By Nicholas Byrne
There are times in my life where I lose all minor self-confidence and feel like a Danny Tanner in a world full of Uncle Jesses. One of these times was today at the gym. During “arm day” I thought I was beginning to see some progress – until I walked past a couple of 6’2” homosexuals with watermelons for biceps. Both were sporting a barely there tank top and high top Adidas, and I couldn’t help but to mentally regress back to my emaciated teenage self in comparison. They evoked the cool, testosteronic seniors in high school, and I was just the feeble freshman. As I creepily gawked at them from a far my incessant fear that I’ll never be as big as some of the other men out there, or even come close to, reinstated itself. As I looked at their arms, and then looked down at mine I couldn’t help but wonder, what if I’ll always have tennis balls for biceps despite my rigorous and meticulous efforts?
Normally, I would self-sooth by noticing that the men I’m comparing myself to are a few years older than me, if not older. I’ve been using this comparative technique since I started working out. When I was 20 and if I saw someone in better shape than myself I concluded that they had to be at least 28. When I was 22 they had to be at least 32. It was usually true, they usually were older, and that gave me the false security that in time I too could be as muscular as them. I convinced myself that they had been working out longer than me, or perhaps when I got to be their age my metabolism would slow down or one day I would just wake up and be massive – like a second puberty would take place. This proved to be effective up until today.
When I walked past the 2 men I over heard one of them ask the other how old he was. When I heard the response I almost tripped over my own feet. He was 23 – merely just a fetus, but a fetus with bulging biceps and engorged pectorals. As the news penetrated through my ears I realized that there was a foil in my plan. I had become older than the muscle Gods that I so enviously worship. I became overwhelmingly consumed with questions and concerns: What if I’ll always be 6-feet-tall and 155 pounds? What if I never get as big as them? What if this is my physical limit? I took a glance in the mirror and couldn’t help but to identify with that little boy in Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” music video. Alone in his bedroom trying so desperately to be something he’s not. (See above for extremely specific pop culture reference)
It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, no. I know there are people out there who have to battle much more difficult and life altering challenges than this. But when I’m constantly met with the gay community desiring “masc” or “masculine” or “straight-acting” ideologies, I can’t help but to feel like I fall short to their expectations, and to the narcissist in me, that is the worst thing in the world.
In terms of expectations I’m not just speaking sexually, but also socially. And not just in the gay community, but in society in general. As I find myself knee-deep in my mid-20s I can’t help but to still feel like a teenager. Sure, I’m immature, lazy and I’ve been coddled since the day I was born, and I’m sure these characteristics promote this embryonic frame of mind, but physically I don’t always feel like a “man,” because physically I don’t fit the societal expectation of what a “man” should look like.
I would kill to know what it feels like to be able to walk around with MUSCLES – to know what it feels like to fill out a shirt, not because it’s a size too small, but because I have the body for it. To walk into a room or down the street and feel like a man, to evoke unsolicited intimidation amongst those whose gaze I come across. And although I’ve made progress since my high school days, lately I can’t help but to fear that I’ve reached my physical plateau. That I’ll never reach my goal, because for my physical body type, it just isn’t possible. And today, as I walked past the 23-year-old who exemplified everything that is “manly” I couldn’t help but to feel like a sub par boy in comparison.
I remember during my childhood *NSYNC had debuted a wonderful little love ballad entitled, God Must Have Spent. I must have been 8 at the time and I remember thinking, if God spends extra time perfecting other people, is it plausible to assume that sometimes he does a rush job on others? Like if he takes the time out for this one girl, perhaps with me, for example, he just kind of threw a bunch of ideas together and set me out for delivery. It was the only way I could account for my bulbous head, twig-like arms, hollow bird-like bones, high-pitched voice and zombie hands. It’s as if he blindly reached into a grab bag of physical features and then he said, “Voila, I’m done!”
I can’t say all of my childhood was affected by my unique features, it wasn’t until the age of 12 or so, early adolescence, that others and I began to really keen in on what was going on with my body. Even today, when I describe myself sometimes I reflect back on that self-description and can’t help but to notice that it’s as if I’m describing a mutant. It’s like I’m a mutant, without any of the cool aspects of being a mutant. No superpower, just physical characteristics that clearly label me in society as “abnormal looking.”
