Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Fashion model and "genetic lottery winner" Cameron Russell's TEDTalk presentation was a thought-provoking account of how the fashion world manipulates and manufactures unobtainable -- and ultimately damaging -- images of beauty to women.
It left me thinking, Man, you heteros have it easy.
You see, something similar has been happening to gay men, but with a twist. In our world, it's not just models who are expected to rip off their clothes and expose themselves to the gaze of everyone within eyeshot. It's all of us -- even those of us who are, well, not quite lottery winners.
And we don't rely on a phalanx of professional image-makers. My gay brethren have perfected the art of self-portraiture in bathrooms across America. In these tiled photo studios, we play the role of stylist, model, photographer, and retoucher. The "shoot" goes something like this: we stand in front of the mirror, lift our shirt, flex our pecs, suck in our gut, position the camera so that our faces aren't in the frame, and start snapping.
Where do these faceless pictures end up? Not on the pages of a glitzy fashion magazine. Instead, when we're done pulling a Weiner (as in Anthony, D-NY!), these shots get uploaded to our Grindrs, Jack'ds, or any one of the other countless gay dating apps lurking in our smartphones. There, amid a sea of bite-sized photos, we lie in wait, hoping that someone will find our nipple or shoulder sufficiently tantalizing and strike up a conversation with us.
In full disclosure, I am the owner and founder of one of these geolocation-based dating apps: MISTER. MISTER and some of these apps are helping gay men take a major step forward in their journey to self-acceptance. They make it easier than ever for us to connect with one another. That's progress, especially for people living in parts of the world where being gay is considered a criminal act.
But there's also a flipside. While these powerful apps have brought us together in many meaningful ways, they're also perpetuating a culture rooted in unrealistic images of beauty. While gay culture has always been obsessed with good looks and youth (OK, and female vocalists too) it's now being refined by mobile apps that leave little space to celebrate our differences. We've reduced ourselves to products, and in the process, we're losing a bit of our humanity.
These apps are the first exposure many of today's youngest gay people have to gay culture. Implicitly, and more often explicitly, we tell the most vulnerable in our midst that in order to have currency in our community, you must fit a narrow, evanescent version of beauty. No washboard abs? No gym-perfected pecs? Not white enough? Sorry, you aren't welcome. Thank God these apps weren't around when I was a teenager, because I'm pretty sure my younger, more fragile self would have run right back into the closet.
Most of us realize the superficiality of it all, but we willingly take part in it anyway. Obsessively. Addictively. Trust me, I've seen the typical app usage statistics. Maybe we're just hopeless romantics, but a more likely explanation is that we're looking for a brief, fleeting feeling of validation. It's a powerful tonic for many of us who never had authentic validation growing up, when we were told that we should be ashamed of our attractions and feelings. This pain, stuffed down for years, has stayed with us, like the rotten core of an otherwise perfect apple.
As the owner of one of these apps, am I being hypocritical in my criticism of them? Perhaps. I'm the first to admit that I'm just as guilty of buying into the myth. I too desire validation -- although, at 41, I do know better. But I also truly believe that these apps have the ability to empower us, improve our lives, liberate us, connect us, and provide immense support and strength to those of us who need it.
When I created MISTER, I wanted to encourage a sense of community and responsibility among members. I encouraged users to show their faces instead of their headless torsos. MISTER users also agree to a code of conduct that basically says they aren't going to be douchebags to one another. Yeah, it's the little things that sometimes make the biggest difference. And you know what? Barely a day goes by without someone writing me and thanking me for creating a respect-oriented place that affirms the beauty of difference rather than squashing it.
So the next time you find yourself in that bathroom with the perfect lighting, think about the beauty myth Cameron talks about so eloquently. And maybe, just maybe, tilt that camera upward instead and show off not your anonymous torso but your face -- without filters and without shame.
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