If you are a gentleman with precarious self-esteem, I suggest that you never live next door to a bodybuilder. Well, my flatmate and I were never sure whether our next-door neighbour was actually a bodybuilder, but he must have been a professional athlete in some sport where they needed massive blokes to crash into one another, because his body was ridiculous and he seemed to be making a lot of money for doing very little besides going to the gym.
My flatmate nicknamed him El Gigantico, but of course we never called him that to his face. If we’d called him anything, it would have been “sir”, because he was huge, big enough to make Jonah Lomu quiver in his rugby boots. He looked like a guy who could kick sand in the faces of the guys who kick sand in the faces of people like me.
We couldn’t stop talking about him, with a combination of awe and pronounced jealousy. It wasn’t just that he was so enormous that we had to turn sideways to pass him in the hall. It wasn’t just that he brought an ever-changing assortment of gorgeous ladies back to his palatial bachelor pad. It was the fact that every time I looked at him, it was like looking into one of those funhouse mirrors that distorts you into the exact opposite. When I looked at him, I saw my own lack of muscle definition reflected back. Every glimpse of his physical splendour felt like a reproach.
When I look at someone like Gigantico, or watch those behemoths going toe to toe in a State of Origin match, or even behold Ryan Gosling with his shirt off in Crazy Stupid Love, in that scene where Emma Stone protested that he looked Photoshopped, I wonder what it would be like to have muscles that were visible instead of hidden shamefully below the surface. To have pecs, biceps, a six-pack. For my stomach to feel firm and toned rather than soggily flabby. And, the holy grail, to be able to wear a tight t-shirt without feeling self-conscious.
We hear a great deal about the problematic ways in which women’s bodies are idealised in the media. But while there’s obviously a difference in degree – as far as I know, fashion mags don’t tend to bother radically Photoshopping men’s bodies, to cite just one example – we blokes aren’t entirely immune to the same pressures. For us, success is defined as being slim, muscular, perhaps lightly tanned, with minimal hair on your body and a full head of hair on your head. In other words, as Brad Pitt. But many Australian men look more like Homer Simpson, with hefty guts, shiny pates and permanent five o’clock shadows. And as funny as he is, nobody aspires to be like him, or even can understand why a hottie like Marge stays with him.
And men’s body image does affect our behaviour. If we think of ourselves as relatively unattractive, we find ourselves deferring to men who are in in better shape, the same way we would have stood aside for the alpha males in caveman times. There’s no way I’d try to compete with Gigantico for a woman, for instance, and not just because he could pulverise me with both hands tied behind his back. I’d simply expect the lady to go for him, because that’s the way the world is. And men are often accused – entirely correctly – of placing too much emphasis on appearance, it’s not exactly a one-way street. I’ve seen internet dating profiles where women specified “Must be in shape”, or “No bald guys”. Harsh, of course, but I guess it saves both parties time.
That said, I don’t think I’d want to become one of those men who sculpt vast rippling upper bodies for their own sake. But I’d be delighted to cultivate a carefree physique that suggested “oh yes, I lead quite the active lifestyle, and these here muscles just cropped up when I was hauling in the mainsheet in the last Sydney to Hobart, or was it when I was rock climbing in the Andes last spring?” In other words, I want muscles, but cooly nonchalant ones.
And this is partly because I’ve seen how our neighbour got to be so Gigantico, and it terrified me. We inspected his apartment when it was up for sale, and were shocked to discover his dozens of vast white plastic tubs with names like Protein Max and Muscle Up and Body Xtreme. I can only assume he siphoned bucketloads of powdery, proteiny gunk into his gullet each day in between his reps of pumping iron. I’m not prepared to make myself a biochemical experiment in order to make my arms resemble a hearty lamb roast. I’d just like to feel slightly more proud of my physique when I look in the mirror.
In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey’s character set himself the goal of looking good naked. That’s a lofty ideal, but at this point, I’ll settle for looking good fully clothed. For the bulges beneath my shirt to suggest that I’m taking care of myself rather than the opposite. And if I can achieve that, perhaps one day my new neighbours will come up with their own cheeky quasi-Spanish nickname for my exquisite physique.
This piece originally appeared in Sunday Life.