When I was in junior high school I began to get made fun of due to my scrawny physique. It’s one thing to be a female and be tall and skinny, but it can be different for a male. Not only was I skinny, I was pathetically puny. People used to call me bulimia boy (not the most creative name, but I gave them credit for attempting alliteration.) During this time I once over heard my Aunt Jackie talking to my mother about dieting. She reprimanded my mother for eating before bed which is when I learned that the later you eat, the more weight you retain. So 12-year-old me concluded that if I ate right before bed, I would cut down on physical activity after eating, and hopefully not burn off as many calories.
Not only would I eat, I would binge, and not only would I binge, I would cringe binge. Cringe binge is when you binge on cringe worthy “food” items. Raw eggs because Rocky did it, and who didn’t want a body like that? I would consume up to 6 raw eggs in a sitting. I wouldn’t even whisk them; I would just swallow them whole. I could literally feel them go down my throat, whole yoke, by whole yoke, sliding through my esophagus. I would eat spoonfuls of mayonnaise for it’s high fat content, and stuff myself with slices amongst slices of wonder bread. There was no rhyme to the reason, just mass consumption of anything fatty or high in protein. Next was usually a half a jar of peanut butter, as long as it wasn’t chunky, because even during this desperate time I still upheld that standard. Raw egg and mayonnaise by the spoonful was tolerable, but chunky peanut butter? Unfathomable. My plan then was to always just go to bed, not move, just go to bed and let it all set in. However, every now and then I would vomit it all up. Not on purpose, it was never self-induced – just involuntarily, my stomach would naturally reject my buffet-concoction. As it came out from my stomach and into the toilet bowl I felt like a failure. All of that time and energy spent on ingesting awful foods, and for what?
When that failed, another ploy to bulk up was to just wear layers of shirts. I remember wearing 3 Han’s t-shirts under everything in order to create the illusion of mass beneath my clothing. This only lasted for one winter, until springtime came, and I realized I was sweating profusely more than I was fooling anyone that I had gained weight.
After years of trying to fit in during junior high school and high school, and infinite attempts to appear “straight” or to bulk-up, I thought “coming out” and moving to New York City was going to be one of the biggest reliefs of my life. No more cringe bingeing and no more multiple layers of t-shirts, I could just exist. I thought I was going to be met with such camaraderie and brotherhood within the gay community. I thought for once I would be able to be comfortable in my own body. Yet, I still found myself trying to appear to be “straight looking,” I still felt the awkward high school desperation of trying to fit in and impress other people, perhaps even more so. Because in high school the jocks hung out with the jocks, and if you were good at a certain sport or you were able to crush a beer can against your forehead, or have sex with a bunch of girls, you were in. But no one ever said you had to do those things. Where as in the adult gay community people out right tell you that you have to be straight acting, or you have to be masculine. Of course this brings up the question of what defines “straight acting” and “gay acting” and “masculine” and “effeminate,” but based on what society has deemed “masculine,” I just don’t fit the bill, physically.
With this pressure I soon realized that in order to fit in I was going to have to change something. As I got older, like early 20s older, I still didn’t begin to grow into my body. So that’s when I began working out, viciously. It seems unfair that there are certain individuals who can go to the gym and within a week they have muscles, due to their natural mass or the frame of their body. However, I can spend 6 days a week in the gym, eat my weight in synthetic protein powder, and just barely border on passing as a normally built young man. I spent 4 years of my life trying to be accepted amongst the jocks in my high school locker room, and now almost 8 years later, I find myself doing the same thing except now the locker room is located in the East Village and we’re adults.
Although it’s hard for me to feel like a “man” or even identify as “manly” because I still look and feel so boy-like, I have to accept that there’s a possibility that I might not ever be 185 pounds of pure muscle. And although not reaching that goal may not be perceived as “masculine” and my body type might not translate to “straight,” I know I’m just going to have to accept that, and be proud of the strides and progress that I’ve made thus far. I’ll continue to work out, and I’ll continue to participate in a healthy lifestyle, but I can’t continue to feel like any less of a man due to my natural physique or due to the pressures of the community that I live in. And even though at times I may feel like a Danny Tanner in comparison to all of the Uncle Jesse’s out there, I can seek comfort in the irrefutable facts that Danny Tanner was funny, and personable, and kept a really, really clean home.
Read more of Nicholas' work here and follow him on isntagram @nicholasjulianb