Standing in front of mirror is not always a fun process for me. Does this shirt make me look fat? Should I wear a sweater to hide my love handles? Can I still make it to the second-to-last notch of my belt, or do I now have to use the first notch? These are just a few questions that roll around in my head as I get ready each and every morning. But why are these questions so important to me and why do the answers to these questions often make me feel frustrated, stressed, anxious, and unattractive? Am I the only gay man who feels like this?
Over the last couple years, I have been working towards my PhD and these questions have been the focus of my work. I discovered that I am not the only gay guy to feel this way. Many other gay men feel the pressures to look a certain way and to have a perfect body, a body that is often defined as fit, trim, rippling with muscles, with a six-pack for a stomach and absolutely no traces of fat. This is the type of body that is idealized for so many gay men. I have always craved to look like that but never had or thought I could have such an idealized body.
Growing up gay in a small village in Nova Scotia was rough enough, but to enter the gay world as chubby or fat was a second painful coming out experience. I felt so many social expectations within gay culture to have the ideal body. I couldn’t even watch the only shows on TV that featured gay men, such as Queer as Folk, because of the beauty standards reflected on the show. I felt the pressure to look like the men on these shows, and it wasn’t entertaining for me. They were, in fact, reminders that I didn’t look as hot as Brian or Justin. Reminders to me that my body was too fat for anyone to find attractive.
I suppose the way I felt about my body and my fatness was one of the main reasons I decided to do my research in the area of food, bodies, and queer men’s health. I wanted to make sense of my experiences, to understand why I craved to have that body so much, and hopefully to come to some conclusions that would help me and possibly other men. For me, this meant looking at how society, gay culture in particular, shapes and influences what we ultimately believe, value, and do with our bodies.
I have learned many things through my journey into this area of health research from the literature, the participants of my own research study, and of course, my personal experiences. Previous research has shown that concerns for having trim and fat-free bodies, feel dissatisfaction with their body image and muscle mass, and experience significant stress to live up to cultural ideals of beauty and masculinity influences the health of queer men. For example, the Institute of Medicine (2010) reports that 1 in 4 queer youth use fasting, purging, and diet pills to lose weight.
We need to remember when we talk about this subject that being gay does not inherently cause body dissatisfaction, and not all gay men will experience negative health consequences as a result of body ideals. But for many queer men, our health is influenced by social expectations of bodies. Eating disorders, social isolation, anxieties, loneliness, depression, steroid use, and negative sexual health experiences all have been reported as health consequences to body dissatisfaction. In another study, it was found men attending Pride Toronto reported that disordered eating was associated with depression and engaging in behaviours to increase muscle mass (Brennan et al., 2011).
In my own research, the men who participated also expressed similar health consequences. Too often, however, studies recommend body dissatisfaction treatments that are directed at the individual with recommendations to change their behaviors, beliefs, or personalities. The old adage of “Eat less, be more active, and don’t eat bread” is taken as gospel. But our experiences, behaviors, and beliefs are shaped by our culture. Therefore, is it not more useful for us to understand how society, including new technologies, mass media, TV, dating apps, pornography, and gender constructs influence body dissatisfaction? Then we can begin to challenge and disrupt some of our tightly held social norms about how gay men should look.
I asked gay men who took part in my research to help me do this by documenting their experiences with their bodies and with food through photography. Their photographs became mirrors to their experiences and culture. Their final photographs were part of a 1-night art show in Halifax, Nova Scotia at Gallery 1313, which gave them an opportunity to share their thoughts on the photographs and ways to improve the health of gay men in regard to body image.
It was an emotional evening for both the participants and the audience. Many people told me it was a powerful, thought-provoking, and meaningful way to talk about body image, and in particular, the unique values, beliefs, and practices concerning food and bodies that gay men face on a daily basis. As one attendee commented, the show opened their mind to things that they would not normally think about in relation to nutrition and queer men’s experiences. In this respect, art can be a powerful tool for disrupting the prevailing norms shaping our connection to food and our bodies.
Improving the health of men means challenging the body image norms that contribute to harmful stereotypes and the stigma of certain bodies within gay culture. We need to go further than simply saying, “let’s celebrate diversity and embrace all bodies” and make space for all guys in our community. As for me, I am still struggling with feeling various up and down feelings about my body and all of its fat but now I realize I am not alone in this.
Brennan, D. J., Crath, R., Hart, T. A., Gadalla, T., & Gillis, L. (2011). Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among men who have sex with men in Canada. International Journal of Men’s Health, 10(3), 253.
Institute of Medicine. (2010). The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Written by Phillip Joy
* The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of CBRC or its funders.