Thinking Queerly by Kristina Furia

At present, LGBT teenagers and adults experience mental illness at higher rates than the general population. This imbalance is due to the additional adversity that members of our community are likely to face at various points throughout both childhood and adulthood. Thinking Queerly is a mental-health column written by Kristina Furia (emergewellnessphilly.com), a local psychotherapist, that focuses on the unique psychological and social experiences of LGBT individuals, couples and families. Each month's column highlights a specific aspect of being LGBTQ in the United States and the various effects it has on our mental health and overall experience in society.


The end of a romantic relationship is a universally difficult experience. To state the obvious, a breakup means saying goodbye to someone you love and who you likely spent more of your time with than not. There is an acute sense of loss both on a day-to-day basis and in life overall. The end of a relationship also forces us to reflect on painful, more existential ideas such as: Will I be lonely? Am I going to end up alone?

Suicide is not a topic that many of us are compelled to talk about with any regularity, but with the recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, our attention has suddenly turned. We are asking why someone might take their own life, and we are trying to wrap our heads around how there aren’t other, better options.

This is such a deeply complex topic with many variables from person to person; however, some clear misperceptions that are worth knowing:

Mental illness has long been a taboo subject and those with a mental-health diagnosis have long been stigmatized for their struggles. In recent years, though, we’ve begun to shift our ideas about the topic in a positive direction. As a society, we’re talking more about common mental-health concerns such as anxiety and depression, and we’re acknowledging just how prevalent they really are. We’re also talking about these topics with our friends and loved ones. We’re asking for recommendations for therapists, we’re comparing medications (for better or for worse, a substantial number of Americans are on antidepressants) and we’re opening up about our pain.

It’s not a secret that the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia is in a time of transition. It’s also no secret that we’ve found ourselves in this transitional period because the need for change became imperative. As we’ve been seeing, community leaders are working diligently to affect positive change and to bridge gaps in our community relating to matters such as racial inequities and the safety of our most vulnerable community members. For example, last week we had our first-ever LGBTQ State of the Union. Real, long-lasting change takes time.

Summer is quickly approaching and with the warmer weather also comes a renewed pressure to look our best. This is not a new problem nor is it one that fails to affect most Americans. I don’t know about you, but in the last month or so, my social-media feeds have been full of memes and jokes about turning that winter body around ASAP.

The inclination to be more physically fit during warmer months is a plight that is relatable to most and it’s a thought process that falls within normal limits for the average adult person, psychologically speaking. It’s logical: We’re showing off more of our bodies so we want to make sure that what had previously been covered looks acceptable once it becomes not covered. Vain as it may be, it’s part of the human condition to have concern for physical appearance. If you’re a gay man though, you may be even more likely to spend time thinking about and attending to your appearance than all the rest of us and it begs the question of whether there are negative consequences to this kind of attentiveness.

In my therapy practice, I find that most gay men feel moderate to extreme pressure to look as physically fit as possible as well as to appear generally attractive and well put together at pretty much all times. For some, it seems to simply be an accepted part of life albeit a lot of work to keep up with. For others, the pressures around being a certain weight and feeling attractive enough has clear psychological consequences. These consequences run the gamut, ranging from negative self-image all the way to disordered behaviors such as restricting food or even purging. Statistics provided by the National Eating Disorders Association estimate that up to 42 percent of males with eating disorders identify as gay. When considering that gay men are thought to be only about 5 percent of the population, that number is massive.

To be clear, body image and the desire to be thin is not the only reason that someone develops an eating disorder. Eating disorders can relate to a strong need to feel in control. If a person is feeling out of control in their lives overall, controlling food and eating habits can become one way that they feel in control. In other words, being gay doesn’t give people eating disorders but it may mean that a gay man with other risk factors (for an eating disorder) is more likely to actually develop an eating disorder than his straight male counterpart.

In recent years, we’ve just begun to embrace ideas like self-love and body positivity as a society; however, these messages have in no way replaced the more-pervasive idea of the “perfect” body. We are constantly pummeled with unrealistic ideas of physical beauty and attractiveness. Within the gay male community, this is even more true. One community member that I spoke with about the subject said, “I feel a lot of pressure. I can look at someone hot and feel pressured by it because that’s how I want to look too. Guys in the gay community: You have to look a certain way. You have to be fashion-conscious and you have to have a good body.” Another gay man I spoke with about the topic discussed restricting his caloric intake “on most days” as summer months approach, admitting that it’s easier for him to “be a little hungry” than to deal with going to the gym multiple times a week.

For a gay male grappling with all of this pressure to look good, ideas about body positivity may fall short of making an impact. I think it behooves all of us to focus on interacting with our bodies in positive ways. Activities like yoga, massage, stretching, or even a calming bath can help to change the associations we have to our bodies.  It is also important to reflect on your relationship to the bodies of others. Being overly critical or judgmental of a fellow community member’s physical appearance only perpetuates these uncomfortably high standards for gay men.

It is completely typical to care about physical appearance. In fact, attentiveness to one’s physicality can perpetuate good health, both psychologically and physically as long as that attentiveness doesn’t turn into hyper-focus or worse, obsession. A good method to try to avoid overthinking appearance is this: Focus on feeling good in your own skin and shift your attention away from other people’s appearances (if the reason for looking is to compare yourself to them). Focus on health over good looks and aspire to be kind to yourself and others instead of critical and unforgiving. We only get this one life, so let’s not waste it worrying too much about the superficial.
 
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and the owner of Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).

With Valentine’s Day approaching, most of us are forced to turn our attention to dating, relationships and love. But it’s also a day that plenty of people try to ignore, reject or celebrate only reluctantly. Lots of people question why there is an entire day dedicated to romantic love. Why not a day where we celebrate friendships with the same level of vim and vigor?

The holidays are over and winter is in full swing. It’s been ridiculously cold, icy, windy (at this writing) and just generally miserable outside. And well, that can often make us miserable too. It’s probably easy to deduce that the current climate is not especially conducive to psychological well-being. In fact, certain things about winter are counterproductive to our mental health and wellness.

 

In the last six or so weeks, the women of Hollywood decided to finally speak up about producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual assault against women. After years and years of forced silence, the issue of non-consensual sex and sexual interaction has taken the forefront. It has extended from Hollywood to politics to our own backyards and back again, revealing common problems with sex and consent.

Americans are stressed out about politics. We are stressed about the future and we are stressed about surviving Donald Trump. Within the last year, I have so often found myself having if-these-walls-could-talk moments as client after client comes into my psychotherapy office wanting to discuss politics instead of their own lives. Of course, the content and types of talk vary from person to person: Trump, North Korea, Russia, racism, LGBT rights, health care, taxes, the environment, white supremacy — to name a few. 

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