I knew I wanted hormones. It wasn’t a question of how or why, but when. Changing your body is scary — and takes time. I could say that taking testosterone was a philosophical, internal conflict for me, but that’d be a lie. I wanted those changes, yes, but for that first year I was scared.
A year after starting hormone therapy, in summer of 2016, I was invited to my first live Rocky Horror Picture Show performance. I didn’t particularly care about the movie: I was very much over finding decent trans media representation. I was even tired of transition narratives — I wanted stories between the middle and end, without treating something as intangible as gender like a finite end goal. Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie ostensibly about straight people discovering a hedonist queer sanctuary, and one scene stuck with me. Halfway through Janet and Brad’s degenerate honeymoon, Rocky Horror himself is revealed in all his naked glory. A twisted, cross-dressing doctor’s creation, he emerges in the sexy sci-fi lab of Dr. Frank N. Furter (famously played by Tim Curry), all pecs and blond hair, and is ceremoniously unwrapped like an andro Aphrodite gift. Frank N. Furter bestows upon Rocky a lovingly wrapped set of exercise weights and promises him an exciting new lease on life — just like when my chest reconstruction surgeon squeezed my shoulders post-op in a mirror, on a freezing Massachusetts morning, and told me all about the merits of a good upper-body weight-lifting regimen to retain muscle mass. The good doctor serenades “I Can Make You a Man” to Rocky, a campy tune all about the unfounded pleasures of his immaculate masculine body. Like that, the unyielding banality of my own transition synced up to the truths of this manic parody.
I love Rocky because he isn’t instructive — his character depends on being told what to do by doctors, what to want, who to want. He’s one of the least threatening characters in this queer playground. I found this gross caricature comforting as, every week, I continued stabbing myself with oily pharmaceutical man-juice. Rocky, despite his seemingly perfect body, has trouble with sex, clothing, and very basic communication. He’s not just male. He’s so hypermasculine he seems to have moved beyond gender. In the closing “Rose Tint My World” sequence, Rocky joins Frank N. Furter, Brad, and Janet in full garter belt, face paint, and corset, diving into a pool for an undulating orgy. Prettied up as his creator, Rocky’s final moments emphasize what he really is: an extreme so extreme you can’t in good faith admit he’s manhood’s platonic ideal.
There’s a word for this, which I discovered deep in the memetic mires of pre-Trump Twitter. Rocky was my first encounter with a “himbo,” the start to a series of over-groomed boys, try-hard men, and flamboyant displays of fictional masculinity I couldn’t rip my newly-opened eyes away from. Over the next few months, I labeled anyone a himbo that radiated enough “powerful himbo energy” on first impression. They didn’t necessarily need to be model-material — what was most important was their naivety, their belief that who they were told to be in life was their inarguable truth. I found them hot, because of their bodies, because of the stark irony of them being built like houses while I knew a body like mine could never, ever be that.
A himbo is a portmanteau of “he” and “bimbo” — a misogynist insult with its own baggage. This is to say, the word himbo may be mildly pejorative. A himbo is, in broad strokes: hypermasculine almost to a fault, not the brightest; oblivious, conventionally attractive; mostly extroverted; and extremely fashionable. He isn’t, generally speaking: excessively hateful, a wimp, or needlessly malicious. The himbo is cheeky and intentionally imprecise. He’s stripped of the power to objectify. In fact, he’s objectified himself. The himbo is a living, high-class mannequin, offering up his own ineptitude and fantastic maleness without anything resembling a sense of direction.
One of the earliest uses of the term was as a noun in a 1988 Washington Post article on the Cannes Film Festival written by Rita Kempley. She briefly described a “macho himbo who strutted the Croisette wearing a 16-foot python-like a stole around his shoulders and neck,” a character that would be right at home in a deeply deviant zoophilic fashion week show. Six years later, in a 1994 article for the Hartford Courant, Susan Campbell declared it the “year of the himbo”:
“Welcome to the Year of the Himbo, the male equivalent of a bimbo. He walks, and he talks (though none too well), but mostly he looks like a million bucks. He is his pecs, his lats or his deep blue eyes. He is an object, ladies and gentlemen, meant only for decoration and a few sexual innuendos.”
Gradually, a phrase used to describe pro-wrestler-Hollywood-groupies became an entire subspecies of intentionally made-up maleness, a shorthand for decorative men who are wanted but do not want for themselves. It’s hopelessly utopian — that there could be such a thing as a desirable object that lacks the power to desire for themselves.
In a 2012 GQ article, Lauren Bans suggested that “a himbo is a man who is more attractive than he is smart. A bimbo with nuts, to put it testicularly.” Bans argues that reading the himbo as a straight phenomenon isn’t as disruptive as some might think:
“The bimbo is forever a curse to women, but the himbo ends up being a male fantasy: You can be an idiot, renounce any obligation to string a decent sentence together or even be a decent person, and still have lots and lots and lots of sex.”
Bans makes it clear that the himbo is, functionally, a convenient trope for men who can’t be articulate but want action. But the himbo can never really belong to the straight male fantasy. He radiates a manic ideal of peak physique, to the point it’s memetic, but like my beloved Rocky he’s moved beyond our imaginations. The himbo’s not just about gratification — he’s proof that even our assumptions about bodies can be pushed further, that our untapped desires can still be more extreme.
The beauty of the himbo is that he’s so versatile, a Swiss Army knife that cuts straight to the hot gooey center of seeming simplification. He is heavily coded and instantly recognizable because of his penchant for exaggeration — he’s Reggie Mantle, Steve Rogers, Goku. The himbo’s a construction, a hyper-caricature of a loveable body. The himbo, despite his ridiculousness, is a new way for us to re-contextualize where we think gender begins and ends in the places we least expect it.
As someone whose body hasn’t felt welcome in gay cruising spaces, much less casual spaces, it’s been difficult acclimating to polite cisgender male society. Trans-masculine people still face serious risk of violence in the very same queer community many try to call home. Loving the cartoonish himbo isn’t a power fantasy, but a form of endearment, a way of loving a body I might realistically never have. I didn’t know if I’d ever find affection after transition, because I didn’t know if my normal was, in reality, everyone else’s most repulsive extreme.
It took me a very long time to accept my body. This year will mark my fifth on testosterone, which is generally considered the time by which the majority of changes due to the hormone will have been completed. Over the past five years, I’ve been increasingly euphoric about my appearance — but those experiences are often coupled with fear and anxiety. Loving yourself is tough. When I started transitioning, there was a very real sense that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to fully embody the stoic, emotionally unavailable, serious male role. But that, I have found, may not suit me.
I love himbos as my most disturbing funhouse reflection. Self-parody isn’t necessarily the cure for self-loathing, but the outlandishness of the himbo is just too right for post-ironic queer culture. And having shockingly survived it all this far, I couldn’t be more ready to finally embrace the himbo with open arms, parody or no.
Blake Planty is a fiction writer and freelancer. His work has been published in Waxwing Magazine, Smoke and Mold, Foglifter Journal, Unwinnable, The Fanzine, and elsewhere. He’s currently writing a novel about weird internet roleplay cults. You can find him on Twitter @_dispossessed and at www.catboy.club.