“Why don’t I have the perfect body?” The continuous and complex issue of body image among cisgender gay men
[Note to readers: In this article, all references to ‘gay men’ apply to cisgender gay men]
“I believe that in the gay community there is an unspoken hierarchy of attractiveness. Our experiences with other gay men depend on where we rank in the hierarchy. As gay men, we tend to measure ourselves, those we desire and those who desire us against certain ideals of attractiveness. The young, lean, muscular, smooth, white, cisgender (non-trans) male body is over-represented in media and accepted as the most attractive. This ideal body is not just a physical type – it is also a manifestation of the abstract ‘masculinity.’ Think: Abercrombie model, action movie superhero, pop star, athlete. You get the picture.” (Frank Colosimo, former Program Coordinator at Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, a national charity promoting human rights based on gender identity and sexual orientation)
The focus of a majority of discussions regarding negative body image and eating disorders is on cisgeder women and girls. An often-overlooked fact is that men also suffer from these issues, with cisgender gay men being particularly vulnerable. Gay men face tremendous pressures due to the impossible benchmarks of perfection set by the media – they have to compete with portrayals of ultra-fit and muscular men who flaunt six-pack abs. Even advertisements targeted at gay men depict models with well-toned and chiseled bodies, something which many of them will find impossible to compete with. Gay men’s desire to emulate these standards of perfection often induce negative feelings towards their body and physical appearance.
Gay men with body image issues are more susceptible to issues such as eating disorders and unhealthy practices
Gay men, particularly those perceived as feminine (femme gays or ‘fems’) and those who are chubby/fat (‘fats’), face a high level of ridicule, discrimination and even ostracism. This behavior towards gay men who are not ‘perfect’ in their physical appearance often leads to feelings of inferiority and hopelessness. To cope with the stigma, such individuals often develop an obsession with their physical appearance. The desirability quotient in the gay community is very high – men who epitomize masculinity (‘masc’ gays) are considered most appealing. Gay dating apps such as Grindr further perpetuate the stereotyping of gay men into ‘masc’ and ‘fems’.
Signs of body image issues in gay men are similar to those observed in the case of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Overweight or chubby gay men try to overcome body image issues by dieting excessively, misusing laxatives and weight-loss supplements, or bingeing and purging (overeating followed by self-induced vomiting). Since weight-loss or diet supplements are unlicensed and not regulated in the same way as pharmaceuticals, they are prone to being misused and are extremely dangerous. Although many of these supplements promise instant results, various studies have associated their use with several health issues including cardiovascular disease, kidney and liver damage, and rectal bleeding.
At the other extreme are lanky gay men who try to ‘beef up’ by following a punishing exercise regimen and overly using anabolic-androgenic steroids. Such practices may lead to the development of muscle dysmorphia (also known as bigorexia), which is the opposite of anorexia nervosa. It can cause significantly adverse health issues such as stress fractures and rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle which releases myoglobin in the bloodstream. Excessive myoglobin can cause kidney damage). The use of anabolic steroids can adversely impact the cardiovascular, endocrine and nervous systems; it is also correlated with an increased risk of death.
Negative body image leads to avoidance of sex and relationship issues
A fallout of negative body image is its detrimental impact on relationships and sexual activity. Due to preconceived notions regarding the ideal body type, gay men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies leads to the avoidance of sexual activity and, in the worst-case scenario, causes relationship issues. Such individuals often find it uncomfortable to undress in front of partners or show certain parts of their body during sex. The pressure to adhere to stereotypes of a perfect body creeps into existing relationships as well, causing distress which can have far-reaching consequences.
A bigger issue with body image is that the goalposts keep shifting. Social media and dating apps have a very important role to play in this. Instagram, in particular, has gained notoriety for setting toxic traps for users on its platform. Having a good body is no longer enough; it now has to be the best body. This becomes a never-ending cycle of comparisons and the race to equal or better them. Sometimes, an individual’s metabolism will not allow for any further gain or loss of weight or muscle mass; yet, the desire to reach a stereotypical ideal forces them to pursue risky practices which have been described above.
The desire to be attractive and appeal to the right audience (typically sexy, handsome men) can prompt gay men to take extreme steps in the form of cosmetic surgery procedures such as abdominoplasty (tummy tuck), liposuction and silicone implants. Like other surgical procedures, cosmetic surgery is prone to risks and is expensive. In some cases, cosmetic surgery has gone horribly wrong, leaving permanent scars which aggravate body image issues instead of overcoming them.
Talk to someone. It helps.
Sometimes, gay men develop negative perceptions about their appearance even when there is no need for them to do so. A key reason could be low self-esteem resulting from homophobia perpetuated by a largely heteronormative society. The urge to fit in and not be an object of ridicule or discrimination can pave the way for extreme measures. Talking to friends or volunteers in support groups can be a great way to open up about body image issues and derive emotional support. Psychological help, if it is available and can be afforded, is recommended in extreme cases.
Use social media and dating apps in a manner that they leave a positive impact on you. Analyze your usage and try to steer away, as much as possible, from images or people who induce negative emotions with regard to your body. The LGBTQ community comprises several people who can be role models for attributes other than good looks or perfect bodies; follow them and let their positive influences rub off on you. And understand social media employs marketing gimmicks to trap you; learn how to identify and stay clear of them.
Surrounding yourself with people who love you is extremely helpful. However, a more difficult path is accepting and loving yourself just the way you are. No one will love you if you don’t love yourself first. As Oscar Wilde said, “To love yourself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”