They hang from the shoulders, limp and loose, all the way to the knobbly line where the hip joint protrudes. In that empty space, that blank breeziness, the male body is framed: thick lines of abdomen stacked atop one another; the incline plane of the wing muscles sloping into the waist; a peeking curve of pec.
At their best, muscle tees are old, ratty t-shirts that men lift into a second life by sawing off the arms. They become yard work shirts, gym shirts, last-ditch attempts at reclaiming a former t-shirt glory. At their worst, muscle tees are public displays of side-body, intensely performative flashes of private flesh, keyholes into a slick mass of muscle and sweat-caked armpit hair.
Why should I care if they want to play at this vision of manhood? I’m at the local gym, riding the elliptical like a surfboard. I’ve got Rihanna on the playlist and a routine that puts me through my paces. I don’t need to look at men’s armpits, but I am profoundly annoyed that they want to be observed.
What are muscle tees designed to do? Tantalize? Entice? Frame the (buff, jacked, firm, supple) frame? The men who frame themselves this way are specimens, and they know it. Perhaps it’s the showing off that irks me; I am expected to look, and perhaps, to like. Therefore, I am automatically interested in turning elsewhere, in avoiding being told where to place my eyes—and yet it’s hard to avert them when a bro is throwing a medicine ball into the air again and again, the tee dragging from his body like a tattered flag, a loincloth merely masking nipples and spine.
Why should I object to a shirt with large, gaping arm-holes but not to a shirtless man? There is something normalized and inoffensive in a bare chest, something I find occasionally grotesque but most often benign. But muscle tees disgust me, offend my sense of propriety—a sense that, most of the time, I am hardly even aware of having. I was raised to enjoy the body’s proportions, to celebrate its angles, to revel in its quirks and not to turn away from its desires.
These bright, shiny, buffed boys bother me, glancing up to catch my eye and see whether I’ve noticed them (or maybe to check the scores on ESPN on the monitor behind my head). Their muscles tees are not recycled, well-worn cut-offs. They are store-bought and bright, intended as fashion, a mimicry of mature masculinity with a helping of youthful braggadocio. These boys want to be seen as a certain type of man; they are performing this man, who lifts weights and drinks protein shakes and whose body looks like a Michelangelo prigione slowly emerging from the too-bright yellow cotton of his muscle tee.
The gym is a place where the body is primary. For these men, it offers a chance at glory. For me, as a young woman, this is a dangerous priority and so I consciously de-emphasize the public visibility of my body. I wear baggy shirts that fall past my butt. I do not make eye contact. I cocoon into my playlist and, like a child with no object permanence playing peek-a-boo, I pretend to disappear.
I used to belong to a funky gym in my neighborhood called Loprinzi’s. It was at least forty years old and still had its original equipment (including one of those jiggling machines that supposedly shakes the fat off your hips) and its original patrons—old men in short shorts and tough-looking chicks who tended bar, alongside a couple of randoms, like me, who came in to work the creaky old machines. No one was looking at anyone.
When I moved to Hong Kong for graduate school, I left Loprinzi’s behind and joined a shiny gym where I had a personal trainer and become accustomed to nice showers and towel service. On my return to Portland, my husband and I got a couples rate at L.A. Fitness. It was cheap, all the machines worked, and they had saunas that vaguely mimicked the luxury we’d known abroad.
Now that I am pregnant and starting to show, I miss Loprinzi’s. I miss being an oddity among oddballs rather than an impostor at a mainstream gym. My OB told me to work out regularly, but work-outs for pregnancy are gentle: walking, swimming, maybe some prenatal yoga. I do not subscribe to gentle. I gave up rock climbing, but at twenty weeks I still bike to work, eight miles each way, my belly beginning to hang to the crossbar. I ride on a protected bike path, so I don’t interact with cars.
