A few months ago I read an article on the Huffington Post that cited a new study claiming gay males are much more proportionately likely to have an eating disorder than straight males. This is a pretty expected result but when thinking about reasons why this is so, it’s especially disappointing.
Tyler Oakley is a popular LGBT advocate and YouTube personality. Most of the guys in photos with him on his social media sites come from group 1: pretty and thin/fit.
In popular culture, the gay male persona falls into one of two groups. First, you have the standard or stereotypical pretty, thin or fit, well dressed, and confident. In the other group, you have ‘masculine’ men. Bigger and hairier. Most gay men I know fall into neither group but I’m willing to bet most have had issues with body image at some point in their lives as they strive to fit into the thin and fit group.
Obviously, most people have issues with body image at some point in their lives so this isn’t an issue exclusive to gay men, but a comment someone posted in response to the article caught my attention.
“The body is a gay man’s currency.”
The gay community has many subgroups and labels for men that, for the most part, are based on physical appearance. There are twinks, bears, cubs, otters, rats and others, and these are determined primarily by body weight, shape, hair and age. Depending on who you ask, certain subgroups are seen to be closer to the top of the ‘scale’ while others, especially those who don’t fit neatly into any of these, are toward the bottom. Most of the representation of gay men in the media is by thin and fit guys, while the rest are left to desire and dream about having a body that can be swooned over by those whose attention they most want.
We put so much effort into telling ourselves and the world that we’re proud of who we are and how we should be happy with ourselves, yet there is so much criticism and pressure from within, and those who don’t fit the stereotypical physicality are deemed outsiders.
On top of the pressures that come with being a gay male in a world where homophobia is still a regular occurrence and, in some cases acceptable, most gay men have the added pressure of being rejected because they don’t fit enough within a certain stereotype.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with trying to fit within your own personal idea of what you consider to be attractive and wanting to look good. The problem comes with denigrating people who don’t fit into these sometimes very limited parametres and dismissing them because of it.
Some of this comes from personal experience as well. I have had issues with my own body weight for quite some time. I’ve received criticism from people I know about my weight gain, and alternatively high praise when I noticeably lose weight. Sometimes I dislike receiving praise for losing weight because now that I’ve gained it back and then some, am I less valuable for it?
On top of comments I do receive from people I know, there’s the added pressure that as a gay man, my attractiveness depends on how I look, or to be more specific, how thin I am. Back when I was single, I had been rejected for being fat even if, looking back now, those were my thinnest days. In the rare time I go to a gay club, I feel extra self-conscious no matter how much I try to reassure myself that I genuinely am fine with how I look.
Sam Smith (photo from contactmusic.com)
This week I read an article that points out how British singer Sam Smith is fat. As the writer points out, if Sam were straight, he probably wouldn’t be considered fat, but as a gay male, he is. While he isn’t revered for his looks the way many male singers his age are, I never thought of him as fat.
What makes this topic so frustrating in my mind is that people who are or have been ostracized for something out of their control can be responsible for so much of it themselves to others who have faced the same challenges. They’ve essentially become like the very people they have struggled against for so long and continue to.
I don’t really have any sort of a solution to offer nor can I pinpoint whether there even is a problem beyond the whole ‘stop shunning people for not being thin’ thing. Ultimately I believe it comes down to what one values for themselves. Rather than take offence to being told I’m fat by a complete stranger, I try to consider it a favour done that they showed their true colours to me before I was able to waste my time showing mine to them.
Body image and self-presentation is important but in the sense that you work with what you have. I faked confidence until I no longer had to. I try to wear clothing that compliments my shape. I pass on comments from those who need to tell me what I already know about my weight. I’ve moved beyond the need to categorize myself into a group based on how fat and hairy I am in order to fit in.
Despite this year and right now being the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life, I’m also the happiest. Coincidence? Maybe not. I stopped connecting my physical appearance to my mental state and now for me the two are disconnected. I still keep my weight and health in mind but it no longer interferes with how content I am or how I view myself.
Maybe the real saying should be the body is a poor-minded gay man’s currency.