop its negative meanings. Held against whatever it is the gym fit body represents, could my fatness be read as a sign of my “immorality”? A lack of discipline, laziness, stupidity? In other words, could my fat body indicate to people that I am not doing enough to be a respectable ambassador of the gay community?

And there are sanctions. Not cultivating the body and, in fact, letting it loose — being fat — for the most part seems to negate one’s sexual potential. It’s an easily made observation, and it’s not difficult to be sensitive. Gay dating portals — Grindr is most notorious for this — are full of people who want nothing to do with fat guys, or who phrase it more politely (but who thus discriminate more generally): “gym-fit looking for same”. A gay guy I met once at a party, when I complained to him about my singlehood, looked at me and said, “Aww, honey, it gets better. I had my fat days too,” as if fat draws out the territories between unhappiness and happiness. My best friend phrased it to me more simply: “Your body has changed over the past three years. If you slimmed down, you’d be closer to the gay market standard”.

Then there is that thing, of course, about bear culture. For the uninitiated (and, after all, doesn’t one need to be initiated into beardom?), the gay bear subculture is one that seems to offer a solution to my problems: a community of proudly heavy-set men who love other proudly heavy-set men. But I don’t rate it. It has never really offered me any kind of satisfactory solutions to the problems I’m raising. Where once bear culture may have been an act of resistance against dominant ways of being gay, it has (predictably) evolved its own set of norms. One is not born a bear, one becomes a bear; one puts on a bear costume. It’s an elaborate act of stylized fatness: athleticism, hirsuteness, heft gym-hewn into muscle, close-cropped hair… to me, it’s pitting one narrowly-defined mode of being gay against another, and it doesn’t celebrate fat as much as it finds excuses for it. Bear culture seems to say, “Sure, regular gay men hate fat, but we’re a different kind of gay, we love our fat… as long as it looks like this”. Fat is still in crisis; the fat body as is simply cannot be left alone, it must be tampered with, stylized, made different. Bears don’t wear the gelatinous lipids of poultry and pigs. They wear solid, coal-hard fat, fat which is feral and ursine.

I am what I am?

I comfort myself in thinking that the cult of the gym body reflects the paucity of gay men’s imaginations. It’s their loss, stuck in a rut created by porn and Castro clone culture of the ‘60s. They are the heirs of the Village People, and I’ll pass, thanks. But in response, I’ve been called a drama queen and then told to brush off the injury in respect of people’s “preferences”. I can’t help wondering where these preferences come from. Are they a function of brain chemistry — that ironclad defense — or is it really people being too uncritical and too unimaginative about the things they look for in their sex partners? After all, as I like to believe, in the darkness and intensity of the sexual encounter, isn’t a body a body?

It hit me recently that I shouldn’t have to ask myself these questions. But somehow, I’ve been made to. I think it’s because gym-fit is the gay normal and, for me at least, I’ve had to grapple with the tension between my body and the body that others don’t see in it. I used to be a lot more apologetic about my body when it came to meeting other men, as if I’d done something wrong by not inhabiting a more desirable body. It’s a mindset I’m learning to shirk off not least because it’s very unhealthy, but because I know it’s a mindset that I’ve been forced to take on by people I don’t really care very much about. Nowadays, I try to take it in my stride, though I’m secretly camping out for my 30s when men my age hopefully — hopefully — become less superficial.

Peer pressure, especially when it comes to sex and fitting in, can be very convincing. I haven’t recovered from my hang-ups. I still wish I were lean and tight in the right places, just as much as I wish I could bravely say to guys: “If you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it”. Earlier this year, when someone I wanted a relationship with rejected me because I was “too fat,” I wish I could say that I told him to fuck off instead of attempting to lose the 15kg he suggested was in excess. I wish all these things, but after a while, the rejection really does suck, no matter how strongly I hang on to the principles that are meant to lessen the hurt. The longing to be “normal” mingles unpleasantly with the pleasure of personal integrity.

My experiences have made me petulant and this in turn has made me ask a lot of things about gay Singapore. I’ve asked, for instance, why it is that I’ve experienced so much hurt at the hands of other gay men, under the naïve love-love-joy-joy contract of the rainbow flag. And it’s not just me, ask just about any non-Chinese gay man in Singapore and you’ll get a different, probably more colourful, account of all the racist gay men who trawl the Internet. As a result, I’ve also asked why it is that I can never say “gay community” without scare-quotes. More recently, I’ve started to ask whether or not there’s a slight embarrassment in presenting this fractious, fractured, damaged “community” every year at Pink Dot. Lately, I’ve come to suspect that it is a transgressive love of flesh more than civic mindedness that’s celebrated on those rattan picnic mats. I’m not sure if these are useful questions, nor if there are any answers, but they keep me grounded in a world that actively tries to define my body, my sexuality and my personhood for — and often against — me.

Despite my disappointment, I’m aware that for all the despair and bitterness of being left out, there is, for others, the extreme pleasure, the delirious joy of being named and of being wanted. This is important. It is the joy of Pride, the joy of Camp, the joy of visibility, representation, liberation, equality and respectability. This is also a joy that comes at the expense of that which it negates or climbs over in order to be seen. For every expression of joy, there is someone shunted out of the scene, someone made to feel left out, a kind of mirthless shadow. Recently, for me, this shadow has turned inwards, deeper and deeper. Sometimes the solution is to turn away from the joy of it all — “community” — and huddle around in this shadow. It’s a grumpy, cynical, lonely place, a bit like a closet. But at least it keeps me thinking, it helps me remain who I am, it reminds me of that first promise of coming out, the first flush of wonder at that debutante ball.


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