Link to Mia McKenzie’s article
This week I read an interesting piece by Brandon Ambrosino called “The Tyranny of Buffness“. It explores the seriously high pressure within the ‘gay community’ to acquire a godlike body, and the shame felt when one does not match up to the expected standard. It’s a very real account of anxiety and insecurity – something I can personally relate to. I’m pretty sure I have some form of undiagnosed body dysmorphic disorder – I refuse to wear t-shirts and shorts, and only go to the beach in jeans (though the advice on that website isn’t great – sure, I’ll just “become comfortable” with myself…so easy!).
The buff body, like Ambrosino mentions, is often all about a desirable and visible masculinity. For all the reasons that the article explores – resisting negative stereotypes about being gay, reclaiming and asserting power, consumer-culture attractiveness – buffness seems to have become the order of the day for mainstream (white Western) gayness. Like the article says:
[B]eauty 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.
So much so that national and international “Mr Gay” pageants repeatedly choose ‘representatives for the whole LGBT community’ cut from this buff cloth (really? In a contest where only gay men can enter you’re going to find a representative for lesbian, trans, and queer people too?).
Shameless plug: I wrote an (academic) article about this in South Africa, if you’re interested in reading more.
Although Ambrosino’s article touches on it, I’m struck by the broader social implications that this trend has on being and belonging in the ‘gay community’. Indeed, it’s something I’ve really noticed, coming back to the UK after being away for 3 years: the clear disdain many gay men have for women and those men not masculine/butch enough.
Obviously this isn’t a new realisation: academics have been exploring gay misogyny for decades, and a search of “gay male misogyny” on The Google gives you a good few hundred-thousand hits (including this interesting article).
But what really strikes me is how the rise in ‘buff culture’ seems to go hand in hand with the rise in anti-femininity and anti-effeminacy. I mean it’s really, really noticeable. Like Ambrosino mentions in his post, if you go onto any gay social networking app you’ll find lines like “No camp!” or “No fem guys!” or “Only straight acting!”.
That phrase “straight acting” is incredibly problematic. As Niall Richardson writes,
‘Straight-acting’ is, arguably, one of the most offensive terms of contemporary slang. To be ‘straight-acting’ is to be ‘masculine’ and the term therefore insists on essentialist ideas of gender in which masculinity is perceived as the inherent property of straight men while gay men can only ‘act’ or ‘pretend’ to be masculine.
It implies that acceptance can only be found through ‘acting’ a certain way, and that straight men (the real masculine men!) are beyond reproach for what are their ‘natural’ (non-acted) masculine drives.
Rant aside, buff culture often seems to go hand-in-hand with effeminophobia – the fear of effeminacy. Many gay men I’ve met and interacted with do not feel uncomfortable around other men who are attracted to men, and they do not dismiss guys who identify as gay. So, often their prejudice isn’t defined by the idea of homophobia. Rather, it’s defined by their intolerance towards anything that’s not masculine enough. Anything that’s ‘too feminine’, and anyone who is effeminate.
Historically effeminacy has been merged with gayness (for an interesting exploration of this check out David M. Halperin’s “How to do the history of male homosexuality“). In a culture where men are still perceived to be superior to women, gay men claim power through the privilege afforded to them by society for the prize of their gender. In relation to bodies, Richard Dyer notes that the importance of the body for a gay man lies in its status as a “last-ditch defence against merging with the feminine”. Effeminacy, then, or not being ‘masculine enough’, blurs what society tells us is the natural and obvious divide between men and women. Gay men have a hard enough time being accepted – why do some guys have to be so fem and act like women?! – something I hear far too often.
So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that in a context of increasing gender fluidity, in a context where historical male privilege is (in some places) being dismantled bit-by-bit, in a context of slow steps towards further equality, some men attempt to hang on to their power, embodying misogyny and effeminophobia as they pump iron and expect others to do the same.
Sure, I find muscled bodies attractive. I’ll happily acknowledge that. What I don’t find attractive is the expectation that all men should look as if they spend 2 hours in the gym each day, and that gay men should be butch, disgusted by female bodies, and actively avoid anything that makes them obviously ‘fem’.
