Gay men face considerable pressure to conform to an impossible standard of physical flawlessness. This pressure causes much anxiety and reduced self-esteem. A recent article in The Atlantic called “The Tyranny of Buffness” explores the theme and is worth a read.
It may seem strange to call out gay men for body fascism at a time when a different news story reports that “thirteen states have adult obesity rates that top 30 percent, 41 states have rates above 25 percent, and every state is above 20 percent. “ But the concern about gay men and their bodies isn’t about being too healthy; it’s about a different way of being unhealthy.
Perfectionism is a problem, whether it is about our bodies or anything else. Human beings rarely achieve flawlessness. What we do instead is obsess, worry, disdain ourselves (or others) and generally decrease our level of life satisfaction. This is especially a problem when applied to the human body, where we have only partial control. Our physical state reflects a number of factors:
- What we’re born with – our genetic inheritance. Things like height, eye color and body type are not within our control.
- What has happened to us during the journey called life – illnesses, accidents, surgeries, how we were raised when we were young, stuff that we have little or no control over. As with our genetic inheritance, the challenge is generally to make peace with what is, rather than obsess about imperfections.
- What we eat, drink, smoke, inhale, etc. Here we enter the realm of choice and control. Because these activities are tired to the brain’s pleasure centers, addictions and compulsions complicate the picture.
- Exercise. Another area of choice, we know that keeping active and busy is the closest thing humans have to a fountain of youth – though as with any other activity, we can overdo it.
Add to this, of course, the challenge of aging. I remember working out with a very buff friend several years ago when we noticed an amazingly built young man pumping iron nearby. What would I need to do to look like that, my friend asked? “Lose about 25 years,” I responded. No matter how you eat and exercise, age impacts our bodies. That’s not always a bad thing, but if we view aging as imperfection…we’re pretty well stuck.
What are some signs that your obsession with your body may be getting in the way of enjoying your life? You may have a problem if:
- You’re so concerned about physical flaws (real or imagined) that you keep your body covered in situations where others are more relaxed – the locker room, the beach, the pool.
- You avoid dating or sex because someone is going to see your body.
- You engage in behaviors associated with eating disorders – excessive dieting, voluntary vomiting, using laxatives to purge.
- You exercise to the point of damaging your body, not giving it the rest needed to recover.
- You use medical procedures like liposuction, plastic surgery, steroid or hormone therapy or other stuff in an attempt to make your body acceptable to others or to your own standard of perfection.
What to do if you’re in this sort of relationship with your body?
- Rethink exercise. What feels good? What is your body saying to you? Do you need to rest more, pay more attention to working your heart more and your shoulders less?
- Rethink supplements and medicalizing your body.
- If you have an eating disorder, make changes or seek treatment.
- Obsession with body perfectionism can be a way of hiding social anxiety. If you’re anxious in social situations, therapy can help.
- Make friends with people who are older or younger than you, heavier or lighter than you. Don’t condition yourself to over-value young, buff, pretty people at the expense of other human beings.
- Challenge the paradigm that those who don’t fit gay culture’s standard of buffness somehow deserve ridicule or bitchy comments. When we engage in cattiness like this, we’re literally making ourselves sick.