In pursuit of perfect abs: Gay men’s unrealistic body standards
Typing #gay into Instagram’s search feature reveals a surprising number of men taking shirtless selfies, often revealing chiselled, perfectly defined bodies. Many of these are taken at the gym in what has almost become an obligatory right-of-passage snap for any gay man who works out. These pictures tell us how highly-prized a muscled physique has become for gay men. Another insight comes from the world of online dating and apps, where phrases such as ‘no fats, no fems’ are frequently seen. Most advertising aimed at gay men also tends to reinforce these ideals – one rarely sees bodies that are not muscled on gay cruise ship or nightclub adverts.
While maintaining a toned physique has definite physical health benefits, it seems clear that many gay men are in pursuit of a perfect body not just for the sake of health, but because it has become a gay standard to live up to — one by which attractiveness and sexual prowess are judged. Thus, our definition of what it means to be a gay man now includes a gym-toned body, with a tendency to reject other body types. Mark Simpson — the originator of the term metrosexual — has called this new type of man spornosexual, a combination of a sporty physique with porn star attributes. Much of this man’s identity arises from his body type – maintaining it and ensuring that it is always visible. It is his main form of social and sexual currency.
Having a gym-toned body also intersects with social status as it is an indicator of how much time is spent at the gym in pursuit of the perfect body. Beauty, wellness and fitness do not come cheap – these men have to spend a fair amount to achieve bodily perfection and thus, the association that goes with the perfect body and good looks is that of elevated socio-economic status.
But what are the psychological effects of attempting to live up to these beauty standards? Symptoms of body dysmorphia include depression, poor job performance, sexual anxiety and high-risk behaviours. Some physical issues include steroid abuse, muscle injury and disordered eating habits such as over-reliance on dietary supplements. Body dysmorphic disorder is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder – this translates into an obsession with a perfect body through hours spent in the gym and obsessing about food consumed.
Dr. Scott Griffiths from the University of Melbourne will be conducting research on body image and “bigorexia” (an obsession with achieving a big muscled physique) in gay and bisexual men. “There is some evidence that gay and bisexual men are more vulnerable than heterosexual men to eating and body image disorders, and to using appearance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids,” he states.
Sam Smith recently revealed his struggles with body image and attempts to attain the perfect body: “In the past if I have ever done a photo shoot without so much as a t-shirt on, I have starved myself for weeks in advance…” He is now starting to love and accept his body as it is instead of attempting to live up to unrealistic beauty standards. While much has been written about unrealistic and unhealthy beauty and body image goals for women, this topic is only starting to gain media attention as it applies to gay men. Sam Smith’s revelation has opened up a discussion that is long overdue.
It is encouraging to note that there are some gay subcultures that celebrate different body types. Bears, for instance, are men who have body types that do not fit the image of perfection and they do not aspire to these unrealistic standards. There are even apps that are specifically dedicated to bears. Dedicated spaces for men who do not aspire towards unrealistic bodies are an important act of rebellion and a way for men to love and accept their bodies.
However, in many gay circles, the prevailing feeling is that any man with a different body type is still in some way substandard and that we should all be aspiring towards having a muscled physique. This underlying thinking can be dangerous and can lead to a lack of tolerance. We also need to re-think our association between perfect bodies and good health. While exercise certainly has health benefits, and we know that it is unhealthy to be obese, it is important to recognise that there are many different body types that might fall between these two extremes. Many of these body types may fall short of the perfect gay beauty standard but this does not necessarily mean that they are unhealthy. Additionally, a perfect body does not indicate psychological and emotional health. Our beauty standards are socially created and maintained and should be recognised as such.
While we are a long way off from being more tolerant of different body types and understanding the harm inflicted by unrealistic body images, it is important for us to start the dialogue around these issues and to start to get a better understanding of gay men’s obsession with the perfect body.