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The body image issues of gay men are wildly out of control. How did it get to this point and what can we do about it?

When it comes to exercise, all of my gay friends can be placed in one of either two categories. The first is the dedicated gym goer, obsessed with making gains, finding the perfect down lighting and taking that ultimate shirtless selfie (sorry to say I can include myself in this group, although minus the selfies).

The second group tends to have a more relaxed attitude to exercise. But the mere mention of the word “gym” can provoke a torrent of catty remarks:

“I don’t need to go to the gym and lift weights. Only short guys need to do that.”

“All this exercise and healthy eating, I think you have a problem.” (From the guy who chain-drinks Coca Cola.)

And the one that cut the deepest and still rankles. Wait for it…….

“You’re 33 now anyway. What’s the point? Isn’t it time to give it up?”

We all have our quirks and insecurities and I try to be mindful of that in my friendships. I soon learned to curb the gym talk and keep schtum. And whilst my friends’ comments were hurtful, I realised they too were hurting. Unbeknownst to me I had touched on some very, very deep wounds.

As gay men, we might not all share the same passion for working out, but when it comes to our physicality there is something the vast majority of us do have in common; a very poor body image. Most of my adult life has been governed by the misguided belief, “I’ll be happy when my body looks better.” Joy and relationships are postponed and that elusive day of physical perfection still awaits.

You don’t have to delve too deep to understand why gay men have such tortured relationships with their bodies. The diet of homophobia we are fed throughout our  development years has obvious ramifications. Inevitably much of this shame is internalised and develops into a lack of self-acceptance, which in turn expresses itself through various unhealthy behaviours including a fixation with our bodies.    

Masculinity is a matter of great sensitivity for most gay men. Being made to feel as though we’re not “real men” has left many of us with a deep drive to vanquish those insecurities and achieve the masculine “ideal”.

I have often thought that weight-lifting was really just an attempt to quell that persistent voice that made us feel less than. Throughout my development years, it seemed to be open season on my masculinity (or lack thereof). Unfortunately some part of me does now seem to gain satisfaction from confounding expectations and silencing those lingering doubts. Alan Downs corroborates this in his book the Velvet Rage: “The apparent motive for bodybuilding is to achieve a beautiful physique, however the underlying motive is to relieve shame.”

When a question mark hangs over our acceptance for large parts of our life, we often redirect our focus to the surface, to the exterior, subconsciously hoping that will compensate for what’s inside. Gay people can’t control the discrimination they face or their sexuality, but unhealthy eating habits and obsessive levels of exercise can offer a regained sense of control, as many sufferers of eating disorders can attest to.

A muscular physique is social capital and nowhere is that more keenly felt than on social media. Unless you’re a high profile celebrity or blogger, the main way to attract a large number of followers is to get your pump on, get your kit off and maintain a steady stream of shirtless selfies on your page.

Muscular Adonises, who were once confined to the pages of fitness magazines and Hollywood blockbusters, are now commonplace in our media landscape. Bodybuilding has well and truly hit the mainstream. Muscular physiques are now being achieved by mere mortals like you and I and the evidence is splashed all across Instagram et al.

It’s not news that sex is deeply embedded in almost every facet of gay culture. Whether it’s the bars, media or the dating apps, the message of sex can be heard loud and clear. Gay media just amplifies the pressure with their use of hyper-muscular models with otherworldly good looks. Youth and beauty are placed on a pedestal above all else.

It must be so hard for people who are struggling with their body image to log onto social media and see the endless shirtless selfies. Many of my friends have commented on how their moods dip significantly when they do so. But I too am helping drive this culture by following myriad Insta hotties. I am by no means some innocent bystander.

And despite my fixation with the body beautiful, the delicious irony was that when love did come knocking, physical appearance didn’t really enter the equation at all. Of the only two men I’ve ever fallen for, neither of them even came close to being “gym fit”. One of them even considered it a badge of honour not to have ever stepped foot in one. But they were interested in me, seemed to “get” me and I didn’t have to be anything other than myself around them. They gave me what most of us are yearning for and what social media likes never can – real, genuine validation.

And for all of those struggling with poor body image – yes it may sound trite, but you really are so much more than your your body fat percentage or your waist size. You have so much more to offer – your personality, your mind, your talents, the quality of your character, the value you contribute to the world. Are you a good son, brother, friend? These are things to really take pride in. I think we would all do well (myself included) to remind ourselves of this more regularly and to shine a spotlight on these qualities much more often.

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Jonny Harvey

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