My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key
— Arcade Fire, “My Body Is a Cage”
“I think I have body dysmorphic disorder,” he confided. “No matter how much weight I lose, I always see myself as fat.” And I thought, “Yeah, maybe. Or you could just be a gay man.” I didn’t say that, because that would have sounded dismissive—not to mention the fact that it’s a sweeping generalization of the gay community. But it’s the first thing that popped into my head. Even if it reflects my own mental distortion, it has to mean something.
There’s a little voice in the back of my head telling me to stop writing this post: do I really need to unleash my body image issues on the internet? Plus, song lyrics? I’m getting distressing LiveJournal flashbacks. But I pride myself in being honest and open, and writing about this might help me work through some of it. Maybe. It’s worth a try.
I have never felt comfortable in my own skin, and I don’t know if I ever will. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine myself in a different body, but let’s be real—the twinky version of me is probably a total dick. Perhaps spending my entire life a little bit overweight (and, more to the point, dissatisfied with my appearance) has contributed to a personality and sense of humor I’m at least marginally proud of. Whether my self-deprecation is a comedic affectation or a genuine coping mechanism, I kind of dig it. There’s a good chance I will never be my physical ideal, but I think that just makes me work harder at everything else.
That doesn’t mean I’m happy about feeling awkward, however. And I do think being a gay man makes it harder. Stereotypes or not, there are certain physical expectations associated with one’s sexuality. Not that all gay men are skinny—hello, bears—but that body type determines subcultural identification, and the gray area (the space that isn’t for twinks or bears or muscle daddies) is difficult terrain to navigate. On those rare occasions when I walk into a gay club, I feel instantly out of place. It’s not that I don’t know where I fit in—I’m just sure that I don’t.
I’m not the first person to make this observation (far from it), and I’m surely not the only gay man who feels uncomfortable at Badlands. I’m more interested in the way these perceptions are formed, both from within and without the community.
Within, it’s obvious—and I’m going to ask that you forgive the generalizations, or hey, dispute them in the comments. I realize that I am speaking in broad terms, but I believe men are more superficial than women, for the most part. I think most men are less sensitive to other people’s feelings, which leads to more casual denigration of those around them. The stereotype is that women and gay men are “catty,” but you should hear the way straight guys talk about women. (“Her tits were too small.” “Her hips were too wide.” “She didn’t wax where I wanted her to be waxed.”) In my mind, the reduction of a person to his or her physical attributes or failings is as much a male problem as it is a gay male one.
From outside of the community is perhaps trickier, although a quick glance at the cover of Out Magazine should give you some idea of what we’re dealing with. This is our major publication—yes, I get that The Advocate is the legitimate one, but still—and we’re presented with the same kind of unrealistic expectations that fashion magazines force on women. Do straight guys see the same images of the male physique? To some extent, yes, which is why there are also plenty heterosexual men with body image issues. But I’d contend that the problem is still more pressing for gay men, who judge themselves in the same manner they objectify each other.
Then there’s the issue of the visual representation of gay men. I’m not referring to the swishy hips and the sibilant “s,” which are different issues entirely. The gay men we see in movies and on TV are primarily handsome, slender men. Sure, there’s Cameron on Modern Family. He’s fat, yes, but he’s also sexless. (Honestly, can you imagine him and Mitchell getting down?) On Happy Endings we have Max: if you’re wondering how much I identify with a chubby gay Jew, far too much. But even there, Adam Pally is hardly fat—he’s “TV pudgy,” at most. If he were a straight character, his weight wouldn’t be addressed at all.
Because look at how straight men are portrayed. Jay (Ed O’Neill) is married to Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Doug (Kevin James) is married to Carrie (Leah Remini). Bill (Mark Addy) is married to Judy (Jami Gertz). Three sitcom examples do not prove this is an absolute rule, but you can’t argue that there aren’t far more representations of chubby or older or otherwise conventionally unattractive straight men who still manage to bag societally deemed hot women. It helps that there are far more representations of heterosexuals in general, but show me a fat gay character who is getting laid regularly. (Or an ugly gay character. Or a gay character with a small penis. Or a gay character who can’t dance.)
They are out there, I know. They mostly live in indie films, which are appreciated but a far cry from the mainstream. Would it help if there were more of them? Maybe. I don’t know. It seems to me that openly voiced judgments among gay men are damaging enough without the Hollywood influence. I don’t have a solution, as much as I wish I did. Trust me, I would like to feel comfortable with my less-than-Greek figure—I would like everyone to be happier with their bodies. But until I master collective mind control, that’s an even more daunting task to undertake. (You’ll know I’ve taken over when you start quoting The Golden Girls in inappropriate situations.) It’s not like I can say, “Let’s all like ourselves more!” and expect things to change. If it doesn’t work on me, why should it work on you?
But maybe thinking about these issues does help. It has for me, at least a little. I can’t look in the mirror and instantly see myself as the person I want to be, but I can start to understand where some of these distortions come from. I can separate the things I can change about myself from the things that just are—and I can learn to appreciate my own quirks in the way I have learned to appreciate others’. I do hope that if you’re someone with a body image problem reading this (and yes, I’m addressing gay men primarily, but you know I love you all), you can take something positive away from it.
We’re all kind of fucked in some ways, and it’s shitty. For gay men in particular, we are likely always going to be striving for something we can’t quite achieve. That’s the closest thing to an answer I can offer—we’re all different levels of dissatisfied. Take comfort in that: safety in numbers.