BEAUTY IS FLAWED
WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS
I’m increasingly uninterested in the physical upkeep that I’ve heretofore shrugged off as par for the homosexual course. Until recently, gayness, for the most part, has been a crash course in how to buttress myself from the world vis-a-vis the sum of my external parts. If my biceps are big enough, my back broad, perhaps I’ll be safe and desirable. Perhaps I’ll feel comfortable in gay spaces, digital and physical, and perhaps I’ll earn whatever gay trappings are to be gained from a proximity to a lofty physical ideal. The cost, though, of a relentless need to belong and be desired is outsized with diminishing returns, and a near laser-like focus on fitting a predetermined mold has proven a terrible investment.
As I reflect on how I’d like my relationship with my body to improve over the coming year (because it is an ongoing process), I know I need to separate whatever positive affirmation I receive from the world about how I look from the validation I glean from that affirmation. The twin evil of external validation and internal motivation in pursuit of that validation means that as I grow increasingly frustrated with the reduction of my being to the sum of my external parts, I’m equally — if not more — frustrated that I find it so difficult to break that cycle and that I do it to others. It is a frustration and confusion that has found no easy relief over the past year, as I’ve become more acutely aware of the deeply intrusive and transactional way in which we, as a society, find it acceptable to pass comment, judgment and (dis)approval on the bodies of others. What we know of others (their health, value or otherwise) is seldom what we see of them. Nor should it be.
“If my biceps are big enough, my back broad, perhaps I’ll be safe and desirable. Perhaps I’ll feel comfortable in gay spaces, digital and physical, and perhaps I’ll earn whatever gay trappings are to be gained from a proximity to a lofty physical ideal.”
My frustration at the way I’m reduced in public and in private is not mine alone. As Otamere Guobadia said in our conversation for Busy Being Black, “What I look like is not what I have to offer. It cannot be my gift.” For those of us whose bodies have historically been subject to fetishisation and objectification, breaking free from the gaze that continues to measure and value us on the external is not just one of survival but of sanity. Otamere says it best when he says, “I love the cognitive dissonance it requires for people to believe that I am some sort of beautiful, transcendent queer creature and simultaneously not think I’m worthy of protection, resource or kinship. It’s one of the things that rips my mind apart.” I wonder what it is about beauty that might render one both hyper visible and invisible? I wonder what it is about us that allows us to treat each other as objects, not worthy or in need of the protection we ache for ourselves?
As I continue to have conversations with my queer peers about their relationship to their body and how their safety is secured or at-risk because of their external presentation, I’m forced to look more deeply at my own motivations for wanting a gym-fit physique. What I’ve previously understood as an innocuous desire to be fit is deeply rooted in a desire for safety and acceptance. If I look a certain way, if my muscles are big enough, then perhaps I’m just unapproachable enough to be safe in the dark. The pursuit of a physique that ensures safety is one that happens to get me laid and so the validation that comes with admiration and desire proves an intoxicating and highly-motivating elixir to lap up at the beginning of a new year, when the promise of a better future is most heady.
“What I look like is not what I have to offer. It cannot be my gift.”
Whether evidenced by Otamere and a suitably glittering array of queer people or by the muscle queens in the gym preparing for a battle we’ll never really have to fight, our understanding of beauty and what it confers leaves a lot to be desired. As the battle to live our truth in safety continues to wage, it’s clear that beauty, as we know it, is flawed: not only is it propped up by Eurocentric standards, it doesn’t actually point us to what is truly valuable. May your year be full-to-the-brim of moments and people who help you shine, who understand you to be beautiful because you’re exactly as you’re supposed to be.