My problems, as they often do, started with Zac Efron. There he was, running around on-screen in Baywatch, a more evolved version of my species, with veins the size of fiber-optic cables and D’Angelo bones that looked like a pair of beachfront cliffs you could build your Malibu dream house on. Next to him flexed The Rock, whose literal Rock-hardness improbably grows with every billion-dollar-grossing flick. I could ignore Dwayne Johnson as a genetic aberration, a six-foot-four mountain of superior genes. But Efron? Outside of his ability to sing, act, and charm his way through awards shows without a shirt on, we were basically the same guy. He was 28 while filming Baywatch. I was 28 while watching it. I was also alarmed. Efron looked like one of those preserved human torsos on display in Bodies…The Exhibition. He looked like Tyler Durden if Tyler Durden had put on a trash bag and trudged across the Sahara for a week. Was this what I was supposed to look like? I have fibrous muscle tissue, too, you know.
I spoke to Gunnar Peterson, trainer of Hollywood bods, to find out if there was an answer to what a half-naked dude should look like. He explained that such a pared-down manscape is the new aesthetic among his clients. “It used to be, men wanted abs and maybe arms,” he said. “Now, really, it’s almost like they don’t care about adding anything; they just want to see what they have.” Peterson says that it comes down to “overall leanness”–erasing your body fat to see what muscles might have been hiding underneath, but “not so big that you can’t run to your car if it starts raining.” He calls it the “capable” body. Capable, mostly, of making you feel bad about yourself.
Listen, I’m glad that men are moving away from the dated, Arnie-inspired “bigger arms make a better man” notion of physical masculinity. I, too, am for guys being able to scratch their backs. It used to be that I – and every other relatively in-shape guy – was about ten pounds and four or five abs away from the hard-body gold standards of my teenage years: Abercrombie & Fitch models; a young Ryan Reynolds in Van Wilder; Usher in his “U Got It Bad” video; or, if I was being really ambitious, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ 50 Cent, swole king of the early Noughties. It’d require a diet overhaul and trading couch time for gym time, but with enough dedication, those bodies were attainable. I could imagine a moment in which I had crunched and curled my way to torso glory.
But as I’ve gotten older and managed to shed some fat, so many other very famous guys have shed more of it, raising the bar on Peterson’s “less is more” ideal. Ryan Reynolds went from in-shape college slacker in Van Wilder to sculpted vampire murderer in Blade: Trinity to a perma-flexed anti-hero in Deadpool. With each successive iteration of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman looks like he’s trimmed so much body fat that by 2017’s Logan his torso could irrigate farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.
This hasn’t been just a superhero phenomenon. Instagram should really be renamed #Fitstagram, packed as it is with men whose body-fat percentage is equal to the milk-fat percentage in my refrigerator. Each season, the Henley-sporting bros cast by The Bachelorette get more and more shrink-wrapped in their own skin. Baywatch’s Efron is merely the most singular distillation of this pathology: The High School Musical pretty boy I came of age with has turned into a walking set of pan-roasted sinews.
Something that made me feel both better and worse: “Unless you are independently wealthy and have no job and can devote everything you have to preparing – and you’re a genetic freak – there’s a very, very slim chance that you will ever look like that,” said Peterson. Freeing, sure. But then, if these bodies are the new ideal, and I’m already doomed to fail… What should I be aiming for? I know I’m not alone in wondering.
I’ve tried turning to those who have rejected their own Efron-ification for inspiration. I’ve appreciated the self-love of the dadbod moment. Witnessed friends fill my social-media feed with their contorted yogi limbs and #namastes. I’m not even sure American GOAT Tom Brady looks good with his shirt off, but I respect his concern with remaining ageless and pliable. These alternatives all look achievable and – perhaps more important – healthy!
But body positivity and rational exercise regimens are no antidote for vanity. My brain knows the Efron Bod is bad, but the dumpy middle- schooler inside me wants to be running shirtless on the beach with all the movie-star guys, goddammit. No matter how I reason with myself about attainability or wellness, I’m served a constant diet of dudes on impossible diets.
The only trick I’ve found to finding some peace in the current landscape of men’s fitness is accepting the tension of living inside that onslaught, to be self-aware enough as I age to accurately locate myself on the seesaw of health and vanity. See the abs, want the abs, then let that desire roll off me like water off Efron’s smooth, rippling torso. Exercise often, but in a way that finds some balance. Make sure I actually enjoy working out. For me, it’s a combination of hot yoga, running and lifting, and constantly overselling the lifting part.
I realise that at some point, no matter how well I’m doing or how great I feel, I’m going to tap on Instagram, or watch Ronaldo strip after a goal, and see a set of muscles I didn’t know I didn’t have but desperately want. And then I’m going to think of Peterson’s words about the “capable” body and remember that, in the ways I need to be, I already am capable – just not of doing the shirtless, American Ninja Warrior-style lifeguarding at which Zac Efron excels. Which is fine. Because no one is paying me millions of dollars to. And because I’m certainly not taking off my shirt.