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I'm a Prisoner of the Body Beautiful

Gay images: Even those who know that the sculpted ideal is a manufactured phantom oftenare locked in pursuit of it.

September 29, 1997|DANIEL HARRIS | Daniel Harris is the author of "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture," just published by Hyperion

While fielding questions at a reading I recently gave, I was reduced to sputtering, gaping-mouth speechlessness by a testy member of the audience who asked why an author who spent so much time criticizing the effect of pornography and "gym culture" on gay men should, in his own body and style of dress, be such a shameless "gym bunny."

There I stood in front of a crowd of nearly 100 people, feeling stripped to the bone in my admittedly dated "clone" regalia: combat boots, skin-tight black jeans and a form-fitting T-shirt with sleeves strategically rolled up to expose that extra half-inch of naked biceps. Never before had I felt so incriminated by a statement that, in any other context, I would almost certainly have taken as a compliment, the just reward for all those years of pumping iron and sweating like a pig on the StairMaster. That decade of drudgery and pain was now a liability.

While I was taken off-guard by the frankness of this question, I was impressed by my critic's refusal to accept at face value the work of someone who obviously did not practice what he preached. I answered him as honestly as possible, explaining that I had never set myself above commercial gay culture and that I recognize that I am the embodiment of the physical self-preoccupations that gay men have acquired from absorbing a surfeit of pornographic images--the leering bodybuilders who sprawl spread-eagle on our calendars and the strippers, glistening with oil, who strut down the runways of our fund-raisers.

I criticize the effect of the body beautiful on gay men precisely because I have sacrificed myself on its altar, because I have spent untold hours shaping and sculpting and slaving away to make myself conform to the inflated aesthetic standards of physical beauty that mainstream gay culture practices like the most punishingly prescriptive form of eugenics. Perpetually on starvation diets and at the mercy of weight-lifting regimens and cosmetic gimmicks like Pacific sea kelp and algae astringents, we are imprisoned in our own lifelong fat farm-cum-beauty spa, bowing and scraping before those who exert such a tyrannical effect on our self-image.

The human body was formed in the black lagoon of the gene pool, that primordial soup of mutating chromosomes that produced, not an anatomically perfect specimen, but a craggy compilation of irregularities, of knobby shoulders set askew and spines that twist and turn up scoliastic backs.

Because I have reached a heightened state of self-awareness about the dangers of this psychologically insinuating mirage, I would like to think that I will cease going to the gym and allow gravity to have its way with me, wreaking its havoc, making this sag and that droop. I know, however, that I will never stop exercising. I am doomed to arrive on the dance floor promptly at three o'clock, a haggard essay in the inability to reconcile theory and practice.

But it is wrong to conclude that I am a hypocrite, preaching one thing and doing another. I preach what I have experienced. I rail against the forces that have impaired the quality of my life even as I cycle furiously on my stationary bike, pedaling faster and faster to catch up with a phantom that eludes me, the hour-glass figure of a wasp-waisted man with broad shoulders and massive quads.

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