I felt the need mention the bike path. When people learn that I am pregnant and riding a bicycle they ask: Aren’t you worried about a crash? Is that safe? As if I hadn’t considered these questions, too.
We judge pregnant bodies. We judge pregnant women’s choices. We want them to be healthy, secure, safe from harm. They are, after all, no longer simply themselves; their bodies are contributing to the future of society and the future is all of our concern, isn’t it?
Something shifts, and I stop owning my body and my workouts. I stop being invisible. I am suddenly, inevitably, visible. I am the pregnant lady on the stair climber, a symbol rather than a specific person. I cannot hide.
I have so far avoided the most egregious faux pas of pregnancy—strangers reaching out to touch my belly, dudes mansplaining breastfeeding in the grocery store, ladies I’ve never met lecturing me about why I should or shouldn’t get an epidural, use formula, co-sleep, or let my infant watch Game of Thrones. Maybe I’m lucky, or maybe my natural neutrality morphs into a mask of displeasure when faced with another human being not of my immediate kin who seems at all likely to voice their opinion. But I did encounter a form visibility that surprised me, at the public pool where I have started swimming laps, lowering myself into the cool water with the ache of an older woman and then slowly toweling myself dry in the cavernous locker room ringing with shrieks and drippy with tepid spigots.
My interlocutor was maybe eleven, thin and straight as a rail, with hair plastered flat to her head and a towel wrapped around her slender waist in a style I once imitated, and now, too large to try it, envied. My own towel was draped over me like a cape, which did nothing to hide my bump and the fuzz of hair below my navel. She was lounging at the locker next to mine, its door thrown open and blocking my access. When I asked her to close the door, she ran her eyes up and down my naked, swollen body and turned away with a shudder and sneer of disgust. I almost laughed; I’ve never felt more skilled, more womanly, more like my physical form was bent toward an intended purpose than in these last weeks, where I have become achy and awkward but also incredibly joyful. I wanted to say, Kid, talk to me when you start growing boobs. Puberty waits on no uppity girl.
But the experience stuck with me. There was a stark difference between my own experience of my body and the way the preteen at the pool saw me. To myself I was tough, enduring, living through a metamorphosis both difficult and valuable; to her I was distended, protuberant caricature of the female body. I was womanhood monstered.
The girl judged me not as a vessel carrying some inchoate future being whose life, surely, outweighed my own (am I not a mere servant of the sperm?) but in a brand-new way: as a freak. I liked it. It reminded me of being with the oddballs at Loprinzi’s, each of us embracing our bodies for their imperfections and conditionals, and there to exercise not because it mattered what we looked like but because some convocation had been called in which we would sweat out last night’s whiskey and happily ignore each other.
I like being invisible. In a world where women are asked to be conspicuous and specific in their appearance, where we are so often judged and even attacked when we meet (or do not meet) unreasonable standards, invisibility offers safety. Pregnant women, however, are never invisible; we are everyone’s concern. So, barring the possibility of disappearing, for a few months I will enjoy being a beast, a mutant, a harpy singing her deadly lullabies while she sharpens her fingernails.
Which brings me back to my current state, which is at an LA Fitness next to WalMart, whirring on an imaginary Nordic trail toward some snowy glen where Rihanna is, improbably, giving a concert, while the broadcasters above bemoan the state of Richard Sherman’s hamstrings and the buff boys in their muscle tees shudder through their bicep curls, grimacing into the public pain of it. If I am asked to observe them trying on manhood like a mask and climaxing at the bench press with stinky pits agape, then let me match them. Let me wear my belly, the broad protuberant strangeness of it. Let me wear Tiamat, the salty and bitter ocean, the lashing mother’s scorn, for a few months. Let me feel inevitable and furious. Let me look at the muscle-tee clad men and laugh through pointed teeth, through green skin and lips like dry sand. This, too, is a form of pushing-away, perhaps the only form of privacy I have left. Like an amulet, like a freak flag, I can wear the monster’s face.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.