Perspectives: body image
I (like them) thick, therefore I am

July 1, 2006 Print version       Other articles by this author

(A Comment on Black Gay Male Body Image)

I don't know that I was born gay, but my attraction dates as far back as some of my earliest memories, period. I was raised in the rural South where "diet" might as well have been a cussword, where skinny people got teased, and where it was not uncommon for relatives to want to fatten you up on trips back home. My relatives were neither fat nor skinny, but yam thick, corn fed, and sculpted by farm work and Sunday church dinners. This isn't to suggest that there was no sensibility about obesity, but the standards for body image were markedly different than what I began to notice when I left Arkansas for college. I recall sitting on our front porch, watching the grown men bail hay - their thick muscularity, not defined by any gym, but by the toil and passion of their limbs. So while this is intended to be a commentary about body image among black men who love men, I find it necessary to ground my thoughts about body image in the origins of my desire. I am as much defined by the particularities of my desire as I am by desire itself. That I've seldom found a man under 200 pounds serious eye candy is inextricably linked to my self-concept and the politics of my desire. It's a preference I am as unapologetic about as I am about my preference for black men. Yes, black men of various shapes and sizes are believed to be beautiful, but we'd all be delusional if we didn't own up to certain restrictive notions of what a desirable black gay man should look like: ripped, muscular, not too fat.

I recall being a stocky kid from Arkansas entering college. I was often taken to be a bit older than I was because of how I carried my weight. None of it ever impeded my athleticism; boys in Arkansas could be both thick and agile and I had no complex about my weight - approaching 200 at 5'9 . When I dated women, I thought little of my being a bit thick. Then I experienced my first gay club. There was a definite notion of what was desirable; being 19 and carrying weight like a daddy wasn't what gay men generally found desirable. Young boys especially were supposed to be pretty; and if masculine, should be a six pack carrying thuggish type with little to no body fat. I have never been considered pretty. I didn't desire to have a slim body, nor did I find one anything pretty to look at. It never gave my nature any reason to rise. But I soon let the social norms around gay male body image get to me. I hit the gym hard and doubled the number of dates I could get. This sent a clear message to me. Contrary to what some people suggest about black gay versus white gay social settings, that black boys too have body image issues. Interestingly these seemed heightened among black gay boys where your body functions as a commodity that ultimately marks you as desirable or not. And after so many years of deferring desire or altogether repressing it, "coming out" in the life was not just about finally and freely expressing your desire, but as much about being desirable...by any means necessary.

The hip hop homo aesthetic of the mid to late 90s escalated the obsession with the masculine b-boy body, replete with the six-pack and eye-catching muscularity. One only had to look at flyers from this era and they way they've shaped even current-day black gay social propaganda: masculine but pretty face, six pack, nice chest, bubble-butt, and a nice (genital) print is preferred as well. Though I defied some of the popular "drag" of homiesexuals, preferring a bohemian aesthetic over timbs and FUBU-gear or wifebeaters, my body definitely met the standards of the day. In the late 90s, I walked into gay social scenes with assurance and confidence that I had a look that would keep me desirable: muscular, masculine, and an exemplar of banjee realness.

Something pretty tragic happened moving into the late 90's. It became harder to determine whether my weight loss was the outcome of workouts or something else. I started having symptoms of what I came to recognize later as AIDS. Because I've always carried my weight stocky-like, I thought little of the fact that I'd gotten down to a light 165 lbs. I finally had my six pack, so I thought little of it. But when in a matter of months the symptoms grew more curious, I went to verify what I'd hoped wasn't true. Interestingly, I immediately thought about notions of people with HIV as being "sick", so my workouts took a different turn: I would bulk up and look extra buff so that no one suspected what I most feared would be a marker of my dis/ease and therefore undesirability. In little or no time - in part due to medications that quickly assisted me in getting back to what was probably my normal weight for someone just under 30 - I was a buff 195, a stark contrast to any notions of the "sick" and "dying". Still I was as terrified and anxious as I was when I was negative and wanting to be slim. There was something wrong with me that I had to hide. This was not unlike those closeted years, unwilling to accept that there might be people who might accept me just the way I am.

As I grew more confident and comfortable with my HIV status and got older, I accepted that I'd never been attracted to the image I was so furiously trying to be. And full self-affirmation and self-love would mean accepting the changes in my body - accepting me as effortlessly as I had affirmed the thick bodied, corn-fed men I had always been attracted to. I prefer the "In the House" LL Cool J over the "new and improved" sculpted body. McNabb should be a supersized Mickey D's value meal so that I could do more than simply watch my favorite quarter('s)back. In my post-30 years I've accepted that I'll never have a 32 inch waist and am far too busy and not vain enough to spend enough time in the gym to gain a six pack. I'm simply a daddy-in-training who prefers a bit of thickness on men I cuddle (and then some) with. I am excited about turning 35 or 40 because I think I'll look my best then. There is something sexy about one who accepts that their wisdom and experience might be reflected in a bit of salt and pepper hair or a bit of extra padding on the body. I think it's a rather handsome quality, not unlike those men I watched bail hay as a kid. There was something simply confident about their corn-fed swagger. It's that same swagger that I too want to grow into - an embodiment of the maturity and wisdom I hope to acquire over the years.

It's interesting, but by going back to my original attraction to thick men, everything from the types of social setting or clubs I preferred to who I began to attract changed. I realized that there are many people who, like me, are attracted to a range of body types not represented on black gay flyers and magazines. I'm not here to knock the gym jocks. Because I play lots of basketball and can't gain weight as fast as I'd like, I'm sometimes interestingly mistaken for one. There's absolutely nothing wrong with good health, BUT I think that there have been some sloppy exaggerations about the type of body that is indicative of good health. I hope to not overlook some of the real health challenges that compliment the thickness I seem to fetishize. At the same time I hope to challenge anyone who'd suggest that desirability is limited to a singular body type: young, slim, and pretty. We thick post-30 cats are worthy of being poster boys too! That's the man-calendar I want to create for my house, inspiring my fantasies!

Whatever your size, are you happy with it? And why or why not? If the answer is rooted to the expectations defined by mass media and our culture - goals that push you to self-loathing and depression because you can't seem to cope with the ways your metabolism has changed over the years, you may want to think again. You may want to look in the mirror, whatever your dietary projections and workout objectives, and examine how crucial it is that you like yourself the way you are. You really are a designer gene - unique and priceless. Working out or dieting in the spirit of self-loathing just masks the real problems. They won't go away. In fact, some have a tendency to become all the more insecure with each workout because of their fear of relapse into a body they cannot love and therefore feel others won't.

So am I working on to perfect my summer body so I can show off at shows and special events? You damn right! Do I see beyond this performance to understand that I'm as beautiful right now, several workouts short of what some would desire me to be? Yes! After all, whose body is it? Who has to wake and go to bed with it besides my partner or lover? And at the end of the day what does my evaluation suggest about my self-worth? Brave Souls should at least be willing to ponder the question and the implications. This is some food for thought for the thick brothas and those who adore them. Some food for those who understand that they are someone's flavor, regardless of whether or not the images we are bombarded with daily reflect how they look. There are a variety of black gay men who are beautiful: welcome to the fold.