What sort of male bodies were you surrounded by when you were a child? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit recently. You see, I’m trying to understand where gay men’s ideas of what a body should look like might come from. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I became aware of the developing bodies of my peers. I still remember the first sight of Kevin Bishop’s huge pubic bush in the shower - a glimpse which, I’m sure, fuelled the realization that I was gay. But mutant pubic hair and growing penises aside, not once do I remember encountering anything bordering on the bulked out, disproportionate figure of the 'Muscle Mary,' or someone who resembled a walnut jammed into a condom, that so many gay men appear to aspire to.
Then there was the body of my father. Isn’t this the first male body that we see as children? He was masculine, strong and confident with a body that made me feel safe, but was far from being buff or anything that resembled a gym body. All of the other dads around the neighborhood were the same: ordinary looking men - a far cry from the immaculately toned Greek gods that dominate the gay scene.
I can think of no other group of people who judge their bodies, and other people’s, as harshly as gay men. Perhaps, on some level, we’re trying to prove that we’re just as good - if not much better - than our fathers, or to the boys in the playground who consistently ignored us whenever they played football. But the extremes that many gay men go to in pursuit of the body beautiful seem endless - and more and more alarming.
Body dysmorphic disorder in gay men is now at its zenith, with many feeling under stifling pressure to conform to a particular type and achieve a perceived level of perfection, which is increasingly difficult - and destructive - to sustain. If we’re not down the gym four to five days a week and monitoring every calorie like an athlete, we feel that we’ve failed. And then, of course, there are the warped preconceptions of heterosexual people. How many times have you heard a straight woman cry, "It’s not fair! All you gay guys have the hottest bodies!"? Yawn.
The rise of the commercial online world - particularly mobile apps - has had a tremendous impact on gay men’s body image. One only has to log on to an app to be inundated with demands for 'no fats, no fems' and 'gym fit only.' The proliferation of gleaming, apparently perfect naked torso shots has raised the bar on what the ideal body should look like - no matter that many of these photographed bodies appear to be headless and that seeing the eyes is, they say, a gateway to the soul. We’re living in an age where immediacy is everything, a swipe-through era often devoid of meaningful connection and interaction, in which a 'personality' is allowed only 40 characters in which to express itself - and what it desires. Those who claim that no part of them judges a person’s online profile on the look of a body are, I would suggest, lying. Sadly, we are becoming socially - and technologically - conditioned to place frequently digitally enhanced aesthetics ahead of any authenticity.
But we do have a choice. We can challenge how we view our bodies and other gay men’s. Perhaps it starts with this question: how many of the owners of those muscular bodies - those dance and sex machines - that we see in the clubs at the weekend are genuinely content? It has always astounded me how many gay men have the outer bodies of a warrior - an Incredible Hulk - but are falling apart on the inside under the weight of unaddressed self-loathing and an insatiable demand for affirmation. I’ve looked on incredulous as I’ve seen men ingest what looks like cleaning fluid, alone in the dark corners of clubs, when I know they consume little more than protein shakes throughout the week. None of it makes sense - but it does destroy: just look at the rise in HIV rates and chemsex on the scene as gay men take ever greater risks with those magnificent physiques to be adored. I recall a recent exchange, in the early hours of the morning outside a club, with a man with the body of an Adonis, but the face and attitude of one of the witches from MacBeth. He glanced dismissively at a slender man who possessed the kindest, loveliest eyes I had seen that night. "My body is a temple. His is a shanty town," he laughed, pointing dismissively at the other guy. "Possibly," I replied. "But who is starving to death inside?"
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