This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The guy they used on the ad for the Toronto 2018 Labour Bear Weekend has the sort of body I’ve always wanted: Boulder shoulders with arms so pumped they have veins protruding along them like they’re about to pop right through the skin. It’d be cool to have his hairy barrel chest too like some Marvel superhero but unlike the ad, I actually wouldn’t mind a fair-sized gut to go with it, so maybe a retired superhero who now drinks too much. By gay community standards, this would be a “muscle bear,” which is an archetype within the bear subculture.
As a non-bear who’s into bears (typically called a “chaser”), this sort of body would seem to be my ticket to hooking up with one. The problem is, according to one study, bears go after guys who also are heavy and hairy, and are more likely to reject younguns who lack the same sort of girth as themselves. Despite being in my 30s and having a fair amount of body hair (I’m arguably an otter though I defend that I’m more of a wolf), I lack the mass of a bear, which makes hooking up with one that much more difficult… but not impossible. So how does a non-bear like myself fit in and get lucky when venturing into bear country?
I attended the barbecue at Fantasy Farm in Toronto—the final event of the bear weekend—looking for some answers. Weekends like this are the antithesis of big gay circuit festivals be it White Party in Palm Springs, Circuit Festival in Barcelona, or Toronto’s Prism Festival. Based on the advertising for these things, it’s obvious that they cater to young, smooth beaus with zero percent body fat and little or no body hair (though trim, fashionable facial hair still seems to be in vogue). The bear subculture, on the other hand, is a response to the gay community at large; it’s theorized that they’ve altered the meaning of traits that were seen as negative within the larger community like old age and an excess of mass and body hair to something beautiful in order to “contradict ‘superordinate’ gay male subcultures.” Bear bars and events become a place where people who don’t fit into the gay mainstream can mingle, mate, and find camaraderie amongst people like themselves so the idea that bears and non-bears might mix as well as oil and water would make a lot of sense.
The barbecue itself was much quieter than I would’ve imagined with a couple of dozen bears (if that), drinking beers and eating burgers. I met a 28-year old non-bear who’s into bears who didn’t want to use his real name so I’ll call him “Dale.” At bear events in general, he complains that he sticks out like a sore thumb and nobody acknowledges his existence. He’s five-foot-eight and weighs 165 pounds. He’d probably do just fine at a circuit party but it would seem that he’s not really what most guys at the barbecue are looking for.
He has considered doing a single cycle of steroids and struggles with what he cautiously describes as “reverse fat-shaming” (understanding that there are worse things than that). I too have worked to change my physical appearance in order to pick up the sort of guys I’m into: I’ve attempted to bulk up with creatine, have swallowed countless protein shakes, and I still continue to eat more chicken breasts than anybody probably ever should. Genetics (or perhaps a lack of persistence) has kept me from attaining that classic muscle bear, boulder shoulder look. I’ve got a bit bigger, and as I get older and put on involuntary weight, I seem to get a little more attention by some bears but I’m definitely no bear myself. Perhaps though both me and Dale are doing it all wrong.
On one hand, it might appear that we’re shit out of luck since we don’t look the part, but it turns out not to be so. In the same way that there are non-bears who are into bears, Frank Strona, the former managing editor of Bear Magazine who also did a TEDx talk earlier this year about this subculture explains that the inverse can true too: There are bears who are into non-bears. Sometimes it’s just a matter of these guys not realizing that they’re being hit on by non-bears or believe they’re of interest. Strona has fallen into that camp himself where a guy was trying to pick him up but he figured it was a joke. So maybe it’s about non-bears carpe diem-ing a little more and being super clear if they’re interested.
Probably the biggest takeaway in speaking to Strona is the importance of being authentic as well as self-confident when venturing into bear country. He says that when a guy likes who they are and sees the beauty in themselves, they’re likely to be of interest to him. So maybe trying to change my body with weight gainers and protein shakes in order to fit in is totally the wrong tack.
“If someone still shoots you out of the water and you’ve invested all this physical change, what's next?” he asks.
He tells the story of a friend who’d died in June who always liked bigger guys but felt he was too thin: “He invested huge amount of money at working out at the gym and he only saw big, burly, bearish muscle-type guys but he was never happy. He was never happy because he never found what he wanted. In his head what he was looking for didn’t exist. And when he finally found what he wanted, it was all external and there was nothing internal. I think he realized some of that: That he needs more than that.”
The key seems to be not trying to fit, but rather finding a place with people who let you be yourself without having to alter things about you. Following the barbecue I continued to go cruising at bear nights and leather bars that bears frequent. I introduced myself to some bigger, beefy guys, genuinely and with confidence and I was successful. I met a couple of bears who were physically that ideal I had in my mind so on a certain level, which validated everything that Strona was saying.
Something else he said rung true though. With these experiences, it became apparent that chasing after a specific body type, be it bear or whatever, is only ever skin-deep and that attraction and chemistry are based on so much more than just an aesthetic. After you fuck, you’re left with the same questions that you’d have with anybody else: Do we have anything in common? Are they open-minded? Why are they telling me how to trim my beard? And is this guy a total jerk?
The fact is, just because someone looks the part, doesn’t mean that they’re the best person to play the part.
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