There’s a silent danger looming among gay men: the pressure surrounding beauty standards, body image, and consequences that follow.
Body image relates to the relationship you have with your physical appearance. It captures the beliefs, feelings, and actions you have surrounding your body.
We often hold a positive or neutral body image. Societal pressure could negatively shift our image. A negative body image takes control of our lives by impacting socialization, habits, and self-talk. In turn, these changes can have downstream mental and physical health consequences.
People of all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic standings are vulnerable to body image issues – each layer of intersectional identity impacts body image differently. This article examines unique body image pressures impacting gay men.
Our external world sets the rules for beauty. We witness beauty norms and measure it against ourselves; we may internalize these.
The term describes additional stress marginalized people experience due to stigmatization. Each level of intersectional identity compounds this effect. It consumes the lives of those who don’t align with social norms. Unique stressors in gay men can stem from: homophobia, social isolation, being in the closet, and ideas of masculinity. Increased exposure intensifies self-hatred.
Matthew Todd, author of Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy, summarizes how discrimination heightens body issues in gay men: “…when you really don’t like yourself then it will manifest as really not liking the way you look…”
Western beauty standards for men have evolved. The 1980s introduced a hypermasculine ideal and popularized working out. Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the media with their bulky builds. Men sought to acquire this physique as a form of self-validation.
The standard shifted to a lean physique. Pop culture preferred men with defined biceps, six packs, and chests. Although more attainable, men still faced body image pressures. This type of man remains as today’s standard.
Western beauty standards depict Eurocentric features such as pale skin, double eyelids, and straight hair. Gay men of color feel increased pressure to fit these standards.
Mike Parent, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, weighs in: “If people don’t fit the ideal they’ve internalized because of a natural body characteristic like skin tone, then they would certainly feel [heightened] anxiety.” This can result in internalized racism and discreet racism in dating.
Western beauty standards also maintain gender norms. It demeans femininity in men. Soft features and non-assertiveness aren’t considered desirable. Gay men can internalize this. They may repress that part of them to abide by masculine norms. Or they may be rude towards feminine gay men.
Minority stress and Western beauty standards are the foundation for internal conflict in the gay community.
Jakeb Arturio Bradea, a BBC interviewee, speaks to social pressure in the gay community: “We have equality, but we’re horrible to each other. Unrealistic body standards in gay culture perpetuate body image pressure, from within the community.”
Dating apps like Grindr have been a place where gay men face discrimination from other gay men. Body-shaming and racism has existed on the app since its inception. Infamous phrases like, “No fats, no femmes, no Asians”, have been infamous as Grindr’s former head of communications, Landen Zumwalt, has pointed out. This makes the dating pool exclusive to those who fit physical and racial standards.
In 2018, the company began their “zero tolerance policy” against discrimination on the app. However, it took until 2020 for the company to remove their ethnicity filter. Despite Grindr’s crackdown, users continue to either discriminate or be discriminated against.
It’s no surprise that social media sparks insecurity. But how far can that insecurity take us?
The gay community experienced a cultural shift when Instagays appeared. The term describes gay male influencers who live lavish lifestyles and possess ideal bodies. Their following brings in massive likes and attention. It’s hard to not compare yourself to gay guys who fit the beauty standards.
These public figures can be a source of insecurity. Gay men yearning for acceptance may see the “Instagay” life as a way to fulfill that desire. Their body image issues can worsen as they attempt to achieve similar physique.
The algorithm continues to push similar posts onto users. Creating a cycle of comparison and pressure. Gay men who don’t leave this space can become hyper self-conscious of their bodies.
There’s a classification of body types in the gay community. Labels are determined by a man’s size, shape, and role. Some examples include:
These categories do more than act discriminatory. They pressure gay men to abide by traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. The bigger, muscular men are desired for their “masculinity”. The skinnier men are craved for their “feminine” features like youth and hairlessness.
Unfortunately, this classification makes it easy for gay men to objectify themselves.
Self-objectification occurs when someone treats themselves as “objects to be viewed and evaluated based on appearance.” It also pertains to sexual desire. This can be dangerous among men who seek validation and are willing to morph themselves into what’s wanted.
LGBTQ individuals are more likely to develop mental and physical health issues.
As a reminder, minority stress is the additional stress minorities face because of their stigmatization. Researchers have found health disparities among these groups due to social and/or economic disadvantages.
Gay men struggle with pressures outside and inside the LGBTQ community. Naveen Kumar, contributor for Them, discusses the weight of this burden: “Pressures to achieve these standards are a significant source of mental distress among gay and bisexual men.”
Discrimination and internalized homophobia place gay men in a stigmatized position. This starts the process of self-devaluation, which alters how someone perceives themself to the world. When gay men take in societal negative attitudes about homosexuality, it affects their “psychological adjustment throughout life”.
