I recently came across an interesting study about the risk of eating disorders among queer men. Queer men are much more likely than straight men to acquire eating disorders: the authors theorize that this is because queer men tend to prize thinness in their sexual partners more than straight women do. For instance, queer men are much more likely than straight women to put body shape requests in their personal ads, and several studies have shown the gay subculture to emphasize a young, thin, muscular appearance.
The study focused on the effects of being in a relationship on the risk of eating disorders for queer men. In short, queer men in a relationship are less likely to experience a drive to be thin and less likely to diet frequently; queer men who are satisfied with their relationship status are less likely to be bulimic. The study’s authors theorize that being in a relationship means that one experiences less pressure to be thin in order to get a partner, and that intense focus on eating-related issues in the gay community may leave queer men more vulnerable to eating-related coping strategies than other coping strategies.
Of course, the study does have flaws– like almost every study, the sample is probably not representative, and it’s impossible to know which way the causation goes. It’s possible that men struggling with eating disorders are less likely to form relationships, or that men who have bulimia are less likely to be happy in their relationships. Similarly, both not having a satisfactory relationship and disordered eating could be caused by some third factor, such as other mental illnesses.
Nevertheless, assuming that the authors’ theories on how the causation works are true, it leaves us with some really interesting speculation.
Most importantly, of course, is the necessity of expanding the boundaries of what is considered attractive in gay male culture. A lot of gay male culture tends to present the same body type as attractive: young, muscular, hairless, tanned, white, cis, “straight-acting.” Although some groups (bears, for instance) have made gratifying steps towards depicting lots of different bodies as attractive, they certainly haven’t gone far enough.
Of course, policing people’s attraction is stupid. If you happen to be attracted to muscular, hairless, tanned, straight-acting men, then that is your business and I have nothing to say about it. However, when you describe that kind of man as “hot guys,” when you make fun of someone for not looking like your ideal, when the available porn is pretty much only guys who fit your ideal, when the agreed-upon “hot dudes” are all ones that look like that… that’s when it starts getting problematic. Not only does it Other men who don’t look like the ideal, it creates a social pressure to look one way that, in some men who are already susceptible, will tend to create eating disorders.
Besides, think of the poor guys who are into chubby hairy black femmes. They’ll, like, NEVER be able to find porn they like!
Equally important is one of the issues I like banging on about, which is that many people need a strong, stable support network in order to cope with mental illnesses in general and eating disorders in specific. People need other people! Friendship and relationships are important! This is not meant to shame people who are introverted and have lower needs for friendship, or who for whatever reason or bad luck do not have friends or relationships, but simply to state that as a culture we need to move towards valuing relationships.
I also wonder about how this study relates to straight men. There are certain subcultures (such as fandom, or those that produce any kind of music that could be reasonably played on an “alternative” station) that tend to have women who are very vocal about their sexual attraction and very interested in thin men. I wonder if straight men with eating disorders are more common among these subcultures.
In addition, in more mainstream culture, the physical ideal for men has gotten more and more unrealistically muscular. (See: fitness models, nearly anyone on the cover of Men’s Health.) If the authors’ theories are true, then we should be seeing an increase in muscle dysmorphia in straight men, as they try to seek a partner by becoming bigger and hence more desirable.