Christian Matyi would like to take his shirt off without you psychoanalyzing him, or projecting onto him your own insecurities. Capiche?
Few things I can do are more politically charged than taking off my shirt.
You see, I belong to a visible minority. And like so many minorities, my presence can be unsettling for those who aren’t “used to my kind.” But unlike those minorities defined by more uncontrollable features (disability, skin color), I chose my minority status.
I am a bodybuilder—and not just some sporty guy with a Gold’s Gym membership who wants to show off his boyish abs. I’m a bodybuilder with a capital “B.” You know the type. I’m a big, muscular guy whose proportions are a little more exaggerated than just your average dude who hits the weights. My back is almost as wide as some doorways, and my leg girth converts “loose fit” into “slim fit.” My measurements confound the suit tailors of the world. Everything I’ve done to my shape in the past seventeen-plus years has put me in a minority class. And, frankly, I’m happy to be there.
Unfortunately, some people don’t share my contentedness. I am often bumped—literally shoulder-checked—in crowded supermarkets and laundromats by hipsters and preppy girls who exude an attitude of, “Oh, I didn’t notice your massive frame directly in front of me! Hope the irony of that doesn’t BUG you, Mr. Big-man.”
People seem to want to talk about my body. Often it’s in a derisive way, akin to when people want to mock a silly tattoo: “And what does that symbol mean to you?” they’ll ask condescendingly. “Which tribe, exactly, does that tribal tattoo represent?”
There’s an undertone of blame to their comments. How dare I make people around me self-conscious about their own form?! No one actually says that aloud, but it’s clear from the tone. I hear everything from, “Well, obviously you want people to talk to you about your body” to “I wouldn’t want to go to a beach with you because I couldn’t enjoy my day.”
Statements like these, from friends and strangers alike, are where it gets political. I try to be courteous, but engaging people about body perception only fires up more heat. It’s as if they want to work through all of their male body issues in a cutesy two-minute interaction. My body is seen as an invite for a unique brand of sound-bite, body-image therapy.
The message that often ends up coming across is a weird, chilling Orwellian dictate: The body of a bodybuilder is not his own—it’s public domain, to be used for debate on issues relating to the body. The choice to be a bodybuilder is a forfeiture of unique perception. The bodybuilder has volunteered to become a tool for pop-psychology chatter.
Many people presume that a guy wouldn’t build his muscles past the point of “fashionably normal” unless he has a massive dent in his psyche. Ironically, that’s often true, but that’s a discussion for a future column. The point is that whenever I take off my shirt—or even wear a tank top—this argument breaks out, and opinions spring forth like geysers.
It’s hard for my size not to show. Dress loose, and I look bigger. Dress tight, and I look… well, you get the idea. I am visibly a bodybuilder, and I can’t hide that. (Nor would I, even if I could.) But should I choose to show a little more muscle—maybe a sleeveless shirt, or (gasp!) no shirt on a hot day—these derisively intoned conversations break out.
When the guy in a Starbucks starts play-acting that I’m going to beat him up if he accidentally cuts me in line, it’s not really a compliment. When the woman at a cash register wants to scold me for buying cheese and ice cream—every time I buy cheese and ice cream—it gets monotonous and obnoxious. It feels belittling, not victorious, when I get teased at the beach—at the beach!—for having visible abs, as if my goal is to intentionally make others feel uncomfortable. No one likes to feel like the villain if they haven’t committed the crime, but it’s enough to make a bodybuilder want to go back to being lazy.
I’m not sure when the heroic male form became such a common enemy. But, unlike real political views, the politics of the body are open topics triggered by the “poor slobs” who dare not dress in bags. I’d always though that if I were to be credited with radicalism, it would have involved exploding buildings, fringe political ideals, and clandestine ransom videos. But, alas, the fastest way for me to upset the American norm is to show up shirtless.