Sam Smith is a queer international treasure.
Not only does Sam Smith have the voice of an angel, but they’re also the most accessible pop star to emerge in the 2010s. Listening to their debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is much like peeking into the soul of a wounded, insecure queer person who desperately wants love. Despite the fact that Smith didn’t come out until he’d already made it big with “Stay With Me,” to listen to the album is to understand queer-coded queer pain. Smith, a young twentysomething, is earnest when they sing about recounting sexual and romantic failure, and raw when they say that they just want intimacy. In “Stay With Me,” he sings, “Guess it’s true, I’m no good at a one night stand / But I still need love ’cause I’m just a man […] I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?” Isn’t that what most queer people want? To have someone hold their hand, to stay with them when all the lights go out? What Sam has done is market themselves as an artist who is easily digestible to the masses by masking that queer pain in something palatable for a straight, cisgender audience, one that would never know what it’s like to be rejected en masse because of their gender and/or sexual identities, and who/how they love.
But there is more to Sam Smith than the honest, queer pain. I didn’t see it what it was that drew me to them beyond the subtle queer hints that I had trained myself to sniff out like a bloodhound in any media available. Until a conversation with a friend where the topic of Sam’s weight came up:
FRIEND: I mean, it’s incredible though, the narrative of the slightly overweight gay
ME: He’s overweight? He’s perfect
FRIEND: Well, not by normal standards, but gay standards. Overweight was the wrong word. Maybe “non-ripped”
The subtext behind this:
“If Sam were straight they’d be totally normal, but in gay world, they’re obese.”
This was the first time I had ever thought about Smith being “overweight.” In fact, it struck me as completely crazy that anyone would consider them overweight . But then it hit me: once Sam publicly came out (without really saying “I’m gay” in an interview with Fader), they came under a whole new series of microscopes of scrutiny that belonged to ideas of the gay body archetype.
But does this look like an overweight person?
Gay culture doles out higher body image standards than straight culture. In order to fit into the gay community, you must:
- Have muscles. Lots and lots of muscles.
- Possess visible abdominal muscles.
- Be typically good-looking. If you have muscles, you need not worry about being classically good-looking
- Be well-groomed (though lately unkempt facial hair has become a thing.)
- Look like this:
Sure, the above man, chiseled from Greek marble, is quite a specimen, but the reality is that most male-identifying people look like Sam Smith. And in a world overcrowded with unrealistic body expectations, male objectification, and unhealthy body standards from major media outlets, Smith is a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the fat-shaming. In fact, type in “Sam Smith fat” on Twitter, and these are a few tweets that will pop up:
Even YouTube makes not-so-mild suggestions with its ads when “sam smith how will i know” is typed into the search bar:
.This is the real question: How and why is Sam Smith considered “fat”? Are consumers so inundated with mass media’s message of what it means to be a “man,” how a “man” looks, and what is generally acceptable when it comes to levels of attractiveness that it’s impossible to recognize the physical beauty in someone like Sam Smith?
In an interview with Jessica Robertson of Fader, Smith said:
“I got a comment on my Instagram recently—I posted a picture and someone said, “He’s getting fatter and fatter.” It boggles my mind. I can see why people would go crazy. I do care about the way I look; I used to be really, really big as a child, so my weight is something that I have always been very conscious of and sensitive about. But I don’t give a shit. I just need to have the best body I can and feel confident in that. I’ve had some horrible things said to me in my life, so I’m quite immune to things like that.”
If we all took a second to appreciate ourselves and others for who they are and what they look like, and praise them instead of tearing them down due to some [unspoken] standards, maybe, just maybe, we might be better people and respect ourselves a little bit more.
In an article on Huffington Post, “Blob and Weave,” author Mike Diamond wrote:
“The most basic factor in sexual attraction (for men) is the visual element, what goodies you have on display to entice that trick/future husband/surprisingly lenient cop who pulls you over for doing 90 m.p.h. on the highway. Once you lure them in with your dazzling wit and skills as a gourmand, you can relax a little, but honey, first you gotta tempt them into your web. My own personal observation is that the basic equation for a gay man to attract another gay man is a muscular, manly body and a youthful boyish face. That is a hard balance to achieve! To paraphrase a famous quip from Catherine Deneuve, ‘At a certain age, you have to choose between your face and your ass.'”
We live in an extremely media-conscious world; media is everywhere at all times and our minds are subconsciously absorbing all of these body image standards presented to us through television shows, music videos, print advertisements, commercial advertisements, billboards, movies, etc.
Due to all this inundation on a daily basis–and for future generations who grow up surrounded by increasing modes of technology, this saturation will only get worse–our subconscious minds become our conscious minds, and we find ourselves admiring perfection and scoffing at flaws, which often manifests itself in how we view our own bodies.
“Why Gay Men Hate Their Bodies Too” by Larry Cappel explains this:
“Body dysmorphic disorder occurs when people compare themselves to the impossible, Hollywood body standard and believe they are defective because they look different than it. It is also one of the common ways that childhood trauma manifests in adulthood for gay men.
Growing up, boys idealize the men in their lives and strive to be like them. But when fathers, teachers, coaches, ministers and others communicate to boys that who they are is fundamentally rotten, the boys look elsewhere for role models. And in today’s world of 24-hour TV and internet, the replacement role models are often the impossibly sculpted bodies represented in the media, and especially by Hollywood.”
We learn from our surroundings, and men learn what defines a “man” at an early age: the ever-elusive word “masculinity.” But what exactly is “masculine”? And where/how does that word manifest itself within the gay community and why is it problematic to adhere to heteronormative views of masculinity, especially when LGBTQ lives are constantly up for debate?
Is it Hollywood’s fault? The media’s? Society-at-large? The heteronormative patriarchy? Or is it ourselves? Though the answer is most likely, “all of the above,” as queer people, we judge ourselves more harshly than we do others because we were often told by societal standards that we weren’t quite good enough the way we were born, and so we carry these judgements others have made on us toward others.
It’s time to stop. We must do better for and to each other.
Where does that leave Sam Smith? They stated in Fader interview that they’re immune to the awful things people say about their body, but why should it have ever gotten to the point of immunity-as-a-defense-mechanism? Why are nasty comments being made about their body at all?
We need more body positivity. We need to resist traditional heteronormative body standards, especially because queer bodies are too often policed by media and consumed by Hollywood as eye-candy. Queer people are not body props. Queer people should not be pressured by straight cisgender ideals of beauty just to “fit in” with a society that wants to fight with us and dance with us at Pride, but doesn’t want to see us for who we are: A complex tapestry of identities.
Repeat after me: “I am beautiful just the way I am.” Fuck the rest.
Live your truth Sam Smith! The world needs you.
Editor’s Note: This post was written before Smith publicly identified as genderqueer. While pronouns have been edited in this piece from he/him to they/them, there are direct male or masculine-identifying terms and phrases.