Body Image Pressures on Gay Men

Body Image Pressures on Gay Men

John R. Ballew, M.S., L.P.C.

Research shows that gay men don’t like their bodies very much.  That might seem surprising, given the amount of time many of us spend at the gym.  We probably devote more time and effort to cultivating our physical selves than any other demographic group.  Just the same, research indicates that straight men like their bodies most, followed by gay women; straight women like their bodies less than these first two.  The group that likes their physical appearance the least is gay men.

Why is this?  Gay men spend a lot of time in places that place a premium on physical appearance:  bars, gyms, sex clubs.  We live in a sexualized subculture that places a premium on physical beauty, and media and advertising bombard us with images that reflect an impossibly high standard of physical beauty.  Under circumstances like these, it’s easy to confuse who you are with how you look.

We all like to see attractive men, of course.  Still, more and more men – even men with bodies that most of us would agree are muscular and very attractive – find themselves very dissatisfied with how they look.  At its most extreme, this situation is called body dysmorphia – a preoccupation with some imagined defect in appearance when the person involved is actually very normal looking.  This problem can lead to depression and trouble forming healthy relationships.

Research indicates that eating disorders and body image problems are linked with public self- consciousness, social anxiety and feeling dishonest about who one really is.  Men with internalized homophobia who have difficulty accepting themselves as gay are probably especially likely to develop a distorted body image or eating disorder.

Compared with women, who generally only worry that they are too fat, many gay men worry that they are either too fat or too thin.  This misperception can become a genuine distortion disorder that could be called “reverse anorexia” or “bulkorexia.”   Even when dramatically muscular, men with this misperception feel they are too small or thin.

It’s easy to see how men who have grown up with images of limp-wristed, reed-thin gay men form this sort of reaction and seek to show that they don’t fit the stereotype.  Preoccupation with muscles  becomes a way of relieving fears about our masculinity.

Places where gay men socialize especially bars, gyms, and sex clubs, often emphasize physical attributes or make those the first criterion for checking someone out.  It’s difficult for someone who is older than a certain age or different from the prevailing cultural standards of beauty to catch someone’s eye in a bar or club.

This has the sad and unintended consequence of leaving some gay men in the social binds most familiar to teenage girls – obsessed about their appearance and feeling like their locus of control lies completely outside of themselves.

If you have trouble accepting your body, there are steps you can take to improve the situation.  First, take the concern seriously.  Don’t confuse who you are with how you look.  Develop a sense of identity based on all of your attributes and on your values.

Put your body back together.  Consider stretching, yoga and massage as ways to help yourself feel like more than just “skinny legs” or “love handles.”  Indulge in body pleasures – long baths, massage, good sex, a walk in the park on a sunny day.  Make your own list.

Learn to appreciate body types in all shapes and sizes.  Stop trashing men who don’t conform to the “buffed” image.  Seek alternative role models.  Don’t emphasize body size or shape as an indication of a man’s worth or his identity as a man.  Learn to value the person inside.

Pay attention to the images used to promote products in our community.  Notice the way physical beauty is used to push sales or manipulate us.  Talk about this with your friends, too.

And finally, confront homophobia, including internalized homophobia.  Don’t accept being treated as a second-class citizen by straight society or by other gay folks.

Site last updated April 15, 2014 @ 2:39 pm; This content last updated May 12, 2011 @ 7:49 pm