What really strikes me is how often this is explicitly expressed in person. On several occasions I’ve met gay men who refuse to go anywhere that’s recognised as a gay space, or who refuse to go to drag shows because they’re “too gay”. Of course this can be for many reasons – a genuine disinterest in performance, bad experiences of places, disinterest in going to pubs… But each time I’ve asked it’s been a manifestation of the same reason: gay men have a bad enough reputation as it is, so we shouldn’t be doing anything which makes us seem anything less than real men. And real men don’t behave like women.
I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I’m sure some argument could be (has been?) made that this sort of attitude often stems from a personal sense of ‘privilege in crisis’ and a sense of social disempowerment. Men are led to believe that masculinity is absolute and attainable. Gay men struggle to be accepted as ‘real men’ by society. Instead of working to recognise the socially constructed ‘nature’ of gender, many try and compensate by clinging to visual markers of masculinity in an effort to prove themselves and show that their masculinity is not in crisis.
But to paraphrase Connell, masculinity can’t be in crisis, because crisis implies stability out-of-sync. Masculinity isn’t – has never been – stable. It’s unattainable because it’s an ‘ideal’. It’s a social construct.
Telling people to acknowledge this is easier said than done, of course. And suggesting it’s as simple as recognising it and moving on is as ridiculous as telling those with body dysmorphic disorder to just “recognise their own value and love themselves” (vomit).
Obviously I’m not implying that all men who gym are misogynistic or effeminophobic. That would be silly. And obviously I’m not suggesting that the only misogynistic or effeminophobic men are those who frequent the gym. But I do have a problem with the culture of buffness that Ambrosino identifies. We should all have a problem with it.
We should have a problem with it because it perpetuates a culture of discrimination and intolerance, using the body as a tool to isolate and project judgement. It perpetuates a wilful ignorance of privilege. It cultivates a ridiculous hierarchy of social and subcultural acceptability and desirability.
So what does that mean? Stop gymming? Of course not. It’s been my resolution for the last *ahem* years to become more active at gym. I think it begins with (gay) men stopping and asking themselves why they buy into buff culture, asking why they expect others to be be a part of this buff culture, and questioning their own reactions to ‘fem guys’ and women.
Some men fire back that “oh, fem guys simply aren’t my type – that’s why I don’t want to interact with them”. Okay…sort of…not really – to a point. It’s rather shallow and absolute, but hey…each to his own. (I’m sure many feminists and queer theorists would gladly offer numerous arguments about the problems of separating attraction from politics…I’m not letting my brain go on that tangent right now).
But I’m not talking about sleeping with men. I think there’s a difference between acknowledging your attractions and recognising your own deep prejudicial and discriminatory behaviour and attitudes (or is there? Hmm, maybe not?). Saying “fem or camp guys just irritate me” (again, heard that one so often) is not okay. That’s prejudice right there, and it’s as unjustified as saying “all gay men are disgusting and carry disease”.
It’s not okay to say “straight acting guys only” on your dating profile. Think before you speak/write, and check your prejudice.
Ultimately it’s about recognising and remembering that privilege is relative, and that oppression and discrimination are still oppression and discrimination.
It’s my high school reunion this year, and people I haven’t spoken to in nearly 10 years are adding me on Facebook and tagging me in photos. It’s made me think about my school years.
Although it ended nearly a decade ago school played an incredible role in shaping my anxieties, strengths, and how I see myself. It’s been a long and sometimes tedious process to reflect on who I was and what I did and what I was exposed to. I think being in the UK, where being a teenager is so drastically different from being a teenager in small-town South Africa in the 2000s, has made me really question how I perceived things ‘back then’ and how certain memories which stick out helped and hindered my own identity.
I began high school (which, in South Africa, is a period of 5 years for ages 13 – 18) at a well-respected all-boys state school. For various reasons I was bullied and victimised and, through much sacrifice on the part of my parents, I was able to move to an all-boys private school. I was bullied and victimised less, and the smaller size of the school allowed me to grow and, to some extent, be an individual. (As a side note, 10 of 12 years of my schooling career were spent at all-boys school. Something to think on in another post, perhaps). On the whole I was able to flourish: by the end of matric (final year) I had acquired academic honours, cultural honours for debating, cultural honours for music, and was deputy-head prefect.
