The Body Image Dilemma
It's no secret that body image issues are something that plagues the gay community in a very substantial way. Virtually the only image projected both verbally and non-verbally to gay men of the ideal body type is tall and white with at 30 inch waist bulging biceps and chest complete with 6 pack abs while holding a moderately priced, overly filled cocktail. It’s also no secret that this image doesn’t represent any community as a whole. But if this image isn't an accurate representation, why does it have such a lasting impact on the gay community. Outside of media and advertisement portrayals, it has become the norm and acceptable to declare and to expect “Masc/Fit” guys only or even more aggressively “No Fems/Fats” (which I won't be tackling in this post). If you don't know what that means, I'd suggest google.
Body image issues in general have long been a huge part of American culture, but is something that many wrongly assume only effects women. As someone who has battled body image issues throughout my childhood and adult life, this is something that is very personal to me and many of the gay and straight men in my life, as it comes up often in my circle either directly or indirectly. One study I read says that in the U.S., over 10 million men will suffer from a “significant” eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Another study has reported that gay and bisexual boys as early as 12 years old are significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited, or taken laxatives/diet pills to control their weight within the last 30 days, in addition to being 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.
These statistics, although shocking to some, did not really surprise me, as I know several men that this impacts to this day, myself included. It did however, bring up a great question on what we can do as individuals and even as a community, to combat this problem to not only create a happier sense of self for individuals, but save lives. Growing up in Tennessee, I had no idea how to connect to a greater gay community because I constantly lived in fear of my own safety and the impact that it may have on my family. But even more so than that, the only images I ever saw of other gay men were over sexualized and fit the description I mentioned above. Because of that, at an early age, I thought that image was what I was SUPPOSED to look like. That was what started my constant internal battle of never being good enough on the outside. I binged, stopped eating, ate weird stuff, took weird pills, over exercised, etc., but no matter how thin I got, I still saw unworthiness in the mirror when I looked at myself.
Lately, I’ve been battling with the term “skinny fat” which is something that i’ve often heard thrown around referring to someone who isn’t visibly overweight but not fit. Sometimes I feel self-shame, and other times I scream in my own head “WHEN DID IT BECOME DISGUSTING TO NOT HAVE 6 PACK ABS!?”. Regardless, its a real mental road block that many of my peers struggle with. Even in my adulthood I struggle with fad diets and yo-yoing with exercise and diet in an effort to have perfect ideal body.
Since moving to San Francisco years ago, I have felt more so empowered as there is something for (ALMOST) everyone in terms of acceptance and outward appearance. Although San Francisco may be progressive compared to other parts of the country, it’s not perfect when it comes to image representations. Walking up and down the street in the Castro, you can still see flyers for upcoming parties or events lining the streets with the same images that haunted me as a kid. We have to ask ourselves, what message does this send to not only locals, but visitors, children, and folks outside of our community?
My conclusion is that as young men, it is our duty to educate younger folks about these issues, why they are destructive and unrealistic, as well as talk about each persons best version of themselves. More importantly, healthy ways to achieve those goals regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We can’t continue to look at airbrushed models and compare ourselves to the unrealistic expectations society has set up for us. I know these are lessons I didn’t come up with, but its a lesson all too frequently directed singularly at women, even though it affects all of us. This isn’t a women’s issue, it’s not a gay issue, it’s a people issue. You have to ask yourself, "What can I do as an individual to stop the perpetuation of this disease?". You also have to look internally and become more open an honest with yourself about why you feel the need perpetuate this sense of unworthiness. Although it may never go away, addressing it and constantly reflecting will keep you more in control of self-hate and the negative impact that it has on you and those who love you.