|I can't count yet. Do they look like 6?|
In 2019, our lives are ruled by meaningless “likes,” Pete Davidson is PDA-ing hard with Kate Beckinsale, and if you’re a gay man, you still face a number of superficial and inane guidelines that, if crossed, would merit shame or ostracizing. For starters, you must be infatuated with Robyn. You also have to possess very strong feelings about Call Me by Your Name, and if you read the book first, it’s a rule that you make that very clear to everyone you’ve ever met. And perhaps the biggest gay guideline that reigns supreme, the one the culture seems to agree on, the most important one of all: You must, must, must, MUST have a perfect six-pack. If your six-pack is anything other than perfect in every way, shape, and form, you might as well start wearing baggy T-shirts and move into a cave.
That’s how it feels, anyway. It’s like washboard abs have morphed into the barometer that determines whether or not one is truly hot and, with that in mind, is a gauge to tell if one is worthy of your attention, love, and—oh yeah—sex. Since the dawn of time, or at least since the beginning of modern gay culture (and the sexualization of men across orientations, while we’re at it), the six-pack has been the Holy Grail of fitness. If there was ever a gay Moses, he surely held up a stone tablet stating that having a rockin’ six-pack was a sexual commandment.
We’re the generation that grew up with Abercrombie and Calvin Klein models, and while Abercrombie has since literally fallen out of fashion, Klein’s most recent ad campaign spotlights gay catnip Shawn Mendes, with his chiseled bare stomach rippling on billboards around the world. Every issue of any fitness magazine has some variation of the words “Get” and “Abs” and “Now.” All of Zac Efron’s movies feature at least one scene in which the actor removes his shirt, even in the recent trailer for a movie in which he plays the serial killer Ted Bundy. We can all agree that the best part of any superhero movie isn’t the explosions, it's when the lead hero changes into his superhero spandex. Even in artistic depictions of Jesus Christ himself when he’s on the cross literally being crucified, we see the Son of God with a perfect six-pack. Every which way we turn, it’s beaten into our heads. Abs: good and godly. And gay men seem to be most affected by the cultural view of male beauty.
What’s the result of all of this abdominal fixation? It means a never-ending quest for a taut stomach that may as well lead some to bring a cot and a toaster into the gym, since tons of us practically reside there already. In uniforms of Nike high socks and Airpods, we’re all sweating away, kicking our legs up like we just dropped PCP and strapping weights to our chests like some self-induced Game of Thrones–style torture technique. The wheat industry has to be in a tailspin, because nobody even nibbles on bad carbs anymore. A gulp of air counts as dessert. Party!
From there, dating apps like Grindr aren’t filled with headshots but instead amount to scrolling grids of torsos. It’s a clichéd facet of gay dating by now, but ruminate on the weight of that thought for a second: In this twisted world, someone’s actual face has become a secondary body part, and sometimes even a complete afterthought. It all almost amounts to a gay episode of The Twilight Zone, where faces don’t exist and everyone speaks out of their navels. (Jordan Peele, you may take this idea.)
The insanity of this mental culture perfectly crystalized for me last summer during a delightful day at the beach with some friends of mine. At least, it should have been delightful, since some of them started dieting weeks and months beforehand for this very moment. As we were all quote-unquote relaxing, I found myself adjusting in my chair so my lower stomach wouldn’t protrude as much as I could help it. But when I looked around, other guys were doing the exact same thing, even the leaner ones who I assumed wouldn’t have a care in the world about how they looked. On top of it all, everyone was only worried about their own stomachs. Like in an inverted episode of Judge Judy, we were only judging ourselves. (Insert Lady Gaga’s guttural “Shallow” scream here.)
Even the fittest guys have body issues, and that isn’t hyperbole. Searching for answers to my abdominal conundrums, I did what anyone searching for answers would do: Googled “ab issues,” which was stupid. Then I spoke to Ian Holloway, an associate professor at UCLA who specializes in LGBTQ health and well-being. “I see both gay individuals and couples, and for 90 percent of my clients, body-image issues are at the top of the list of things they struggle with,” explains Holloway, who also has a private practice in West Hollywood (the epicenter of the six-pack madness if ever there was one). “The vast majority of my clients, despite what their external appearance might be, whether they have a six-pack or not, wrestle with this ideal image of themselves.”
So how, then, are we supposed to rise above it all? “Well, I help guys define what's ideal or acceptable for them, and how that lines up with what's attainable for them.” In other words, do what’s right for you, not what’s right for Shawn Mendes. “It’s important for guys to get a clear idea of what's attainable and realistic and work towards that, as opposed to trying to achieve the impossible ideal we're bombarded with.”
Adjusting expectations and maintaining personal happiness is easier said than done. At least we can agree this gay six-pack fantasy that surrounds us on all sides takes it all a bit too far. Will I ever have a phenomenally rigid, deeply defined, wildly tight, insanely solid, sculpted-by-the-gods, Mark Wahlberg–resembling, underwear-model-worthy, bulging and muscular, intricately carved, professionally chiseled, wildly shredded, totally fatless, definitely chubless, righteously rippled, abdominally perfect, super jacked, lean, blessed, #blessed, yolked, yerked (okay, I made that one up), expertly cut six-pack? Probably not. And that’s just fine by me.
Originally posted on GQ