The four of us went to Jacob Riis Park to bask in the weekday sun. Peter had accepted the job at Google in California, and since I was my own boss and neither Bart nor Tyler had day jobs, it meant we could all make Peter’s goodbye as drawn out as possible. As far as I was concerned, he would not be leaving my sight for the next two weeks. “Ew, don’t look at me,” he shrieked as he peeled off his shirt. “I haven’t worked out in months, trying to save money. And, of course, being moderately depressed.” I was in the same boat, staring down at my flatter-and-looser-than-usual chest and somewhat bloated belly. The previous two years I spent building mass seemed wasted on the fact that I had worked out maybe twice since February. We were a sad pair next to the Hollywood heartthrob and his protein-packed boyfriend, who were now both down to speedos and oiling one another. “Screw them,” Peter huffed as he slathered sunscreen across my pale, fuzzy back.

“You’re lucky,” I told Peter. “San Francisco gays don’t care about muscles as much. I mean, they’re all healthy of course. It is San Francisco after all. But in general, their head is in the right place. It’s not about being tight and beefy and untouchable.” “OK, but I don’t want to work out less just because the gay culture doesn’t demand it,” Peter replied. “Sure, I always felt the pressure here to have less than five percent body fat so that my inguinal tendons pop up past my pubes, but isn’t that also what New York has going for it—that it forces us to be the most optimal version of ourselves? I’ve never been out of shape, and since living here, it’s rare if I’m not in great shape.” “Well, the big, simple question,” I said, “Is WHY? We could all just eat oatmeal and run twice a week and be fine. WHY do we care so much about size and bulging muscles?” We looked over to see Bart and Tyler, side by side, holding hands and staring at each other playfully. “It’s sex, isn’t it?” I said. Peter nodded.

“I have never had great sex with someone who cares more about his body than about his intellect. Never,” I said. “That’s a lie,” Peter replied. “You’ve entertained plenty of meatheads solely for the thrill, without any care for their backstory or intellectual opinions.” “Fine fine fine, Peter. But they’re precisely that: sex objects. Anyone I’m going to fall in love with—or anyone I want falling in love with me—is of course going to be healthy, but it’s going to be a healthy mindset about fitness and muscle mass and dieting and what’s actually sustainable. A six pack tells me his priorities are in the wrong place. Nobody actually needs a six-pack stomach, and it just means he’s spending an hour a day doing stupid crunches at the gym simply for show. And half these guys are on dangerous substances. I pity anyone who thinks softball-sized biceps are worth having raisin-sized testicles.”

I recalled Bart from a couple years prior: just out of the closet, slightly pudgy, and less chiseled around the hips and cheeks. He was far less confident. And here he was now, soaking up the sun as his perfectly sculpted, hamburger-shaped pecs sat motionless atop his chest. And he had Tyler—a slightly leaner, much less hairy version of Bart—sprawled out like a payoff for all the hard work at the gym. With social status in mind, however, I wondered if Tyler would even consider dating a less built, less sexually desirable Bart. Their level of fitness required them to stay that way, to play defense over their domain, less they graduate into a doughier dating class. I wished I cared enough—honestly, I wished for that feeling to return—so that I might get back to the gym soon and try to optimize my own physique, if only to exercise deeper confidence in a shallow dating pool.

Similar to any downswing in dating, these breaks from working out also feel rewarding. They’re a mental calibration, the perfect excuse to slack off and question my motives. I always knew I could hit the gym again and eat less chocolate and get more rest and buy some protein bars, and that I probably would do all that within the year—before inevitably losing interest six months later. But these unintentional breaks were reminders: where other men would humble me with their size and prowess and lack of interest in my body, I was forced to question why I would even want to pursue a man with such priorities, seeing as the time and energy and superiority complex required can only steer one away from proper reflection. I wondered how many future versions of myself would laugh that I ever cared so much about muscle, that I equated it to higher worth and hotter encounters. If I have to project any long-term partner from my mind, his body is never his defining trait. He’s got a healthy self-image. He is fit because he knows its importance, and sexy because he believes he is so. I hope that’s where my mind—and body—land too, and for good.

I wanted to get to some sort of mental stasis where I looked disdainfully at muscled bodies, where I felt bad for people who worked out for anything but an endorphin rush or to validate bagels. This would be the truly optimal version of myself. I cursed the circles I ran in that perpetuated my physical insecurities. Even the AA crowd is fit beyond belief—it’s a common anti-drug—and I’d go as far as saying that many of them turned one addiction into another. Bart himself was toeing the line; he had most mornings and afternoons wide open since he worked nights, and it gave him quiet, uninterrupted hours at the gym lately—but who wouldn’t do the same in that scenario? And, since groups of friends are often crafted by physical appearance, would we drift apart as he replaced me for meatier, dopier guys (ones who would not approve of my company since I would bring down their collective hotness)? I hated that I sort of liked the challenge—that I promised myself I would get bulkier just to ensure I wouldn’t lose my other best friend.

I figure it all stems back to that need for validation. Some of us overtly ask for it on our social media channels, while others want it in the form of glances on the train, at the beach, or in a bar—really, we all want the latter. Muscle is a very measurable way of showing that you’ve put effort into something, into becoming “more optimal.” And, with sexual desire being the reward—in our sexually driven community, no less—, it’s hard to deny the benefits of getting bigger, faster, stronger. I could tell you on any given day how confident I am, but this insecurity will always be there, sometimes manifested as muscle and sometimes as love handles. But never as a six pack. Nobody actually needs a six pack.

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