In retrospect, these (in the long term, meaningless) achievements were largely in part due to an absolute dedication to the schooling structure and schooling system. Certainly my work ethic was in part to having two teachers for parents, but it was equally in part due to a complete unwillingness to acknowledge any aspect of my sexuality. I don’t mean acknowledging that I was attracted to men (feelings of which I was aware since the age of 5 – again, another post): I mean, quite plainly, that I refused to acknowledge sexuality at all. Now and then in my final year I would flirt with ambiguous text messages and possible hints to one of my good friends. But for the most part it was good ol’ fashion denial.
I pretended that puberty didn’t exist, I literally refused to say the word “sex”, and I obstinately removed myself from any conversations which were vaguely sexual in nature. I tolerated human sexuality only through academic lenses: I could speak about it in biology, in English (thanks to poetry and prose), in religious education (more on this later), and in history (the reproductive lines of various kings and queens). I’m sure a bout of therapy would reveal all sorts of interesting reasons for this process of burying sexuality: a deeply religious (but balanced and loving) upbringing; small-town mentality; extreme stubbornness…
In many ways I unconsciously made myself as clinical and as asexual as possible. This was ‘complemented’ by an ardent and almost militant adherence to rules: rather than rebel against the rules I flourished under them, much to the annoyance of my peers. I never did anything wrong, and prided myself on never getting into trouble. I was a model student. Indeed, the thought of stepping out of line brought on anxiety attacks (for the first year of school I used to carry around a bottle of herbal anxiety medication. Freud and Foucault would have a field-day with me).
Of course this was a ridiculous approach to life, and left me excluded from many of the discussions and experiences which define teenage years. Everyone else seemed to be aware of my sexuality before I was, as so often seems to be the case. Or rather, everyone else seemed to be willing to acknowledge my sexuality before I was ready to. I was hardly the defining example of assimilation and discretion, mind you: I mean, what 16 year old wears a bright purple jacket and fedora with purple ostrich feather complete with walking stick to their final school dance? It’s practically a scene from Mean Girls. Come on, Damien!
The beauty of retrospect is that I am now obviously able to acknowledge that my clinical approach to life and my pedantic adherence to rules was a warped attempt to somehow ‘fit in’. Although, curiously, I made a point of being an individual by never doing what was expected of me as a teenager – my rebellion took the form of resisting peer-pressure and getting a name as a goody-goody, and at the time I never wanted to fit in. But my love of rules was an effort to find some degree of acceptance, because I ‘knew’ deep down that should anyone ever discover my sexual orientation I would never be accepted. Well, that’s what I thought at that stage. I often wonder, now, how different my high school career would have been, and where I would be today, if only I had had a positive gay or queer role-model at school. Or even if the schooling system had spoken about general queerness. My experiences around gayness, that dark and mystical pathology, were wholly negative.
The context: all-boys Christian school (previously owned by the Catholic Church) with an emphasis on rugby and traditional masculinity, and a headmaster who explicitly and regularly said things like “boys who care about their mothers are creampuffs”, or “real men aren’t sissies”, or “if you want to be a real man you should care about your school, your country, and God”. Aside: school assemblies became hilarious once you realised you only had to watch some of the teachers’ faces during these moments; their attempts to suppress laugher often brought on bouts of stifled leaky-eyed giggling.
Hardly a unique experience on the whole I know, but it did make my own process of self-discovery pretty complex. [Another aside: I really think that being forced to wear a thoroughly Victorian uniform all year round, and not being allowed to have anything other than a military hair cut in an effort to “look like gentlemen” hindered, and continues to hinder, any form of self-expression and exploration…]
Within this context I have five defining memories about sexual orientation in relation to my sense of being and belonging.
Firstly, my best friend at the time (who came out after school) and I were sitting chatting one day when an older student approached us and initiated a very friendly conversation. As things go when young boys are talking, the topic turned to girls. The student asked us if we had ever kissed girls. I replied with a no, much to his horror, and my best friend said “of course I have”. Later, my friend asked why I said no. “Because I haven’t”, I replied (I didn’t see the point – I had no desire to kiss a girl). He frowned at me and said, “Well, neither have I, but sometimes you need to lie if you want to be accepted and you don’t want them to tease you”.
