I remember that day in first grade. He had called me “gay” on the playground and we had to have a meeting with our teacher about it. I don’t know how or why I knew that being called “gay” was bad, but I did. I felt the warm wash of shame come over me when we met with Mrs. Hudson. The meeting was a reminder that there was something wrong with me — something to be made fun of.
Sure I was “different” from the other boys. I opted out of playing sports at recess to play with the girls because they played more interesting things — like “Teenagers.” You just had to pretend to be a teenager and do anything that your little 6-year-old mind perceived a teenager to do. I thought this game was awesome, and I was damn good at it.
I struggled to dribble a basketball, so the idea of trading in my role as a teenager to practice layups with the other boys at recess sounded like hell. However, my knack for fantasy play did not earn me much street cred. Quite the opposite. And it was that day in first grade when I first realized that my natural inclinations were bad. Not only were they bad, but they also would bring me ridicule and name-calling — names like “gay,” the worst thing anyone could be called.
So I did what any kid would do. I tried to zip it up. I learned at a young age to avoid behaviors that would make me a target.
- Don’t cross your legs while sitting.
- Don’t let your wrists go limp.
- Don’t talk about the things you like to do like coloring, playing pretend, or writing skits.
- Try to talk in the deepest voice possible.
- Do not wear any feminine colors — pinks, reds, or purples — even though I thought the color pink was totally glamorous.
- Don’t cry when something hurts or moves you.
I even tried my hand at sports, even though I hated sports. This attempt wasn’t very successful and usually looked something like this:
It’s hard to reject all your natural impulses at the age of 6.
My story is many gay men’s story. Many of us had a rough time in school because we were identified as different and mocked for it. We were sent the message from a young age (during the critical periods of brain development) that we were not good enough. We were teased, called faggot, or made to feel like we had to squelch who we were in order to fit in to what was deemed natural and okay.
And though I’d like to say that my gay brothers and I grew up to suffer little to no ramifications from having such a background, I’m afraid that isn’t the case. Each year, the CDC report shows that gay men suffer from high rates of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Through reports like these, it is clear that many gay men continue to struggle with their mental health. And recently, a notable and pervasive issue with a more physical focus has started to plague the gay male community.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a psychological diagnosis that refers to one’s preoccupation with a perceived defect or flaw with his or her physical appearance. This can lead to repetitive behaviors like mirror-checking, excessive working out, reassurance seeking, etc. And gay men have become the new face for BDD.
It’s no secret that gay men are obsessed with their bodies. What other reason could explain the obsession with working out and the endless shirtless selfies on Instagram? Gay men even categorize each other based on physical appearance by using words like twink, otter, or bear (straight people, Google these words if you don’t know what they mean).
And despite all of this diverse classifying based on physical characteristics, there is an ideal that most gay men try to achieve. So what is it? What would the ideal man look like if a gay man was able to create him? Apparently someone who looks a lot like Zac Efron.
Even Efron’s straight co-star, Seth Rogen gets the gay guy’s type. When describing Efron, Rogen recently said that he “looked like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory.”
There are many theories that attempt to explain gay men’s complicated relationship with their bodies, but the most viable is that of Alan Downs. In his book, The Velvet Rage, he discusses the role that shame-based trauma plays in how gay men construct their sense of self. Being raised in a milieu where you’re told you don’t measure up to the masculine ideal sets most young gay boys up to feel they need to overcompensate to hold onto other people’s affections. And many gay men have attempted to hold onto those affections by attempting to perfect their bodies.
When someone has a history of rejection (being called faggot on the playground, getting crammed into lockers, mercilessly ridiculed for more feminine interests, etc.) he might work tirelessly to achieve acceptance throughout his life. Rejection creates a thirst for acceptance.
It’s important to note that changing one’s mannerisms, personality, and interests are difficult to do, if not impossible. But changing one’s body is more achievable. So in the quest to attain acceptance, the gay man’s best strategy is to attain the masculine body ideal (a.k.a. Zac Efron — bulging pecs and washboard abs).
By working out tirelessly and reaping the sexual attention that comes from such intense workouts, the gay man can temporarily assuage the root anxiety and fear he carries about being rejected. Working out is the one thing he can control… heavier sets, more protein shakes, more crunches. And, in turn, he can have his choice of sexual partners and temporary male acceptance.
Although a creative coping mechanism, it does nothing to address the root problems: self-hatred and shame. When you feel badly about yourself, gym time and exercise cannot be the only ways to heal that wound. When physical attractiveness becomes the primary value, it produces a setup where there is fierce competition among gay men to attract partners and physical attractiveness becomes the main comparison point.
