[13 March 2014]
“Masculine fit white dad looking to host a younger white dude between 18-28. I work out 5x a week and I am in shape.”
“Looking for a clean muscled white or Hispanic… nice looking black guy here.”
“Bi Vers HWP (height-weight proportionate) GL (good looking) 27, blond blue 5’11 one.fifty.three 32wst 8c thick DDF and NEG guy here, looking for someone HWP and GL around my age or YOUNGER.”
“I am 6ft2, 175lbs, brown hair, brown eyes, 8.5 cut. I am white. Good looking, clean-cut, discreet and masc here.”
One wouldn’t really expect to find an ad in the personals that read, “Out of shape, smelly, balding underachiever with a smoker’s cough and constant wheeze seeks same.” Not that there aren’t wheezing fat bald gay men in search of love, it’s just that dating and hooking up in the gay community is a pretty man’s game, as the real ads above indicate. For a community that has long been stereotyped as effeminate and small-framed, we certainly have a hang-up for masculinity.
Such a big hang-up that it’s unhealthy. A growing body of research exists on gay men and body image, and it reveals that gay men are, at least in this regard, completely feminine in their attitudes about themselves and what beauty is. In other words, on this subject, we think like straight women.
In large part, that’s due to the same influence—the media. Just as women’s magazines contain ads and features of retouched photos of size zero models with lanky legs, glittering white teeth and coiffed hair, magazines aimed at gay men present retouched images of gym bunny models with washboard abs, glittering white teeth, and coiffed hair. Even dating sites perpetuate this ideal, as many spotlight “star members”, who just happen to always be in the college jock, burly cowboy, or porn star categories. Never will you see Myron, 57 year old accountant with Coke bottle glasses from Poughkeepsie featured, even though he’s been a loyal paying member for years.
The reality is that very few of us fit the GQ mold. Like our straight counterparts, we come in a variety of shapes and levels of fitness. However, that apparently isn’t stopping us from trying to be that well-endowed Dolce and Gabbana model; whether or not that’s obtainable has more to do with genetics than effort, though, unless one’s efforts involve an abundance of plastic surgery. According to Grogan, Conner, and Smithson in their article, “Sexuality and Exercise Motivations: Are Gay Men and Heterosexual Women Most Likely to be Motivated by Concern about Weight and Appearance?”, the answer to the question in the title is yes. Gay men and women exercise for appearance reasons, although for women the motivation is weight management and for gay men, it tends to be for overall aesthetics. Straight men also exercise for appearance reasons, but they list enjoying exercise and competing with others as motivators (Sex Roles, 28 November 2006). (The article also cites other research which points out that lesbians tend to have better body images than straight women, although they do share similar concerns about weight management.)
Further light was cast in a separate study, “Links between Psychosocial Variables and Body Dissatisfaction in Homosexual Men”. Here, researchers found psycho-social reasons for gay men’s fascination with body image. According to their findings, gay men link a drive for thinness with societal rejection due to sexual orientation. Consequently, they seek a masculine ideal that defies the traditional view of the gay man as a” pansy”. A more masculine appearance also suggests good health, as opposed to the stereotypical gaunt appearance of an AIDS patient.
Those gay men who most strive for muscularity in their physical appearance are typically the ones who are most involved in the LGBT community. Although the study didn’t address this further, one could assume that many gay men who are not fully “out” avoid the Adonis look with gelled hair and designer suits for fear that it may identify them as being gay (Hunt, Christopher John, Gonsalkorale, Karen, and Brian A. Nosek, International Journal of Men’s Health, Summer 2012).
Also notable is the study was the suggestion “that homosexual men with a larger body shape are less happy with being gay, perhaps as a result of the stringent standards of physically attractiveness that are set by the gay community.” The researchers go on to note that further research needs to be done to firmly establish the correlation, but there’s probably enough anecdotal evidence to remove any doubts.
