When self-acceptance comes with a side of self-hatred.
Image: Vera Lair / Stocksy
"Do you think coming out made your body image problems and eating disorder worse?"
I waited for him to answer even though I knew what he would say. I'd heard it so many times before in my therapy practice.
"Yes, 100 percent," he said. "My eating disorder increased significantly once I came out of the closet."
The sad resignation in his voice made my eyes well up a bit.
It shouldn't be like this, I thought. Coming out shouldn't make things worse. It's supposed to get better.
I've thought a lot about this client and the many gay men I've worked with since who've sat in my therapy office and mentioned how coming out has exacerbated their eating and body struggles. Gay men are known to have a complicated relationship with their bodies—and I've spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering why this relationship exists.
I remember first realizing the dynamic as a scrawny, closeted high schooler watching Will and Grace. In one episode, Will and Jack joked about their friend who was "straight skinny" but "gay fat." Although the line got a laugh, it was still a loud commentary on how gay men should think about and treat their bodies: Perfect them and make them look hotter than straight people's. The gay man's inferiority conveyed in that line was and still is palpable to me. Competing with straight people to look hotter is an issue of its own, but our body-obsessive thinking has done more considerable and direct damage within the gay community.
In the early days of gay rights, members of our community forged strong bonds through their activism. However, as our community has battled oppression, AIDS, inequality, and hate, our camaraderie has taken a bit of a hit. The brotherhood of support has shifted from one of collaboration to one of competition. I see it in the dismissive glances given to the gay man whose physique doesn't meet the ideal of low body fat, bulging pecs, and sculpted abs. I hear it in the femme-shaming done to each other, and I read it in the "masc for masc" headlines on all the dating apps. We are fiercely competitive with one another and look for any chance to elevate ourselves above another gay brother.
This competition is expected in some ways—we do date each other. Can you imagine how much meaner Mean Girls would have been if those girls were also trying to sleep with each other? That plotline would have been savage AF. In some ways, that very scenario can be the competitive milieu gay men find themselves in once they step out of the closet: a vicious, body comparison tournament in which they are pitted against their friends, frenemies, potential hook-ups, and even their significant others. One man articulately summed up how this competitive nature affected his body insecurities and subsequent relationships in a recent article he wrote for Out:
"I'm too insecure to date. And after constantly putting myself through this emotional ringer, I don't want to date. I don't want to be with anyone, I don't want to have sex with anyone, I don't want to so much as look at anyone because the process of seeking love/affection/compassion has broken me. Absolutely and unequivocally."
So while competition is expected in the dating world, gay men are creating a culture in which they are competing in every relationship they have. When someone has a history of rejection (like being called faggot on the playground, getting crammed into lockers, being mercilessly ridiculed for more feminine interests, etc.), he might work tirelessly to achieve acceptance throughout his life. Rejection creates a thirst for acceptance. But when your new community—the one that is supposed to be a supportive haven for people just like you—is telling you that you need to look hot and muscular or else you can't sit at the table, you feel extra pressure to get your body to meet some pretty unrealistic expectations and simultaneously relegate other aspects of your person.
Sometimes these comments from other gay men may not be overtly or intentionally hurtful. My friend, Bryan Woita, who cares a lot about his physical fitness and works out a lot, told me how he's affected when other gay men comment on this body:
"I have felt twinges of insecurity when I am jokingly called a twink or my body type is described as twinkish or skinny, mainly because my biggest struggle with my body is maintaining my weight or gaining mass. It does hurt to hear those things even if they aren't intended to injure me because they strike upon my biggest insecurity: my size."
Although Bryan doesn't have an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, his reaction highlights a pressure many gay men feel when trying to hit the muscular ideal.
Some gay men argue that working out is a good thing for our community because it encourages physical health and beauty. But these habits aren't innocuous in this context. If you don't believe me, just look at the rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia among us gays.
One thing I've learned from working with clients who've experienced trauma and eating disorders is that our bodies speak the pain we've experienced. When a client comes to me with disordered eating or body dysmorphic tendencies, I ask myself: What is their body trying to say?
I believe that when a gay man works tirelessly to perfect his physique, his body is often communicating desperation to fit in. When he plasters himself half-naked on social media, he's usually shouting his need for approval and affirmation. When he chooses not to associate with other gay men who have less-than-ideal bodies, he's communicating a need to appear perfect. Pain is written in and on the body. It doesn't matter if the body is muscular, chiseled, soft, malnourished, or broken, each body speaks a message—it's up to you to figure out what yours is saying.
I also believe many gay men have learned to treat their bodies as a form of currency—a way to get affirmation and acceptance in exchange for sex. We see the results of it with one scroll through our body-obsessed culture laden with depression and substance abuse. I am not arguing for gay men to abstain from sex or from working out (I have a gym membership myself). Rather, I am advocating for sexual expression and exercise that doesn't cause inferiority and shame. The dismissive glances, body-shaming comments, and headless torso pictures on Grindr all coalesce to keep gay men trapped in their bodies without respite. They're left trying to communicate pain through the only ways they know how: perfection and overcompensation.
I'd like our community to be more characterized by the love we have for one another outside of the bedroom. Lord knows that we gay boys have had our share of struggles. But it would be a whole hell of a lot easier to thrive if we could leave the competitiveness to the contestants on Finding Prince Charming and learn to love our bodies for what they're capable of and the history they bear—not solely on how they look.