In an article that went viral a few years ago, Buzzfeed writer Louis Peitzman talked openly about the pain of being an overweight gay man who struggles to measure up to the gay physical ideal in his article, “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat.” He writes:
“The truth is, the gay community isn’t interested in embracing overweight people because we’re a blemish on the image of perfection. And much in the same way progressives as a whole can get away with ignoring anti-fat bigotry, gay men never bother examining the way they treat their overweight brothers. Ignore us or relegate us to the butt of hackneyed jokes: We just don’t matter. It doesn’t get better for us.”
The gay men who buy into this drive for a perfect body to hide their insecurities are actually hurting themselves and others who don’t measure up. Chiseling the perfect body is a great distraction from the underlying feeling of not being good enough. But it short-circuits the gay man’s ability to address the root problem and to process emotion deeply and authentically.
I was appalled by one gay man’s attempt to explain away the body dysmorphia that runs rampant among gay guys. In his article, Orlando Soria actually justified his BDD with this argument:
“I appreciate that Gays are so body-oriented because it forces us all to be really physically fit, which leads to a happier life with more wardrobe options. Ultimately our body dysmorphia is a good thing which will force our community to outlive our straight peers and take over the world.”
I suspect Soria is being somewhat cheeky here, but the quote is still telling. It exemplifies the hedged emotional processing that most gay men partake in. This body obsession isn’t about being physically healthy; it’s about overcompensating for an internalized fear of rejection and self-hatred due to a childhood and adolescence filled with shaming. Make no mistake about what the true purpose is. Gay men pay for gym memberships and personal trainers in droves to offset the nagging shame gremlins that lurk in their psyches. Physical health has very little (if anything) to do with it.
Carrying internalized shame squelches emotional processing (as illustrated by Soria’s article) because it tells us that we can’t handle what is actually behind the curtain covering the darkest corners of our minds. Shame tells us that a perfect body to plaster all over Instagram is the only thing that can keep people interested in us. Shame tells us that with excessive workouts, calorie counting, and emotion avoidance, we can achieve happiness and contentment. But shame is what keeps the high rates of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and depression alive and well in the gay community, and, brothers, shame is telling us lies.
The lies we’ve accepted in order to avoid looking at our real vulnerabilities can be hard to shake, but with practice and patience we can adopt new, healthy coping skills.
- Learn how to process emotion. This sounds simplistic, but it is crucial for anyone who desires strong mental health. If you need a good book as a primer to figure out how to understand and process your emotions better, I recommend Brene Brown’s Rising Strong and Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage. Both books will kick your ass and put you through an emotional boot camp. Also, there’s no shame in seeking the help of a professional therapist if you get stuck. In the meantime, here’s a quick breakdown by Dr. Will Meek on how to recognize and process emotion. Consider it a complimentary Emotions 101 class.
- Make intentional choices. Become aware of which people and environments cause you to feel triggered and run for the gym to pump more iron. Are you triggered by certain gay bars? Do certain “friends” in your life make you feel ugly when you’re in their presence? Prepare yourself before you interact with these triggers. Practice giving yourself self-acceptance before you enter into such environments and grow your ability to recognize when you give that power away to someone or something else. For example, I practice daily meditation to help with this and highly recommend apps like Headspace to get you started if you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to meditation.
- Don’t be a bitch. I mean it. If you don’t want to be scrutinized and shamed, then stop doing it to others. Don’t nitpick other people’s appearance. Stop choosing your friends based primarily on their physical attractiveness. And while you’re at it, quit shaming other gay men for being feminine or having “gay” interests. The beauty of the LGBTQ+ community is that it brings diversity and a much-needed differing perspective into our world. However, I fear that gay men, in their attempt to conform and feel good enough, will suppress their beautiful, different perspectives in an attempt to fit the masculine ideal. Knock it off, and quit contributing to the problem.
I understand the temptation to overlook the struggles of the gay community, especially after the hard-fought battle we’ve endured just to be taken seriously and treated equally. Brandon Ambrosino gracefully articulated this temptation in an article he wrote for The Atlantic:
“Obviously, this question [about the rate gay men suffer from body dysmorphia] is politically charged. Anti-gay politicians are more than ready to pathologize any traits gay men may have in common. On the flip side, many gay-rights activists go to great lengths to deny altogether that there are any identifying features of what opponents pejoratively term ‘the gay lifestyle.’”
It’s this tension that can keep many out gay men in a different kind of closet. A closet that puts pressure on them to shun vulnerability and authenticity. But we can’t deny the truth. I can’t personally stand by while my gay brothers are struggling and hurting due to unique challenges that our community continues to face. We are suffering and it’s time we allow ourselves to come out of this new closet and talk about it.
So come on out. Step out of there and into a more authentic way of living.
Oh, but one more thing: before you do come out of this closet, grab a shirt. We don’t need one more damn shirtless selfie.