Undoubtedly, however, low feelings of self-worth play a key role in this dissatisfaction, but much of that low self-esteem stems from reflected appraisal, the idea that the self-esteem is largely shaped by the feedback we get from others. Socially-deemed unattractive and/or overweight men are reminded constantly of their undesirability, and not just from the media. They are the least likely to be approached in bars or clubs, engaged in conversation in chat rooms, or contacted on dating sites, all while watching the stud in the bar or chat room get swarmed. Personal ads searching for HWP and GL guys only add to the sense of exclusion.
There are unfortunate consequences to these “stringent standards of physically attractiveness”, and not just having to wait to use the elliptical at the gym. One major study found that both gay men and lesbians are more likely to suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is a psychological illness involving an excessive concern for one’s appearance. Those who suffer BDD are more likely to experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
In the article “Body Dysmorphic Disorder among Diverse Racial/Ethnic and Sexual Orientation Groups: Prevalence Estimates and Associated Factors”, researchers concluded that there was a correlation between BDD and body comparison (i.e., “do I look as good as that person?”) and obligatory exercise, a compulsion to work-out to improve one’s appearance. Occurrences of BDD symptoms occur most frequently, but lesbians and gay men both scored as more likely to suffer than either straight women or men (Boroughs, Michael S., Krawczyk, Ross, & J. Kevin Thompson, Sex Roles, 30 July 2010).
Unfortunately, BDD first appears in teens. This may account, to some extent, for why 21 percent of gay teen boys admit to having used steroids, as opposed to only four percent of straight teen boys, and four times as many gay teens are heavy users of steroids than their straight counterparts (Tanner, Lindsey, “Steroid Use Much Higher among Gay and Bi Teen Boys”, 3 February 2014, Msn.com). Since openly gay teens are less likely to participate in organized sports, either at school or in their neighborhoods, one can safely assume that most of the steroid use among gay boys isn’t to improve their RBI percentages or pass completion rates.
Considering that steroid use can result in such side effects as heart and liver issues, testosterone suppression, hair loss, water retention, high blood pressure, and acne, the positive effects of steroid use on one’s appearance may quickly lose out to the physical damage they cause. And really, do teen boys need to do anything that increases their acne?
It would be easy to conclude that all this exercise and dieting has made us a pretty healthy group of people. Not really. One study found that men who proclaim to be straight but engage in same-sex acts have more health complaints than any other demographic, followed closely by gay men, with both well ahead of straight men. The most frequent complaints for gay men included “digestive problems, urinary problems, migraines or headaches, and chronic fatigue syndrome”, while straight men who had sex with men complained of heart disease, liver disease, digestive problems, migraines or headaches, asthma, back problems, and chronic fatigue syndrome”. (HIV-related health concerns were not included.)
Straight women who had sex with other women and bisexual women reported the most health issues, just slightly ahead of lesbians, with all groups far ahead of straight women (Cochran, Susan D. and Vickie M. Mays, “Physical Health Complaints Among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexual and Homosexually Experienced Heterosexual Individuals: Results From the California Quality of Life Survey”, American Journal of Public Health, Nov 2007).
Perhaps all the obsession with appearance, combined with self-esteem issues, makes members of the LGBT community more likely to suffer the high levels of stress that allow for medical conditions to form. One thing is evident—our preoccupation with how we look is unhealthy, damaging our perceptions of what an acceptable body type is and causing us to engage in behaviors that could have immediate negative consequences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working out, dieting, and taking care of one’s self, of course, but when those things cross over from a desire to be healthy to an obsession to be attractive (by a very narrow definition of what is attractive), it’s time to re-evaluate. Likewise if one’s criteria for judging others is their commitment to physical perfection.
Any 12-step program will suggest that the first step is to admit there is a problem, but gay men aren’t about to do that. Certainly, many, if not most, will admit that the gay community can be shallow and vain, but too many see the problem as there being too many “ugly queers” or “trolls”, not that judgmental behavior creates a caste system of attractiveness. No one is suggesting a national “stud take a troll home for the night” campaign. Still, maybe it’s time we add a healthy mind and healthy personality to our criteria for perspective mates, lovers, friends, or even just who we’re willing to talk to in the bars.