Ugly. It’s an ugly word, appropriately enough, but for most of my life if I had ever been forced to choose one that adequately represented my physical appearance this one would have probably been it. I’m not tall and willowy, my hair does not fall in picturesque waves over doe-like eyes and my limbs were forged by the Lord to bear weight, not to curve gracefully. My face, such as it is, has always done an admirable job at keeping the front of my brain warm. This is all that I have ever asked it to do and as far as faces go—minus an unfortunate fainting spell in the parking lot of Ruby Falls, which lead to it meeting the parking lot head to head and leaving a big smear of blood—we have gotten along relatively well in twenty-seven and a half years.
I don’t blame my family, either genetically or psychologically, for any of this. My mother and father are pretty good looking folks and have reassured me, as have various girlfriends throughout my life, that I at least look okay enough that I shouldn’t just go ahead and order an iron mask to wear like the king’s twin brother. Every time somebody says this to me, though, the voice of one of my football coaches snakes into my mind, snarling low and insidious or shrieking like an alarm:
“You! Fat boys! Run! Block for the play and get back to the huddle! No one’s here to watch your fat asses!” Or, if he felt like doing some coaching on the finer points of offensive line technique, “Face and hands! Face and hands! Hit them with your face and hands! You’re not going to lose anything by hitting them with those faces!” Sometimes, if he felt in a particularly jovial mood, we would hear, “The quarterback! Block for the quarterback! People actually want to get to him!” Screwing up, of course, was worst. His screams would devolve into a sort of Angrish, devoid of meaning beyond pure displeasure, “Why the goddamn ass do you do the hate that you do to me!?!? Why the ass fuck butt why, why, why!?!?!” I don’t claim to be unique in any way; I’m pretty sure that everybody who ever played football either played under this nut or someone a lot like him. But it didn’t make him any easier to deal with.
Sometimes, late at night, I try to remember why I played football. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the beautiful camaraderie that develops between men in team situations—I did meet some of my best friends, guys I love, during my time playing—but at other times I’m also reasonably sure that consistent head contact and micro-concussions have caused me to forget why I ever strapped on pads in the first place.
I wore my supposed unattractiveness like plate armor, smooth and impenetrable, until a couple of years ago when I was loading equipment into a friend’s car at my undergraduate alma mater. I call her “Princess Bubblegum,” after the Adventure Time monarch, because of her spunky attitude and penchant for unusual hair colors. She is also, like Peebles, pretty much a mad scientist. The equipment was, as one can imagine for this sort of thing, rather heavy and I felt my back, thighs and shoulders straining. Two of her friends who were gay men (who have since become friends of mine as well) were nearby, helping in a “supervisory capacity.” Though the blood was certainly pumping in my ears, by this point, I did hear one of them mutter a curious phrase. “Woof!” he said, “Look at that muscle bear!”
I put it out of my mind until a few days later when I looked up a video of the shot putter and power lifter, Christian Cantwell, on Youtube. Cantwell, at well over three hundred pounds with a raw bench press of 635 pounds, is a true brute of a man who holds several world and Olympic championship medals. The title of the video was “Big, Woofy Musclebear Throws the Shot Put.” The same phrase that my acquaintance had utter. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”
Since I am good at homework, if nothing else, I began to follow links. A universe of terminology and pictures—much of it on tumblr, that bizarre Waste Land of terror and delight—opened itself to me. Muscle bear, the gateway phrase, cub, otter (like my training partner), muscle bull (like strongman Benedikt Magnusson), woof… my head began to spin. I saw pictures of Jim Wendler, Chad Aichs, Matt Rhodes, pre-weight loss Dave Tate and Vincent Dizenio, made as erotic by creative captioning as any shot of a male fitness model could ever be. A simple truth became apparent to me: there was a world, a gay subculture, where the looks of big, strong men with beards were not only acceptable but were prized.
It didn’t mean as much to me, since I am heterosexual, as it might have meant to a man who was, in fact, himself gay but it did make me feel a lot better. If there were men out there who felt this way about other men then, perhaps, there were women of compatible orientation who might find the same things attractive. Maybe my former girlfriends actually had found me attractive and had gone out with me—at least partially—because of my appearance instead of totally in spite of it. I still wear perceived unattractiveness like an armor, since old habits die hard, but it’s not plate any more, it’s just chain mail, and thank God every day the chain gets a little rustier.