Walking in West Hollywood last week reminded me of how important it truly is to be your own individual. I found myself picking up on the simple things: Couples of the same sex walking hand in hand, people wearing different types of clothing, and even small gestures of affection, by anyone and everyone, were evident at all times. After all, it is the little things that we notice and practice that provide progress and ultimately encourage a larger movement.
Yet in the heart of a city where individuality is widely celebrated, I couldn't help but notice a tragic commonality that I feel stamps a negative label onto an entire population: The LGBT community, and gay men in particular, are finding progress on a continual basis in terms of the freedom to be ourselves, but we strive for physical perfection and possess an unappeasable desire for success. So are we ultimately tying ourselves down to a nonstop race based on nothing more than appearance or the physical?
We probably devote more time and effort to refining our physical selves than any other group out there. We generally eat better, are more conscious concerning nutritional intake, and take care of our physical appearance. But with this great consciousness concerning our health also comes a great burden. For what? To strive for the unattainable? To constantly question who we are and what our values are? To constantly wonder whether what we have or what we are will ever be enough? We all know that there is a significant difference between "healthy" and "obsessed." And many gay men engage in fitness to quench the unquenchable: body image.
I think it is easy to say that gay (and some straight) men are using something tangible to feel socially acceptable because we've spent some or all our lives as outcasts. Because many of us go through great trials in our early years and even into adulthood thanks to social norms, we often focus on things that we are able to control: academics, careers and our physical exterior. So while many gay men are very successful, determined, and devoted, we work overtime in our efforts to not be socially ostracized.
I hate to admit this, but personality overwhelmingly seems to come second to looks. Isn't it ironic that the purpose of coming out of the closet is to finally be who we are? Instead, we have almost put ourselves in another enclosure, torturing ourselves trying to fit whatever it is that the greater number of us is doing.
During my time in West Hollywood, I got together with friends for good conversation, planned upcoming projects, watched hoards of people pass me by, and witnessed hundreds of guys at the gym. I couldn't help but wonder, "How many men behind the smiles and facades are struggling, fighting themselves, and stopping at nothing to be what they accept as true that makes them unique?" More importantly, "How many of these men are simply not living?" I have to admit that I was strangely triggered by all the focus on appearance and the constant buzz about eating habits and exercise regimens.
It's interesting, too, how evident the media's effect on our culture truly has become. Not even a block from the gym, where men were all shapes and sizes, was a billboard urging individual testing for HIV/STIs. This attempt at health awareness was great, but with a billboard less than a block away that showcased the "picture-perfect" image of chiseled abs, I couldn't help but shake my head. This public display probably makes anyone who views it unconsciously associate good looks with sex, positive body image, and getting what you want. Again, I thought individuality (whatever form that may be) was a hallmark of our movement?
To string all points together, it's unfortunate that gay men with an unhealthy body image can ultimately hurt our shared commitment to individuality and the wider perception of our community. Why? Because we have failed to challenge the many reasons (e.g., media, mental health issues, etc.) that we suffer with an unhealthy preoccupation with the physical. Personally, I have struggled many times over with my physical appearance, how much I weigh, how my looks have changed, what my true values are, and where I do or don't "fit." However, I try not to subscribe to a philosophy that sees me continuing to fixate on my body, because that feeds insecurities in multiple areas of my life and even attempts to make me believe that such a philosophy is justified. None of us needs to feel a perceived feeling of failure, ever. By feeling as if we have failed, we often miss out on engaging in, and feeling more accepted by, the larger LGBT community.
I realize that this is a "surface-level" explanation, but be your own person, any shape, size, ethnicity, color, etc., you may be. If you don't have a trendy hairstyle, don't possess a certain occupation, and don't enjoy the gym and all its perceived benefits, then be your own person. Go where you wish to go, pray where you wish to pray, find what makes you happy, and don't conform to what the collective group is insisting. You're gay for a reason, and you're an individual for a reason, so prove it.