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The Gay Community and Body Image

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By Blaine Stum

As I was messaging him, I felt a physical connection. We flirted about as well as you can on an app designed for faceless torsos and random hook ups. As the flirting became more obvious, we exchanged pictures. I sent two photos, one from about a year ago and a more recent photo, without giving it a second thought. The words on the other end crushed me: “Which one do you look like now?”

I’ve been slender for most of my life. I was an active child, and spent eight years running competitively in junior high and high school. While I was in college, I subsisted on a diet of small frozen dinners and random snacks. At the time, I consumed only 1,300-1,400 calories a day while I worked a full time, labor intensive job and had a full class schedule. I didn’t see a problem with my habits, but now I realize why I restricted my caloric intake so heavily: I was becoming more and more acquainted with gay male culture, and it’s toxic ideal of beauty.

I know I am not overweight, and I know intellectually that there is nothing wrong with being something other than skinny, and yet every day I hesitate to go out, I hesitate to log on to Grindr, OkCupid or Scruff, because I feel inadequate. I see the constant barrage of six packs, slender twinks and lean jocks paraded as the standard of beauty in our community, and I see that I am not any of those things.

This is how gay male culture operates: the imagery of muscled, good looking men is meant to foster a sense of inadequacy in those who do not fit the “standard”, and the deeper you get, the more inadequate you feel. This isn’t just me talking either. Research has shown that the more active gay men are in the LGBT community, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their bodies; and gay men make up much as 40 percent of all men with eating disorders. If that isn’t a wake up call, I don’t know what is.

Some of this cultural infatuation with slender or chiseled male physiques comes from outside: heteronormative culture has primarily portrayed gay men as white, thin and fashion forward; but these days I see most of it coming from within. Our media and our interactions constantly reinforce stereotypes and images of gay men that are detrimental to our own psychological and physical well being; and even more so to gay men of color, who are often left out of the picture entirely. And there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

As we march forward to new horizons of social justice, I think it would do us well to look within as much we look outside of ourselves if we want true justice and equity.

Blaine Stum

About Blaine Stum

Blaine Stum is a 30-something-year-old native of the Spokane area who was raised in Spokane Valley. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor's degree in political science. He works in the local political arena and has been involved in LGBT non-profit work for several years.

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for being so vulnerable in this post, Blaine. Good job.

  2. Daring post, Blaine. At risk of pointing out the obvious, I believe the broader problem you’re addressing isn’t really intrinsic to either ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ ‘cultures.’ I believe it’s more universal to ‘western’ culture at the moment (MTV, anyone?). The deep chasm of human behavior I think you’re really talking about (‘straight’ or ‘gay’) is how our (MALE, especially) VISUAL perceptions overwhelmingly cancel our abilities to holistically respond to psychological underpinnings of mental, emotional, and physical hunger.

    There’s a little psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, called ‘Ex Machina,’ out on video that addresses this chasm better than any other film I’ve seen. Check it out and THANKS for daring!

    • Riff – can you believe I’ve actually seen “Ex Machina”?! We just watched it. Yep, I’ve a movie 🙂

    • Riff: I would disagree to an extent. Gay male culture, like any marginalized subculture, has unique norms and expectations that cannot be generalized across the board. As I noted in the article, research shows that dissatisfaction with body image is correlated with immersion in to the gay male subculture. This isn’t an accident. It’s a natural outcome of how our subculture prioritizes certain body types over others. Heterosexual men do not face the same cultural norms or mores that we do. Hence why negative body image and eating disorders occur at lower rates.

      I wouldn’t argue against the fact that Americas culture generally feeds us an unhealthy diet of body image norms, but I don’t think you can generalize the experience we face.

      • From my viewpoint, the dots you and your referenced research connect appear a bit over generalized.

        However, this was not the point of my comment. My comment does not debate your reference, it RELATES to the basis of your post as experiencing, firsthand, toxic ideals and rejection due to physical appearance. These are human experiences. They are not exclusively male or gay male experiences. (Eating disorders in the ‘heteronormative’ world are definitely more prevalent among women than men.)

        As I try to imagine myself in your shoes, I ask myself, what might differences be dealing with such experiences solely within normative boundaries of the specific ‘subculture’ with which you identify?

        As I imagine this, I am quickly faced with a set of challenging circumstances. I do not recognize solutions to these painful realities that that can be realized without first seeking answers beyond the subculture.

        To me, ANY discussion of healthy sexual attraction within a sexual subculture must first START with an exhaustive look at HUMAN sexual relationship across the board (inclusive of all flavors on the spectrum).
        What I mean by this is, simply, before we have a discussion about homosexual or heterosexual attraction, shouldn’t WE have a discussion about SEXUAL attraction? (IMAGINE what THAT would be like!)

        What a conversation that would be if the ‘heteronormative’ world was to put all their inclinations under the lens of fantasy versus reality and how their desires are best pursued or acted upon? (Huh?)

        Blaine, I am moved by your drawing attention to such questions on a site devoted to faith and values. You shine a light on changing values that literally equate to life and death for far too many in our world. Again, thank you.

        • Riff, the whole point of this is gay men’s specific experience in their culture — it’s pretty endemic when 42% of gay men have this particular health issue compared to heterosexual men, according to the statistics. Not sure what you mean by the research being generalized. The paper makes it clear already this exists within a subset of Western cultural media and popular values, as well as aesthetics for male beauty from the onset going back to Michelangelo. Here is another paper more recently written on the same subject. The empirical evidence is there. “Furthermore, evidence suggests that sexual minority men suffer from body image disturbance at rates significantly higher than heterosexual men and comparable to heterosexual women.” — David Doyle and Renee Engeln.

          https://www.academia.edu/8183171/Body_Size_Moderates_the_Association_Between_Gay_Community_Identification_and_Body_Image_Disturbance

          If you read through the methods, they are very thorough and vetted but interestingly, do leave out the postulation of “attraction” of any kind as a reason for the aesthetic.

          In other general research done by anthropologists like Nigel Spivey regarding the human body in art throughout ancient times to now, as can be seen in his documentary How Art Made the World (available on youtube) said part of it is humans fetishizing body types previously unattainable these times without plastic surgery — which is to say no one ever thought they could be like some of the statuesque figures created in ancient art to begin with — the proportions call for more vertebrae than possible in some cases and etc. Dysmorphia.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eGRoSjp3Ik

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