Body fascism is a term referring to arrogance displayed by men who feel their bodies are more beautiful than those of other men. In Gay folk speech, body fascism is often associated with members of the Circuit community.
The roots of body fascism go back to physical culture, a movement by health enthusiasts to promote exercise for men and women in the late 1800s. Physical culture presented the muscular male body as a work of art worthy of admiration. Greco-Roman statues were seen as the ideal for men to emulate, thus giving physical culture an air of antiquity and tradition.
The physical culture movement marked the shift away from understanding muscles as utilitarian and repellant (as in its potential to harm those who got too close) to aesthetic and attractive. But physical culture was ostensibly not a means for expressing same-sex desire. The possibility of homoerotic attraction was countered, at least in theory, by an ethos of muscularity-as-health that included proper diet, sobriety, and sexual chastity. At the same time, muscles on a man were deemed good for self-esteem, as they could gain a man the non-erotic admiration of other men and the erotic attention of beautiful women.
Magazines promoting physical culture were constantly under surveillance by government censors that suspected they were thinly-veiled erotica for homosexual men, and indeed many such magazines (called beefcake magazines) were just that. Beefcake magazines filled with pictures of muscular men posing almost naked were distributed in many industrialized nations. The heteronormal frame of all but the most blatantly homoerotic magazines enforced the understanding that the muscle man must necessarily be Straight.
In the 1950s and 1960s, bodybuilding, beach culture, and comic books brought the image of muscular male bodies-as-desirable into everyday American life. From there, Hollywood movies spread the aesthetic around the world. Bodybuilding was different from physical culture in that the muscular body was no longer associated with sobriety and chastity. It had in fact become its own sport.
In the following decades, the Greco-Roman ideal would be replaced with hugeness, the idea that bigger was better, as body builders used steroids to amass larger and larger amounts of muscle with less and less body fat. Like physical culture, bodybuilding as a means for realizing the masculine ideal remained strictly heteronormal in context.
From Trade to Clone
Prior to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and Gay Liberation, the association of muscle with Straightness was prevalent in much of Gay male society. Many Gay men felt that the iconic object of desire was the rugged, masculine, muscular, and dominant Straight man (also known as trade or rough trade). Much of this attitude had to do with a sense of shame and self-hatred that homosexual men inflicted upon themselves.
After Stonewall in 1969, the Gay community began to publicly stand up for itself as a people. A different model of erotic masculinity emerged called the clone, a mustached, physically fit, and masculine Gay man who openly sought as much sex as possible with other Gay men like himself. The erotic ideal shifted so that masculine and muscular Gay men could be objects of desire, but only within strict boundaries of aesthetic expression. Obsession with having just the right clothing, physical build, haircut, and masculine bearing resulted in a social divide between effeminate men and the clones. Gay scholars often liken this phase as something akin to communal adolescence, since most Gay men had not been allowed to explore their own masculinity as real men until they had reached adulthood.
The dance floor became a major stage for displaying the body. Not long after the first fundraiser dances were thrown by early Gay Liberation organizations, it became a regular custom in Gay men’s dance spaces to take one’s shirt off. Initially, this may have been simply because of excessive heat due to the unexpected influx of so many people in those venues that first opened their doors to exclusively Gay clientele. The erotic charge of seeing so many bare-chested men in one place was an added thrill that was liberating, enticing, and intimidating. In time, certain venues such as the Flamingo and the Saint in Manhattan, New York would cater to physically beautiful men, and those less-than-beautiful men with enough money and intoxicants to gain the attention of the beautiful.
AIDS and Steroids
When the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1980s, the central place of erotic desire and multiple sex partners that accompanied Gay Liberation shifted dramatically to survival, activism, caring for the sick, and memorials for the dead. By the early 1990s, increasingly successful protocols for treating those who had AIDS were developed, which included the use of steroids to help them with muscle loss. This led to a surge of steroid use within the Gay male community at large, most visibly manifested once more on the dance floor during Circuit parties, many of which were AIDS fundraisers.
This also generated a clandestine network of controlled substance partnerships between Straight bodybuilders and Gay men, regardless of HIV status, as muscles became a vital accessory for the display of the Gay male body on the dance floor, beach, and bar. Drugs in question were not limited to steroids, but also included recreational drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, crystal methamphedamine, and GHB.
Strippers, Go-Go Boys, and Circuit Boys
In the Gay male club scene, the use of money to mediate a temporary relationship between the scantily-clothed go-go boys (also known as dick dancers, men hired to dance) and the customers that tip them creates an amicable environment where any man, regardless of personal features, can flirt with a handsome man on stage, bar, or dance box. A similar but often more intense temporary relationship occurs with strippers.
At a dance club or Circuit event, however, the environment may be one where tipping is not an option. The Circuit provides a frame for the performance of masculinity as a means for attracting other men, and that performance can be very competitive. Many well-built and beautiful men search exclusively for other men they feel are physically beautiful enough to deserve their attention. They may purposely look past an admirer that does not pass muster, and deliver a scowl or say an unkind word if approached. The dynamics of a Circuit party can be such that an unspoken ranking among participants can set in, and social barriers are set up to the extent that the dance floor may become ghettoized into sections that are not only reserved for only the right kind of muscular bodies, but also desired racial and age characteristics.
Nevertheless, body fascism can be undermined with the performance of muscle camp, exaggerated effeminate performance by muscular men in the Circuit community who mock the seriousness that many men feel they must project in their performance of masculinity.
Johnson, Benjamin Franklin. Physical Culture. Richmond, VA: B.F. Johnson, 1900.
Lewis, Lynette and Michael W. Ross. A Select Body: The Gay Dance Party Subculture and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. London: Cassell, 1995.
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.