Like everyone else, I like beautiful things. We each have a slightly different conception of beauty, especially when it comes to the human body: We might disagree over freckles, a beard or the lack of one, or a stomach somewhat more prominent than average. But while we all have our different preferences, we each have a specific standard of beauty in mind that we would like to achieve. One that is, of course, forever out of our own reach. No one holds their own image as the ideal — or at least that’s what I’d like to believe.
That’s why I can’t help but immerse myself in the guilty pleasure of admiring the beauty of others. I used to do it casually, flipping through men’s fashion magazines, deciding which body I’d ask for if a genie appeared in my living room, ready to grant my wish. I was happy to stare at David Gandy posing in a bathing suit; this simple action more than satisfied my needs. But then Instagram came along and sent everything to shit, normalizing my exposure to beauty and transforming a certain kind of hotness that used to feel unusual into something ordinary. Because, fuck, there are a lot of beautiful people in the world.
That's where the trouble starts for someone like me: a gay guy in his thirties starting to feel the pressure that society — especially in a social group that puts a lot of stock into appearances — has over my self-image. Because suddenly I'm the one that's no longer "normal." My rolls of fat aren’t "normal" because I'm not comparing them to the perfectly chiseled stomach of an extremely famous model, but to something a lot closer: the perfectly chiseled stomach of my third-floor neighbor, who I ~casually~ found on Instagram.
My neighbor is a normal guy. He’s around my age, has friends, a boyfriend — who’s also nobody particularly special — and a job that pays more or less what I’m making. He's tremendously normal. Worryingly so. However, he's actually reached a level of beauty I can only aspire to, and this, of course, affects me.
My neighbor’s abs spark the question: Could this have something to do with my age? When I was in my early twenties, ready to conquer the world — I wasn't yet aware that it was going to conquer me — my actual body differed tremendously from the way I pictured it. I looked at my body then the way you look at your partner in the early stages of a relationship — as if they’re the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen. I would have to look at myself in the mirror to realize that no, the perfect skin and toned arms I’d been flaunting on the street to the rhythm of the music on my iPhone were actually just in my head. And that's how it was for many years before I ever imagined an Instagram timeline that would filter pictures of guys "at the gym,” "here suffering," showing off bodies that matched the kind I’d idealized.
In those years, I came out ahead whenever I compared myself with others, because I dealt the cards. My body and I took long walks together eating ice cream. We shared spaghetti dinners, like Lady and the Tramp. We were in love. We took care of everything that we could for each other. Our fights always ended with a hug, and there was always a pat on the back for a job well done.
As they say, ignorance is bliss. My new awareness of all the beauty in the world has underlined all my flaws in red marker. Worst of all, in becoming the painfully real, intrusive version of a men’s fashion magazine, Instagram has robbed me of the innocent act of staring at David Gandy’s picture. It’s taken away one of the most important things that ritual held for me: aspiration. A while ago — not all that long ago, to be honest — I wanted to be David Gandy. I wanted everything that being David Gandy implied: I wanted that body, I wanted that face, his checking account, the attention he received. I wanted the complete package, in every sense, of David Gandy-ness. But now, despite his enviable stomach, I don't want to be my neighbor. Why should I? He's the same as me, flawed. He sings terribly in the shower — I’m much better. The only thing I envy is his looks. And that realization has revealed that my once-healthy relationship with my body is now more like Peggy and Al Bundy on Married With Children: We’ve been together forever, but we hate each other.
Unfairly, the arrival of this simple app, along with some life changes that affected how I took care of my body — settling down with a serious partner, starting a new job that made me sit 10 hours a day and left little time to exercise, in a new city where I had to take the subway instead of walking and went out for food and drinks more often — completely destroyed one of the most important relationships of my life. Now my body and I are jealous of healthier couples ("Did you see? The neighbor went to the gym today too, and you haven't gotten up from this sofa since 1997"). We make false promises, saying everything will return to the way it was before. We feel so much shame.
I know you're thinking that I could've just stopped following these people. That I could've simply uninstalled the app and lived happily in ignorance. That these people who make me feel bad about my body are looking, in some way, for validation in the form of likes that I would've liked to be able to give to myself. That I'm a whiner who simply isn't capable of adapting to modern life and that my relationship with my body couldn’t have been that good if a photo app could shake its foundations.
You wouldn't be wrong. Like when you're sitting on a box of gunpowder, everything is very calm until it isn't. Maybe that Instagram timeline singling out my flaws was simply the spark that made me realize what I’d been leaning on. Perhaps the relationship I had with my body, which I’d previously considered healthy, never actually was, and I’ve simply swung from one extreme to another. Because in reality, it wasn't my timeline singling me out — it was me.
I'll keep swearing each time that I have to like one of those marble-sculpted Greek gods on the app. And I'll continue to look at my belly and feel a little guilty that I’ve paid for a yearlong membership when I’ve never even set foot in the gym. But I'm going to try to stop blaming others for the fact that I can no longer imagine myself with the arms of steel that I’m lacking. Because I don't have them. And that should be perfectly fine.