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By Russell Etherton
For many gay men, our fears of physical inadequacy and imagined body imperfections lead us to obsess over chiseled pecs, an unattainably low body-fat percentage, washboard abs, and a butt made of steel. When we timidly step on the scale at home, we may be in danger of suddenly deciding that we’re never going to be thin enough. And then there’s the added stress of getting your body to fit into the very narrow confines of what’s attractive within the many subcultures of the LGBT community.
It’s in these moments of perceived inadequacy that we begin to question our own bodies: “Am I attractive? Is my body good enough to be seen naked?” Of course, our quest for the perfect male body is rarely achieved.
My personal body consciousness is a daily battle. Sometimes I win, but oftentimes I lose. I was never what you would call “gorgeous” or “striking” to look at. I inherited my grandfather’s receding hairline. I was blessed with my mother’s pale, freckled skin. I have my dad’s gift of a thick frame and big bones. Unlike some of the men I see walking around in the Houston social scene, scrolling endlessly on Instagram or Facebook, I was your “what you see is what you get” guy with the great smile and blue eyes. It was my average physical appearance that tempted me to physically change my body in ways that were not healthy for me.
Some guys take the medical approach on their quest for physical perfection. Despite the current economic downturn, gay men are the fastest-growing demographic seeking plastic surgery, an industry that is known for quick but expensive fixes to personal image. While there are many individuals who have had surgery done to their face or body, there are far more people who say that they would have surgery if they could afford it.
Others turn to outright fasting as a more basic (and far less expensive) approach to losing weight and fitting into those college-era fitted jeans. As Slate’s Mark Stern noted in his article “A Straight Woman and a Gay Man Talk Body Image,” gay men are “more likely than heterosexual women to have a subclinical eating disorder.” Dr. Kathryn Zerbe of Oregon Health and Science University also shares that gay men have eating disorder rates three time higher than their straight male counterparts. The International Journal of Eating Disorders reports that nearly 15 percent of gay men have had (or are currently battling) anorexia or bulimia at some point in their lives—a number that continues to increase each year.
Although I still try to lose weight at the gym, my workouts used to be based on the fantasy of what I thought I could become, rather than what was actually possible. I thought going to the gym three days a week, yoga twice a week, and weekends on the trails would transform me into the guy you see every time you open up a gay magazine. You know—that guy with the arms-behind-the-head pose and the abs that could grate cheese, who is selling dental insurance but for some reason is in his underwear. Yeah, not possible. A consistent workout was beneficial to my overall health, but I was never going to be featured in a magazine.
While it is important to have healthy goals that support an improved image of one’s self, we need to be aware that “healthy” is not 10-percent body fat, eating just one meal a day, or trying to fit within the narrow Grindr guidelines of “jock” and “masc.” Healthy is a full, hearty breakfast, perhaps never getting into those teen-jeans again, eight glasses of water a day, and having realistic expectations at the gym.
I fully understand and appreciate wanting to look good for yourself and/or your partner (or partners . . . you naughty boy). But gentlemen, realistic expectations can do wonders for our overall health, both mental and physical. We have to accept the reality that our perfect body doesn’t live in a gay magazine—it lives in the conversations we have with our doctors about what’s best for our health.
Russell Etherton has extensive experience in nonprofit community engagement and social-change strategy. He is currently the community-relations manager at Legacy Community Health. He can be reached at @retherton87 via Twitter.