My second memory was after a (compulsory) religious education class. A good friend of mine was a fundamentalist Christian. We made an odd combination, but enjoyed each other’s company and helped each other study. The class discussion turned, I forget how, to homosexuality and the bible. After the class my friend asked me for my thoughts, and I remember quoting a passage (these were during my dark years of attempting to have a religion – beyond that now, thankfully) which mentioned that Jesus doesn’t judge, or something of the sort. He frowned and kept quiet. We moved on to our history class, and my friend asked our history teacher what she thought. She replied that she doesn’t judge people at all, and she felt that no person should. In all my time at school this was the only positive thought about homosexuality shared with me. My history teacher had an incredibly profound impact on me, and years later I would recognise the extent to which she helped me become myself. But naturally my friend wasn’t convinced by this and for the rest of the day he carried around his bible, reading various passages to me.
My third memory relates to my English teacher, to whom I was very close. She was young, and engaging, and the class loved her. She was passionate, and we shared many interests. During one of the school vacations a small group of students and staff took a trip to a national arts festival. The drive back was 12 hours, and – after having seen a production which dealt with bisexuality – she deconstructed the play with me. The outcome of that conversation was “Matthew, you can do anything you want to do, and be anything you want to be, but promise me now you will never be gay.” Being gay was disgusting, unnatural, anti-God, unholy, and a waste of all my potential. “Don’t worry, ma’am,” I said, “I won’t be – I agree with you”.
My fourth memory is of the one gay student I knew. He bravely came out at school. He was a year above me, and I couldn’t stand him. Not because he was gay – just because he was annoying. Personality clashes aside, I remember him being horribly teased. I remember the comments every boy would make as he walked past. I remember the teachers being quiet. I remember the ice being thrown at his head every day. I remember the headmaster not caring, dismissing it as “the boy’s choice to tell everyone about his preferences”. I remember shaking my head at him, and getting irritated, and realising many years later how incredibly difficult his journey must have been.
My final memory is perhaps my most formative. Upon consideration it’s not so much a single memory as it is a collection of memories about a particular individual. The school employed a middle-aged gay man; his stares at the boys were obvious, and his comments to the boys he assumed (correctly, for the most part) were gay were wholly inappropriate – not because of their homosexual nature, but because I am of the opinion that a person in authority should not make sexual remarks about students to other students. It’s an abuse of power: how is a 15 year old boy, with barely a shred of self-confidence in relation to his repressed sexual identity, meant to respond to comments from a teacher-figure along the lines of ‘doesn’t he look amazing in that Speedo? It fits him so well’?
He made inappropriate comments to my friends, who were all too afraid to report him. He made numerous inappropriate comments to me, but I ignored them and dared not question the structure of authority – after all, the structure was good and had made me a prefect, had made me a top academic, hadn’t it? A year after finishing school, through a series of events and my sense to use social networks discerningly, it transpired that on two separate occasions he posed as a 19 year old online to try and solicit personal information and pictures from 17/18 year old me. I caught him out, but never confronted him. As the only openly gay man I was exposed to as a teenager he did impart one shred of wisdom: in many ways he showed me the type of gay man, indeed the type of person, I never wanted to be.
School was a strange time for me. I left wanting to study genetics, but decided I was more passionate about law and so switched faculties at the last possible moment. As life happened I became more interested in gender and culture, and here I am today – wholly more confident with my identity and sexuality, but still unpacking the implications of my schooling years. Despite the undoubtedly negative impact it had on my sexual identity development, school had some extremely positive effects on my growth. I learnt how to be independent and sceptical.
School is one of those things for which I feel equal affection and rage. It’s bizarre to watch coming-of-age films today, or read contemporary novels, and try and place myself in those contexts. It’s such a different landscape, in so many ways. Of course many students have it far worse than I: I never seriously contemplated suicide, and was never so severely bullied, and always had a strong family support structure. I’m incredibly grateful for the educative experience of school, but I’m not sure whether I’d call my school years happy or fond – I really became myself after school.
It’s the 10 year anniversary of my class this year. Evidently my class mates have very different memories of school, and many are excited about being reunited. I, for one, am glad that school is behind me.