Thomas Fewer asked GMP readers four questions about gay culture, men, and body image. Here’s what you told him.
Previously, I posed four questions with the intention of opening up a discussion on a topic that I feel has not been adequately addressed, given its severity. My hope was to bring an increased awareness the issue of gay men and eating disorders in order to provide an outlet for those affected, to share their thoughts. I want to thank all of the respondents for their openness and sincerity. To recap, the four questions I asked:
- Do you believe that body image issues and eating disorders are prevalent in the male gay community?
- If so, what do you think causes and perpetuates these issues?
- How have these problems impacted you or someone close to you?
- Would you like to add anything else to this discussion that you feel is important to note?
Before I share what I’ve learned, I want to say a few words about my biases going into this discussion. Twelve years ago, I had a close friend who is a gay male who I noticed wouldn’t eat at all on certain days of the week. When I asked him about this he said that he “never eats on days when I’m going out to the bars.” If he did mess up and eat something he would make himself throw up out of fear that he wouldn’t look good enough that night or be able to fit into his clothes.
As I got to know him I learned that he truly believed that when he lost his sex appeal and youth he would have nothing left to offer anyone. My assumption prior to writing this was that the vast majority of body image issues and eating disorders are caused and continued by the pressure to be young and beautiful for the attention and acceptance of other men. Here’s how I was right and I was wrong.
Michael D., 20, summed up his thoughts on the prevalence of eating disorders among gay men as follows:
Honestly, the male gay community is most probably the #1 place to find people with eating disorders. I truly believe that it is the biggest community of people with eating disorders, bypassing dancers, models, etc. Because the ideals of the gay community revolve around sexual pleasure. And from a young age we are told that sexual pleasures come from the “sexiest” people, and the “sexiest” people in the gay community are skinny and muscled. It puts a lot of pressure on someone, and when the pressure becomes too much people resort to desperate ways to “perfect” themselves. The easier ways.
Christopher C., 51, agrees with Michael that a risk factor for gay men developing eating disorders is “a gay culture obsessed with physical attractiveness.” He goes on to add a second risk factor:
A sexual orientation crisis—the traumatic event—that predisposes a person to cope with the perceived conflict/problem in an unhealthy way to numb feelings, such as through an eating disorder or substance abuse. I am under the impression that gay and bisexual men tend to have a somewhat higher prevalence rate than bisexual and homosexual males in the general population.But, it is important to realize that both heterosexual and homosexual males are affected by eating disorders. Research on males with eating disorders is very limited. Further studies are needed on males with eating disorders, including studying the effects of sexual orientation among males with eating disorders.
Jason D., 40, shared his personal experiences of trying to understand how the relationship between being gay, proving masculinity, and maintaining body image has played out in his life.
“Before I knew what gay was I was an athlete. As I matured and grew into being gay, sports was a masculine way for me to say I was bigger, better, and faster (BBF) than people who challenged me. More often than not they never challenged me but man was I ready if they did. In my professional years I became a cop and my commitment to BBF grew even more.Now, not only was I BBF, I shot guns and caught criminals better than they did. In my quest to become the best cop and BBF I spent so much time at work, working out, and shooting that I ran my marriage into the ground. My husband left me because I was never home and we lost each other. Years later we married after this three year separation. We still struggle with my commitment to BBF.
Michael D., 20, goes on to describe how body image issues have impacted him personally.
“It’s really hard being my size in the gay community, I don’t like to go to gay bars, and I really don’t like meeting gay people because I feel like they are constantly judging me. I’m currently 5’8″ and 212 lbs. Although I know that I am not by any means HUGE, I still feel like the gay community views me as being huge.
Michael sums up his response by stating:
I could be here for hours telling you that I want to be skinny and bitching that I’m a fat ass who loves food and can’t make himself throw up.
But when it all comes down to it I have to take responsibility for my actions and so does everyone else. It’s not safe what we do to ourselves, but we feel like it’s the only way out. To us it’s ride or die. Go hard or go home. Throw up, or be fat. And being fat is a terrible option. It’s not fair, and the self image issues begin when we are children and grow even worse as you age. Eating disorders are not necessary, but they’re easier. And EVERYONE wants the easy way out … . It’s just easier.”
Justin sees body image issues as more universal.
“I think body image issues have become a cross cultural problem for men and women both gay and straight across all ages.I recently ran into a former co-worker who had lost 130 pounds. He’s stick thin. He showed a picture of himself with two celebrities and he found pride in saying that this was “the first time he was the skinniest person in the picture.” It was scary.
So what have we learned from this discussion? Body image issues and eating disorders are prevalent in the gay male community. The reasons for their development, though, are more diverse than I assumed. I still believe that the desire to be perceived as physically attractive is the number one cause but it’s not that simple when it plays out in an individual male’s life. Other factors such as defining and proving masculinity as well as dealing with unresolved trauma are also risk factors that cannot be discounted. A culture that idolizes youth and views the aging process as something to be avoided doesn’t help either, whether you’re gay, straight or somewhere in between.
If you are a male suffering from an eating disorder or know a male suffering from an eating disorder the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders is a resource where they can find help. Their website is www.NAMEDinc.org and Christopher C. is the executive director.
For further reading on this topic please take a look at this research article at the National Institute of Health (NIH) which finds that gay and bisexual males are indeed at higher risk for eating disorders than the general public.
Again, let me thank all who responded for their openness and sincerity.
Read more from the Body Image series on The Good Life.
—Photo credit: petter palander/Flickr