Does my bum look skinny in this?

PS Ferns

Author of the YA Fantasy series 'The Element Order'
Choreographer and Artistic director of dance company 'The House of Cards'
Artistic Director and Principle of Akademix dance company and academy

Latest posts by PS Ferns (see all)

I have parked my car and dragged my bag out of the boot, and I am ready for another session at the gym. It’s actually a ball-ache, and not because I’m tired on my fifth session this week.

Neither is it the rigmarole of scanning my little key ring across the turnstile sensor that never works properly, nor the whole pad lock key scenario for the locker that I can never get to because there’s always some old guy taking up three locker spaces.

No, it’s a ball-ache because like every day at this god-forsaken place, I am likely to receive another sarcastic look, or witness a whisper from one meat-head to the other as I push small weights on the chest press in my vest.

You see, I am a 38-year old man with a small frame. I do not have bulging triceps, a mountainous chest, calves like jacket potatoes or a neck that reaches my ear lobes.

Instead I have a ripped, lean body that after my 20th year of workouts I am happy about. I am happy being the size I am, and my workout regime and desire to be slim and athletic is my thing.

But, as I get to my 40th minute on the cross trainer, drenched in sweat and ready to hit the bike for another 10 minutes, I wonder, would another man of my frame be as confident as I am in a room filled with extras from the Jolly Green Giant advert?

It seems nowadays, as a man in non-queer male spaces, I am expected to always be striving to lift that next kilo. Don’t get me wrong, I do lift some small weights, but by the time I complete my final rep, I gently place the weights down instead of throwing them and letting out a colossal grunt. Honestly, mate, if it’s so heavy that you have to make such a performance at the end, maybe it is too heavy for you?

A recent poll about men’s bodies taken by The Guardian showed some worrying results: 63% of men stated their arms or chest were not muscular enough, while 18% were on a high protein diet to increase muscle mass, and only 16% were on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down.

Four in five men talk with anxiety about their bodies, referring to perceived flaws. This number is now larger than statistics on woman. 38% of men would sacrifice a whole year of their life to change their bodies, again a higher proportion than woman.

The first toy I got as a child was an Action Man. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, I had a whole army of them and all were muscular. I don’t remember wanting to look the same as these plastic men – I was more interested in the outfits they had on.

But it’s undeniable that there’s a definite trend for bigger guys at the moment. Look at current media portrayals of men, and heterosexual men in particular. Take, for instance, films like 300, Spider-Man, Superman and X-Men. Virtually every man shown in these films is under 5% body fat. They all look like their clothes have been painted onto their large, muscular frames.

In heterosexual society, the traditional image is of men as the providers, the workers and the protectors. But traditional gender roles are becoming outdated even in the straight world. Woman are (rightly) claiming more and more high-powered jobs, running their own businesses and being the bread winners. Imagining themselves emasculated as a result, many men are seeking to make their bodies look powerful instead.

There might be other factors involved for gay and bi men in particular – desire, fantasy, the sexualisation of the scene – but for both straight and queer men competition also plays a big part in the desire for bigness. Self-esteem is also a major part.

Only yesterday, for instance, my friend was telling me her partner (a man) – who currently has a lower-paid, lower-end job than she does – has recently been advised by his friends that she is more likely to be the provider in the long run. The result of this discussion is that now he increasingly helps her with her regular deliveries by carrying heavy boxes for her up and down the stairs – something he hadn’t done before. It seems insignificant, until you really think about it.

We’re shielded somewhat by the LGBT scene, where there seems to be a bar for most types. But while it appears that many gay and bisexual men are still inclined to go slimmer, and there’s also a welcome acceptance of larger body types at least on the bear scene too, there’s still a trend for bigger bodies that seems to be growing.

When I’m out on the scene with my friends, dressed in my scoop vest and skinny jeans, I used to be surrounded by leaner, skinnier gay men. But now skinny is gradually falling out of favour, and the twinks of yesteryear are becoming the muscle Marys of today – still with a single little finger lifted as they sip a gin and diet tonic. Not a night on the scene goes by without someone’s perfectly shaped biceps hitting me in the face like a stray cricket ball.

Coming out as a gay man is one of the most difficult things to do, but coming out can grant a sense of empowerment and relief that provides self-worth. As a gay man, I don’t feel the need to appear physically strong because, inside, I already feel that. I also think that competition on the scene isn’t always about physical prowess and manliness, but often about sex, style and popularity too, in a way that makes physique alone less important.

I had a conversation with a young man who, for many years, had struggled with constant reminders of his size. Jack is naturally thin and from the onset of puberty has had constant reminders of how skinny he is and that he should try to put on weight.

Advice for Jack even stretched to a lecturer at his college telling him to ditch healthy foods, eat late at night, and not to drink water because it fills your stomach. Taking this advice, he tried it all to no avail.

Eventually, tired of no results, Jack visited the doctor and virtually begged to be checked over for anything serious. The conclusion was that nothing was wrong with him and he should continue his regime of food as it was.

Jack has since come to the conclusion, as I have, that much of society now feels men should be larger and more muscular – but that’s society’s fault, not ours. Nowadays Jack is more than happy with how he looks.

I feel there is a definite difference of mentality between what straight men and gay/bi men perceive as the perfect body. What I have come to realise is that Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme over in the corner, having a chuckle at my tiny frame, maybe have anxieties of their own – what has become known as bigorexia (where someone is never buff enough).

I also have to acknowledge the battles with bodies others have. Even though the larger man can be admired on the bear scene, I have witnessed fat-shaming of others even more than I have witnessed put-downs about my own skinnier body. This, too, is unacceptable. There’s a place for all of us – and all the queer bodies we have, in a variety of shapes and sizes.

With that in mind, it’s off I go, into the showers, a sweaty mess, before I sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, shedding out a few more calories with the knowledge that this is my body – and I’m happy with it.

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