Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is very, very welcome.
“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the usual response when you ask a chap if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.
Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – ‘tanks’, as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants that are so ‘fitted’ they might as well be compression leggings. To paraphrase a well-worn saying: when in the National Exhibition Centre, make a national exhibition of yourself.
The Olympics in Rio are taking up the starting position, and Yorkshire-based Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson has dusted his hands with chalk and mounted his pommel horse to warm up and show off his pecs, tris, tatts, abs and obliques.
Oh, and advertise Hyperflex jeans.
They certainly look very flexible. Though surely there’s a jean-shorts version available? Or perhap a denim thong?
Nile, 20, is not the only UK gymnast to be ‘exploited’ and ‘objectified’ by the rapacious eye of advertising in our body-centred age.
Olympic medallist Louis Smith, 27, a former Strictly contestant and almost as famous for his collection of hair straighteners as his medals, has also been showing us his eye-watering versatility in an ad for Kellogg’s – in his pajama bottoms.
Long gone are the days when cornflakes would save you from self-abuse.
Paradoxically, gymnastics is not just the purest Olympic sport but also the most spornosexual – after all, the word ‘gymnastics’ derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘exercise naked’ (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). The Greeks saw it as the perfect training for war – but also an aesthetic good in itself, informing much of their sculpture. It’s weightlifting where the weight is your own body. Crossfit without the cult – and the beards (mostly).
It also makes for spectacular HD TV – perfect human forms executing perfect gravity-defying movements, and flexing their core muscles in the process. Today’s gymnastics is not so much about preparing for war as stardom. Which can of course be a cut-throat business.
And to that end there’s a whole new generation of male gymnasts who seem very happy to get closer to the original nakedness of gymnastics, many of them sharing semi-naked selfies on social media that show off – sometimes in extreme, saucy close-up – their aesthetic as well as their sporting achievements.
I think we’re going to see a lot more of them this summer.
Dan Keatings’ ring action
Sam Oldham astride his horse
Max Whitlock showing his ‘core’
Nile Wilson & Brinn Bevan buddying up
Even the Rio skyline is aroused by the US male gymnastics team
In the affecting, intimate-yet-professional YouTube clip above, a slightly red-eyed and emotional Tom Daley, the Olympic medal winning British diver and best thing to happen to Speedos since Mark Spitz, says he was misquoted in an interview earlier this year in which he appeared to deny he was gay (albeit insisting he wouldn’t be ashamed if he was). He went on to make an announcement that you have probably already read about.
‘Now I feel ready to talk about my relationships. And come spring my life changed massively when I met someone and they make me feel so safe, happy and everything feels great. And that someone is a guy.’
Cue banner headlines announcing TOM DALEY COMES OUT!!. Millions of really witty Tweets about #TomGayley. And The Daily Telegraph informing us on the front page of their online edition that nineteen-year-old Tom has announced he is a nineteenth century medical classification: ‘homosexual’.
Though in the actual clip rather than people’s overheated minds Tom says no such thing. What he Tom Daley, the person whose sexuality we’re all pronouncing-pouncing on comes out as is: someone dating a man who makes him feel safe and happy.
He also goes on to say: ‘I still fancy girls, of course’. He doesn’t in fact define his sexuality at any point, as gay, straight or even bisexual. That may change. Or it might not. And I’m sure everyone has an opinion on that.
But frankly, it doesn’t matter. Whatever we might like to analyse or gossip or speculate – and I’m guilty of all those vices myself – in the end it’s really not our concern. It’s nineteen-year-old Tom’s concern. For all the crowing yesterday from people who ALWAYS KNEW that Tom was A GAY, currently his sexuality remains officially undefined – even though yes, he does still have pretty eyes a soft voice and a really pert bum.
Tom’s journey is his own to make. And sexuality itself is a journey that doesn’t have to have a final destination. But try telling that to the press. This excellent piece in the Guardianby Nichi Hodgson about the media’s need to label Tom as GAY said it best:
“The only facts that speak for themselves are that Daley is dating a man, and wants to be honest about the fact so the media doesn’t try to make assertions about his personal life and preferences for him. Instead, the only thing that has been outed today is the media’s rigidity – and stupidity – when it comes to reporting on sexuality.”
Perhaps Tom might have been able to tell the world he was dating a guy a bit sooner if the world, straight and gay hadn’t been yelling YOU’RE GAY!!! at him for most of his teens. If we all dialled the gaydar down a little and erred on the side of open-mindedness it would make it a lot easier for guys to be open about their interest in other guys. Or bronzer and Speedos.
