The Beauty Sickness Epidemic: the Gay Male Body Archetype Discussion, Part II

When HyperReality‘s “Sam Smith and the Gay Male Body Archetype” went viral at the beginning of July, attracting nearly 150,000 views in just six days, I quickly realized that the reaction was split in two. On one side of the spectrum, there was an outpouring of support for Sam Smith and an understanding that media has effected body image standards for men (or, at the very least, the recognition that men suffer from the same body issues that women do.) On the other hand, there were comments that agreed with the detractors, only cementing that we live in a time where beauty and the quest for perfection is indeed a sickness.

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Apart from being contacted by Jen Siebel Newsom, my personal media lit hero,

Glee’s Alex Newell (aka the fabulous Unique),

and famed young adult author/God David Levithan,

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it was the response from readers that really hit home. One email I received struck me because its straight-forward, no bullshit reaction to all of the negativity surrounding Sam Smith and the myth that he’s somehow considered “fat” according to gay culture. He began the email with, “I found your blog post ‘Sam Smith and the Gay Male Body Archetype’ when a friend posted it on his facebook page with the comment, ‘Shut up and go to the gym…'” and, after praising Smith, he wrote:

I absolutely loved your matter of fact approach to what is an unhealthy, shallow, and unimportant obsession people have with outward appearance. Your article was not one of “fat shaming” (not that it would matter at all if he was obese, but in whose warped reality would Sam Smith be considered a fat man anyway?). So many gay people seem to have this idea that in order to stand out from the crowd and fit in with the gay community, you have to remain as thin and/ or overly worked out as possible, living on a steady diet of protein powder and venom. It is disgusting. […] My weight has run the gambit from too thin to too heavy to too worked out. Now, I don’t know where I fall on the spectrum and couldn’t be happier. Fuck “too”. I woke up and realized that one day, no matter what this body of mine looks like now, it is going to be worm food. Zac Efron. Worm food. You. Worm food. Everyone. Worm food. What will I leave behind that will make a difference and truly matter? How will I do and be more than just conscious meat that someone may or may not have enjoyed looking at with their someday worm food eyes? The LGBTQ community has enough shame and shit thrown our way to wade through without us denigrating one another.
Isn’t that last line true, though? Don’t gay men have enough to combat? Do we really need to add body-shaming each other to that list?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 10 to 24 years old, and those who identify as LGBT are 4 times more likely to consider taking their own lives than their straight peers. With so much inner turmoil caused by what might be perceived as a lack of support from the community at large (remember: when you’re young and in the closet, no matter what kind of support system you may have, coming out is still a process that is extremely terrifying for most), we shouldn’t be so focused on body image that we make others feel lesser because they might not have the six pack Pride abs. After all, it’s not really considered pride if we can’t be proud of, and celebrate, everyone equally.
In fact, attitudes like that just perpetuate the stereotype that gay men are shallow and image-obsessed.
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It’s not just the Sam Smith’s of the world that get ridiculed for not subscribing to the Adonis Body Mantra. One comment that really stuck with me was this one:

I would just like to say that it’s not only “overweight” men who are judged and ridiculed. I am naturally just a VERY slim guy, no matter what I eat, and attempts to bulk up have been futile. Yet I constantly get comments to the effect of “you need to gain some weight,” only nowhere near that nice. I have had people tell me I look sick, like I am dying of something, and even flat out told it doesn’t look “good.” And I can tell you, it does hurt my feelings.

And the next MF’er that tells me “eat a cheeseburger” I WILL drop kick in their throat. As a people, a community, we have to treat each other better. Gay men already are faced with many obstacles and challenges, without the need to make it harder on each other, and ourselves.

It’s not just the overweight body type that isn’t part of the “accepted.” There is such a thing as “too skinny.”

Someone responded to the above comment with this:

Skinny shaming is prevalent but for some reason, seems to be allowable. For a while, I thought “Eat a sandwich.” was some catty code for saying hello. Don’t dirty your feet on drop-kicking anyone. It’s truly not worth it. Take lots of pictures of yourself now, and look at them in a few years. You’ll never believe you let people make you feel less than beautiful. People being snide is more about their insecurities than it is your weight. The next time someone gives you that line, just turn and look at them sincerely and say, “No. I eat like a pig, but just can’t seem to gain weight.” and walk away. It will pique jealousy more than anything. Enjoy your body. It doesn’t last forever.

Another comment that seemed to be somewhat common was the belief that not talking about this might make it go away. That, perhaps, we should just focus on the positive:

[The gay standards] of the male body which you describe have now, I reckon, trickled deep into the collective psyche of the hetero world. I grew up obsessing over my body hair and my unloved love-handles and whether my hair was perfectly coiffed and… bah – this whole self-obsessing nonsensical narrative is still in me. The worst part is, I truly reckon – is that the more you (any hypothetical one) focus on it, the ‘worse’ it gets… and if you ignore it, the worse it gets. Maybe the best resistance against these absurd social benchmarks is a quiet, incessant acceptance/resistance? We need to bloody change things. Keep writing the good write. Slowly, we’ll get there.

My question is this: How can we change if we ignore the problem, though? Change comes from that push forward, from shedding light on what everyone would rather keep in the dark.

I think part of the issue is that it’s easier to ignore the problem instead of looking inside of ourselves and asking the tough questions about why we feel like this to begin with.

The other side of the spectrum harkens back to the emailed comment above: The “Shut up and go to the gym” response. I couldn’t believe the amount of comments agreeing that Sam Smith was indeed fat and needed to get back to the gym. Not to mention the comments that suggested that I get back to the gym.

This articulate comment so eloquently attempted to disagree with me:

Nah, hes overweight, or fat as so many like to use that term when it isnt a gq looking porker. You created the monsterr my whole life i’ve had to face the condescending, obese terrified, fat hating gay community and by golly the standards arent changing just cuase you got the hots for the guy. Hes overweight, has a double chin and quite frankly isnt good looking at all.

One particular comment presumed to know the inner workings of my thought process, which I thought was fairly hilarious:

Nice article and all but you didn’t seem to think this way when you were “fit” so in my world that discredits everything you have said. It’s a great sentiment to say that we should move beyond what gay men deem to be the “perfect male type” which includes not only fit, but white as well.
Tell me, how many “obese” men did you turn away before you joined the club?

One thing I’ll agree with here — there is not NEARLY enough racial diversity in the media and that’s a huge problem. But that’s a whole other topic for another article.

Bottom line is that this discussion is far from over.  This problem is far from being solved. And the negativity surrounding male body image in the gay community is only perpetuating unhealthy standards, and I can only assume that the constant search for perfection will end tragically. Why? Because nobody is perfect. What IS perfect, really? Perfection is a sickness, a widespread epidemic for which the only cure can come from within. Beauty is only skin-deep, and eventually it fades.

We have to celebrate everyone of all shapes and sizes. That’s the only way we’ll thrive.

Northwestern University’s Body and Media Lab is currently recruiting any gay men ages 18+ to participate in a research study on body-related attitudes in the gay community.  You can earn a $5 Amazon gift card for completing a 10-15 minute online survey.

For more information, or to take the survey, email: oliviafostergimbel2015@u.northwestern.edu!

3 Comments

  1. Dude, I am so, SO glad that you are keeping this conversation going.

    “Don’t gay men have enough to combat? Do we really need to add body-shaming each other to that list?”

    EXACTLY.

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