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).