Self-hatred can lead to depression and anxiety. This coupled with perceived stigma deepens stress. If gay men expect to be discriminated against, they may act hypervigilant and avoidant out of fear. Poor mental health is a pathway to negative physical health.
David M. Frost found that LGBT adults who experience high levels of minority stress report greater physical health issues. This results from psychological strain. Implications range from common illnesses to chronic diseases. Researchers found higher rates of dysregulated immune function and deficient antibody responses to vaccines in these individuals.
Psychological stress can drive people to abuse substances. LGBTQ individuals report alarming rates of drug and alcohol use compared to heterosexuals. This behavior takes a mental and physical toll.
Gay men may develop disordered eating habits to acquire the ‘ideal’ body. The majority of males with an eating disorder are heterosexual, but research shows that gay men are disproportionately impacted.
Data from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) shows that gay men represent almost 42% of the male eating disordered population, despite being 5% of the male population. This indicates that they are more likely to experience increased body dissatisfaction and exhibit disordered eating behavior than their heterosexual counterparts.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition where you are fixated on your body’s perceived flaws. Your appearance affects your ability to function in daily life.
Men can develop muscle dysmorphia, a subcategory of BDD. Those affected believe that they aren’t muscular. They become obsessed with bodybuilding and can resort to steroids. On the other hand, men who fear being overweight can develop disordered eating or rely on body modifications.
Body dysmorphia is a constant struggle. Dieting, modifications, and other methods won’t make it fade. External changes won’t solve underlying internal issues. What now?
The path towards positive self-image is difficult but possible. As a community, gay men have a collective responsibility to ease body image pressure.
This can look like more representation of gay and bisexual men who have different bodies. Rather than the muscular guys with six-packs, how about men with average builds? Racial and body diversity should be seen in all corners of gay culture. This includes social spaces. Branching out to meet people can show you the beauty in their uniqueness.
Jeff Ingold of the LGBT charity Stonewall, states that representation would “…help break down harmful stereotypes that affect gay and bi men’s body image and self-esteem.” However, changing the culture collectively would be more difficult compared to individual action. The personal actions we make can be effective in challenging these body image issues.
It’s important to turn inwards. We have no control over society, but we can change ourselves. Changing your mindset is an effective tool in combating body image issues.
Journaling helps you process emotions and see different perspectives. Take out a journal (or a notes app) and ask yourself these questions. Notice new emotions and perspectives that may arise.
Body neutrality is a mindset of viewing your body. You place a focus on its ability rather than its physical appearance.
Body neutral affirmations sound like these:
This is different from body positivity. Positivity places an emphasis on self-love related to physical characteristics. Body neutrality changes negative thoughts by prioritizing function over looks. Neutrality is a stepping stone for a better body image because it removes the pressure to love yourself when it feels impossible.
In addition to inner work, external resources are helpful in the journey towards healing.
Therapy acts as an outlet for expressing your concerns regarding body image. It provides tools for understanding your emotions and ways to control them. Therapy can be effective because it prioritizes psychological change over aesthetic change. For example, someone with body image issues may alter their body as a quick fix, but realize that old beliefs continue to take over their life.
Be sure to check in with potential therapists to see if they’re LGBT friendly. Outcare allows you to search for LGBTQ+ affirming healthcare professionals in your area. It’s important to have a professional who can treat you with compassion and who has experience working with your demographic. Lastly, double-check that your healthcare professional is licensed and accepts your medical insurance.
One way of maintaining good mental health is by finding a community. Community can mean a group of people and/or the feeling of connection. It’s what gives you a sense of support and belonging.
When dealing with body image issues, it’s common to feel alone. To feel as if nobody can understand you. Community is there when you need someone to listen or if you need help during difficult times. Having people to support you cultivates a safe space and a positive mentality.
Societal pressure encourages us to change ourselves, that our current self will never be enough. But a community accepts you for who you are. You don’t have to fit in. Unfortunately not everyone has access to community. However we live in the digital age where online communities are readily available.
Social media platforms like Tiktok, Twitter, and Reddit have LGBTQ spaces. You can find individuals who sympathize with your experience and give advice. Talking to people who understand can be healing. You don’t have to feel lonely or isolated.
Supportiv provides an alternative way of connecting you with peer-support groups. They match you with peers who want to talk about the same topics as you. Supportiv’s philosophy of mental wellness encourages you to get well in a safe manner. Wherever that be through venting or taking in resources.
Their collection of blogs contain a number of topics that will meet your needs. Access the sidebar and go to the “Topics” tab to find +25 blog genres.
Please reach out to these organizations and services if needed.
Rather than give into societal pressure, choose to remove yourself from this “game”. Don’t force yourself to cater to people’s opinions. You’re valid as you are and don’t have to change into something you’re not.
While building a positive body image, remember that this isn’t a competition. It’s a journey where any improvement is worth celebrating. Be kind to yourself and take care.