Zac Efron - There he was, running around on-screen in Baywatch, a more evolved version of my species, with veins the size of fibre-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. 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?
Gunnar Peterson, trainer of Hollywood bods, 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, we are glad that men are moving away from the dated, Arnie-inspired “bigger arms make a better man” notion of physical masculinity. It used to be 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”. It'd require a diet overhaul and trading couch time for gym time, but with enough dedication, those bodies were attainable. We could imagine a moment in which we had crunched and curled our way to torso glory.
But as we'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 antihero 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 your 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.