Though perhaps that is to miss part of the point of gaydar – that it can be a form of surveillance. A way of policing men’s appearance, gender style and sex lives, even and especially when it’s gay men operating it. It’s a source of constant wonder to me how many gay people for all their pride in their super-accurate long-distance gaydar can’t see the sexual liberation wood for the gay trees.
This is the bit in Tom’s vid that we’re all not hearing:
“In an ideal world I would not be doing this video because it should not matter.”
My American chum Chris Supermarky recommended it to me, thinking it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was nothing less than a revelation. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone of metrosexuality. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.
George Wagner was a baby-faced brunette, pint-sized, somewhat unremarkable 1940s US wrestler who decided he needed a gimmick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turning himself into Gorgeous George, a vain, primping, preening peacock who peroxided his hair, had it meticulously tonsured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wearing flamboyant robes that were outrageous creations of lace and silk and chiffon in mauves and pale pinks, he succeeded in inventing perhaps the most persistent and successful gimmick of the post-war world: The glamorous, decadent, ‘effeminate’ male star.
Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.
Under the shrewd guidance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evidence, aside from his gorgeousness, that George was anything other than heterosexual), who made many of his most daring robes herself, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrestling audience – and thus bookings – was to transgress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for nothing was his favourite slogan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’
The Sensation of the Nation’s pantomime performance of sissyness was a kind of cheating in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, particularly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chiffon and affectation. George was bending the rules and gender.
To help milk his act, and multiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press conferences in local beauty parlours while having his hair marcelled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appropriated by GG fan James Brown) who would snobbishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aristocratic presence. When the referee tried to search George before the match as required by wrestling rules he would recoil offended, shouting ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’
Such were the passions aroused by George’s gorgeousness that his incendiary appearance often led to fights and sometimes mini-riots when incensed members of the public would storm the ring in an indignant fury and try to take him on themselves. The director John Waters recalls watching GG on TV as a kid, spellbound by this apparition of queeniness – while his offended parents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.
Although largely forgotten today, GG was about as famous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself – even making an appearance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros cartoon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of television. Wrestling had been taken up by the early networks as a cheaply-staged way of interesting the masses in this new-fangled gadget. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.
Many claimed to have been influenced by GG (including Bob Dylan of all people) but perhaps his most famous disciple was a young, relatively downbeat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vainglorious, provocative persona – to devastating effect:
‘I made up my mind after [meeting] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me…. I saw fifteen thousand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’
And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘prettiest thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gorgeous. Facially and bodily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not suggesting of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gorgeousness was perhaps more aspirational than Ali’s. Particularly in the latter part of his career George’s appearance puts me in mind of Freud’s famous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’
There was a dark side to all this glamorousness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own publicity and insisted his own children refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the standards of the time and his profession, a hardened drinker. After both his marriages failed he took to drinking even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrestling, and the years – and the boozing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.
By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to novelty fights in which he was billed as forfeiting his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did – submitting to the indignity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a latter day Samson. A great box-office success the first time, this ritual humiliation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even seeing Gorgeous George finally getting what had been coming to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.
When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver disease and heart failure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands during his stunningly successful career had vanished without trace: he was penniless. But family and friends made sure he was given a glamorous send off.
The Human Orchid was dressed in his favourite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was tonsured and pinned one last time and he was exhibited in a highly polished purple casket – before being ‘planted’ in the ground.
While he may have been largely forgotten, George’s glamorous ‘gimmick’ of course took root in the culture, and lives on.
Are men the new women? I’ve always avoided using that line until now. As the (hetero)sexual division of labour and loving and looking continues to fall apart, men are the new everything. Just as women are.
A third said they think about their appearance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. While a Faustian 15% claimed they would happily trade 2-5 years of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. (Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives — when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to go on Big Brother anyway).
Which generally means tits and abs. Men’s main preoccupation, the survey found, was their ‘beer belly’ and lack of muscles, with a whopping 63% saying they thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough. And people never believe me when I tell them that while some women are size queens, all men are.
Clearly a lot of men are gazing avariciously at the flaunted porno pecs and abs of hit TV shows like Jersey/Geordie Shore (Geordie Shore is back for a second season on MTVUK at the end of this month). We already know they’re buying Men’s Health magazine as it became the biggest-selling men’s mag recently. All those tarty, shouty Men’s Health front covers promising BIGGER ARMS! PUMPED PECS! and RIPPED ABS! in a fortnight may be as laughable as they are repetitive, but they’re clearly, lucratively tapping into 21st Century man’s deepest, darkest and beefiest desires.
Men may or may not be the new women, but men’s tits and abs are the new eye candy. Men have become their own High Street Honeys.
