|Proportional Study of Man in the Manner of Vitruvius (ca. 1487), a pen-and-ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.|
| Survival of the fittest
Living under body fascism in Los Angeles' gay ghetto
Marcello is an outgoing man, with striking brown eyes and an infectious smile. He is also a go-go dancer. On selected nights, he can be found dancing on a box at Micky's, a gay club in West Hollywood, California, with the spotlight on him--or rather, on his body. He starts out in a pair of basketball shorts. Then the shorts come off, and he’s down to only a thong.
Considering his line of work, it's not surprising that Marcello takes excellent care of his body. He works out religiously and has the goods to show for it: big biceps, chiseled pecs, and a six-pack stomach. Besides for the professional benefits, having a muscular body makes him feel good. "I would hate it if I weren't in shape," says Marcello, who asked to be called only by his first name because he is an aspiring actor. "It means I'm lazy, that I let myself down. I would be ashamed for not taking care of myself."
But there's another reason that having a good body matters to Marcello. He lives in West Hollywood, a predominantly gay neighborhood in Los Angeles. And the hierarchy in "WeHo," as it is affectionately dubbed by its residents, is simple: Beautiful and buff men like Marcello stand at the top; lesser, less muscular, mortals are somewhere below--and preferably out of sight.
WeHo reflects a national trend in gay culture. Take a look at almost any gay magazine. Out, The Advocate, Genre--more than likely, you'll find a young hunk gracing the cover, in the latest multi-colored neon Speedo. Critics have a term for this fixation on physique: body fascism. It involves a meticulous attention to fitness and physical attractiveness that is more often associated with straight women--though emerging research shows that it afflicts gay men just as much.
Heterosexual men love the female form, and gay men are no different when it comes to appreciation of the male form. But in gay neighborhoods like WeHo, it seems that body image is taken to another level. Gay men like Marcello feel they must become "gym rats"--habitual users of their health clubs--or they won't be attractive. According to some experts, this is because gay men historically have found their havens in places that happen to emphasize physical appearance, such as bars, gyms, and sex clubs. Others say that gay men are simply reacting to the negative stereotypes of limp-wristed, reed-thin gay men that pervade straight society. Preoccupation with muscles has become a way of relieving fears about their masculinity.
Just how much does body image matter to gay men? We interviewed three residents of WeHo to find out. Body fascism is pervasive in this gay community, we learned--and whether that's good or bad depends on where you stand. Besides the Marcellos of WeHo, there are also the Peter Dragons and Justin McKinleys--men of decent or better looks, but bodies that do not fit the Adonis mold. If gym culture means health consciousness and chic style to some, others in the gay community find it a source of anxiety and even alienation.
Survival of the fittest