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Gay men’s body image: An insidious distraction

Muscle-bound men or twinks with six-packs. Take your pick. Open a gay magazine or walk down the street of your gay ghetto and you see images of the modern gay clone everywhere, and they’re there for one reason.

Sex sells.

Young gay men often don’t know any better but are searching for an image to compare themselves to. When they find images of the modern gay clone, they then have a template for what they believe a loveable and accepted gay male should look like.

But is this reality?

A Systemic Problem
How is it that we as a community have come to a point where it seems as though only fat-free muscular builds and thin physiques define attractiveness and worthiness of love?

First, take a moment to reflect on how you developed your sense of who you are.

This process was likely heavily influenced by how much your sexuality plays a part in your life. If you are gay, like it or not, your sexuality plays a huge role in your life. I don’t need to repeat how often we hear messages that being gay is immoral, disgusting, and threatening to American culture.

What other kinds of messages are we given? Mainstream media presents us with a selection of caricatures of gay men that can be described as feminine and weak.

Think about it. When was the last time a strong, masculine gay male was portrayed in mainstream American media?

Can’t think of anything? I certainly can’t, but I could be missing something.

Gay men in general do not like to identify with mainstream media’s image of the effeminate gay male, but we are often lumped into that group by people who are unfamiliar with gay culture. To counteract any impression that their being gay implies any degree of femininity, some gay men become hypermasculine (or “straight-acting”).

Most of us have heard someone say something like, “I’m gay because I like men. If I liked fags, I might as well be straight and be with a woman.” Given this common belief, men who are manlier might seem more attractive. This “attraction” is actually a reaction to your negative perception of femininity.

In other words, you might not actually be attracted to the masculine guy in front of you. You may simply be running away from the image of the “effeminate and weak” gay man. In doing so, you can take pride in knowing that you’ve replaced one stereotype (the sissy gay man) with another (the heterosexually-influenced masculine man).

Some gay men are so sensitive to the idea of male femininity that they are painfully reminded of the mainstream image of gay men as effeminate and weak. The feeling of revulsion and disgust that you may experience can be described by what psychologists recognize as internalized homophobia (a topic for future articles).

These observations are not meant to imply that you need to embrace your inner feminine self. Rather, they are meant to point out that knee-jerk reactions to feminine qualities in other men may actually fuel one’s internalized homophobia. These programmed reactions also damage the community’s self-image by perpetuating an impossible expectation that everyone should be masculine, muscular, or thin.

For example, gay media recognized the trend against femininity long ago and now maintains the hypermasculine stereotype. When was the last time a shirtless average-looking man was featured on the cover of a popular gay magazine?

Instead, we continue to be presented with hypermasculine caricatures of gay males. But that’s all they are – caricatures.

You may believe that being muscular or thin is an important factor for attracting another man. If so, you are not alone. Many gay men worry about finding a man to be in a relationship with, and most believe that they will magically find a worthwhile relationship if and only if they reach the ideal physique that we see in gay media.

Keep wishing on a star, fellas. Relationships don’t happen that way.

The Slippery Slope Toward Acceptance and Love
As human beings, we want acceptance and love from others. USJOCK’s response to the previous article in this series demonstrated that gay culture tends to link acceptance and love with having certain body types that are unattainable for most people. I should point out that those body types are not completely out of reach for everyone. We can make some progress toward this supposed prerequisite for love and acceptance naturally through healthy workout and diet habits, and other guys often notice our progress.

We like this kind of attention and we want more of it, so we understandably might work out more to gain muscle or go on different and more restrictive diets to lose fat and tone up.

At some point, the majority of us reach our biological limit and people stop noticing our progress. If you are able to achieve the gay clone stereotype at this point, congratulations! Your relationship will appear magically to you presently.

If you reach your biological limit and do not fit the stereotype of being muscular or thin, you might feel unloved and unaccepted by the gay community simply because you don’t look a certain way. You can try to break through your biological limit through excessive exercise, abusing supplements, and other out-of-control behaviors that I described in the previous article, but I would not recommend it.

Either way, your sense of self-worth will hang on whether you fit the gay clone stereotype. In a sense, you will be addicted to the attention you get from others based on your physique, and you will do anything to keep that attention.

This kind of mundane obsession with body images must stop.

Why do we allow some of us to perpetuate a lack of compassion within our community? How is it that we have allowed body-image concerns to distract some of us from issues that matter most? Snap out of it and use your brain for a second!

Could it be that mainstream media is intentionally trying to keep us down by reinforcing the effeminate and weak gay male image? Could our reactions to this image possibly be distracting us from developing our individual internal sense of self-worth or furthering our ongoing fight for equality? One needs only look to the feminist movement to see that this kind of distraction has happened before to keep women down.

Or, perhaps our preoccupation with maintaining an unattainable body type is a well-organized effort to look “pretty” for the cameras as we fight for equality. If that’s the case, I must have missed the memo.

In the next article, I will present some ideas on how to break free of expectations and stereotypes so that we as a community can grow beyond our current developmental roadblock.

Until then, try to think outside the box.

Stephen Brewer, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant (PSB33858) in Mira Mesa and is supervised by Angela Spenser, PhD (PSY15450). He runs a LGBT and kink-friendly practice, specializing in addictions, trauma, HIV/AIDS, and men’s issues. He can be reached at (619) 377–3120 or you can visit his website at http://www.therapybrew.com