They’re also rather bitchy. Apparently 80.7% of the survey respondents talked about their own or others’ appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair or slim frame. It also confirms that men of whatever sexual orientation look rather a lot at each other’s bodies, comparing and contrasting, desiring and detracting.
Dr Philippa Diedrichs of the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE in Bristol who led the survey, described this conversation between men about their bodies as ‘body talk’ (which makes me think of both Olivia Newton John beating up the fatties in ‘Physical’, and also that single from the same era by the incredibly camp dance band Imagination.)
‘Body talk reinforces the unrealistic beauty ideal which reinforces leanness and muscularity. This is traditionally seen as an issue for women but our research shows that men are feeling the pressure to conform too.’
Rosi Prescott, chief executive of Central YMCA which commissioned the research also sees this as ‘damaging’:
‘Historically conversation about your body has been perceived as something women do, but it is clear from this research that men are also guilty of commenting on one another’s bodies; and in many cases this is having a damaging effect. Men’s high levels of body talk were symptomatic of a growing obsession with appearance, she added.
Some three in five men (58.6%) said body talk affected them, usually negatively.’
I’m a bit conflicted here. Probably because as an ‘avid fan’ of the worked-out male body I’m part of the problem. On the one hand I welcome this kind of research and the publicity it’s received because it’s both putting the spotlight on both how much men’s behaviour has changed of late, and also undermining sexist assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’, which many feminists, like lazy stand-ups, buy into. And it’s always good to draw attention to the Patrick Batemanesque dark side of the metrosexual revolution – and its costs.
On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that applying the problematising, pathologising and sometimes Puritanical, dare I say ‘Wolfian’ (as in ‘Naomi’), discourse that’s been used on women’s bodies wholesale to men would be something to welcome. Men aren’t the new women, but they might be the new moral panic.
This ‘body talk’ amongst men isn’t necessarily a sign of ‘guilt’ as was suggested. It might be a healthy honesty. And whilst obviously this kind of critique and competition might push some into anxiety and obsession and self-destructive behaviour, or conformity to rather narrow ideals of male beauty, the generalised, compulsory, traditional self-loathing that existed amongst men before ‘body talk’ and (male) body interest became acceptable was in many ways worse. It was also, remember, ‘normal’.
After all, not wanting to talk about their bodies is part of the reason why men historically have been very reluctant to visit their GP and tend to die much earlier on average than women. Until very recently the male body was simply an instrument that was to be used until the mainspring broke. Barely giving men time to rewind their horribly symbolic retirement clock.
And certainly, men didn’t look at one another’s bodies. Unless they were queer.
Not anymore. Men’s ‘body talk’ has become deafening. On the hit ITV reality series The Only Way is Essex Arge, who is a little on the husky side, was always gazing longingly at Mark (above) and asking how he gets his ‘fit body’ and whether he can help him get one too.
A married squaddie mate who is an occasional gym buddy always subjects my body to a close scrutiny in the changing rooms after our workouts, appreciatively commending, say, my deltoid or tricep development, and mercilessly criticising, say, my forearms’ failure to keep up with them. And my belly’s general miserable flabbiness. Part of me dreads the scrutiny, but another welcomes the frank ‘body talk’ too. I’m glad he gets all Olivia Newton John on my ass. If he didn’t, I might have to pay someone to do it.
Mind you, his wise observation about gym culture to me one day sticks in my mind: “It’s all about ‘ow you look isn’t it, Mark? Nobody really cares whether any of this makes you fit or not. You could be rotten underneath but if you look great no one gives a fook.” He’s right. The metrosexy cult of male beauty is all a bit Dorian Ghey.
Which reminds me, apparently a quarter of the respondents in this survey were gay (well, it was sponsored by the Central YMCA). Of course, some people will hastily seize upon that to disqualify its findings. And while it probably is reason to treat them with at least as much caution as those of any other survey, I’m inclined to see the large sample of gay men included as a sign of this survey’s relevance and inclusiveness. After all, it’s gays that are to blame for the cult of male bloody beauty….
Gays like The Village People. Love it or loathe it, the body-fascist foundations for the metrosexy male culture we’re living in were laid in the early Eighties. And I’m deliriously happy the Central YMCA commissioned this survey as it’s a perfect excuse for me to post (below) my Favourite Music Video of All Time. I suspect it was part of the inspiration for Olivia’s ‘Physical‘ video. (And both were almost certainly inspired by this epic.)
Every frame is a joy, but the Busby Berkeley (or is it Leni Riefensthal?) shot of the swimmers diving one after the other into the pool as if they were perfectly-formed poppies scythed down by the camera’s gaze never fails to send me into paroxysms of delight. For me, it’s always fun to stay at the YMCA.
Which is just as well. In the 21st Century we’re all checked in there. Permanently.