‘Aye heroine! So sexy you are, my my!’ is what I heard someone affectionately call his 10-year-old cousin. Creepy, right? The cousin was a boy, Vinay, who had the softest skin, the shrillest voice and the most luscious lashes. God, I envied that kid, while I nursed a pimple on my upper lip. His shirt hung loosely on him, his legs were scrawny and he had all his hair neatly swept to the right. ‘Sexy’ was his public brand because he was slender in shape, had a grace in his gait and his general presentation was considered ‘girly’. His older cousin would heckle ‘Aye heroine!’ on the streets, during family gatherings, during their tête-à-tête, on the pretext of being funny.
‘It’s just a joke yaar, he knows I love him. Stop taking it so seriously.’
Well, the joke proceeded to develop in its levels after Vinay’s voice hadn’t cracked at 13 and there was no sight of thin strands to decorate his face. It appeared as though he had failed the interview of burgeoning into a man and everybody else was getting ahead of him in this race. His parents laughed at the jokes, his aunts and uncles joined in on the fun; even his 17-year-old brother used his deep, hoarse, ‘manly’ laughter to validate this apparent hilarity.
Vinay was academically brilliant, he played cricket with his friends, he helped his mother in cleaning the kitchen every night and he enjoyed watching films. Sylvester Stallone was his Zeus and Rocky Balboa was his visual Bible. He looked at the poster of Stallone above his bed, his clean muscles, the anger under his nose, the trickle of sweat on his forehead and his physical attributes that made him the magnum opus. Then he looked at himself and hated what he saw. No biceps appeared when he flexed, there was no jawline that could cut glass, no masculine strength in his grunt and no abs for him to count. He detested who he was growing to be and learnt that he had no control over it.
Attractiveness is like spice to our personalities. We’re bland without it and we are the most desired at the buffet with it. It’s how we start conversations with strangers, make lasting friendships, fall in love, even fall out of love. It’s also how one chooses who they want to be like and who qualifies to be a role model. With body shaming as the norm in the name of a joke and a plummeting self-esteem, it’s only natural to aspire for change. Men are represented as muscular demigods in the media and characterized in an exclusive compartment of perfection. I don’t even know if there are more fingers in my hands or more men represented with a variety of bodies, skin tones, with body hair, baldness, scars and stretch marks.
17, still as skinny but with a new voice and a shadow above his lip, Vinay felt less dissatisfied by his friend in the mirror. But with no hair to grace his chest, he began to question if he was ever going to be ‘man enough’. What a conflicting world this was, where thrusting their oiled, shaven abs whilst wearing a construction helmet was desirable and manly, but the betrayal of his hormones that led to a clean chest was ‘sexy lady like’.
The media is an illusion of authenticity and feeding these unresolved insecurities with unrealistic definitions of bodily perfection leads men to have transactional relationships with their bodies. The strong men with the well-toned bodies and 8 pack abs are the only ones that find love, while fat man is the jester who runs into a wall, the petite man is the gangster’s sidekick and the man with a scar is a villain with a disability.
Vinay began to have a strong dislike for his brother because he was tall; and he believed that it was because he was tall and could use shaving cream that he had a beautiful girlfriend, while he struggled to smile at his classroom crush – who also happened to be a tall, muscular, beautiful man a.k.a unattainable.
I see young boys uploading pictures of their bulged muscles with captions like ‘The worst thing you can be is average.’ Hey, an average is beautiful! The lack of representation provides a lack of choice. Young boys who see ripped bodies as the only pinnacle of self-satisfaction and achievement have only seen one body type that’s admired, that stands for respect, achievement and the utmost depiction of masculinity. Fitness is important, but there is inadequate education on what constitutes as healthy and how two bodies are never the same; leaving them with a damaged self-esteem when their goals become unachievable.
The ego lives inside all of us, but the curse of gender socialization is that men are never educated on the possession of emotions and the normalcy of expression; leaving the ego as a swamp for insecurities that breed, form a civilization and lead to crippling anxiety, dissatisfaction and unrecognized sadness. Even the custody of insecurities is viewed as a form of weakness and that’s a jewel in the patriarchy’s crown.
The truth is, irrespective of gender, we’re all having similar experiences, hating the rolls on our backs and wishing for more girth around our calves, ambitious to be in the 5% minority that we see on a screen, trying that new diet by a nutritionist who claims that everything we’ve done so far has done more harm than good. Yes, welcome to this boat. You too, Vinay. You’re invited here, bring your friends along too, so we can drink beers that pool inside our stomachs without shame, throw away the weights that didn’t live up to their claims, and admire each other’s effort to love their naked bodies, a little more, every day.