BODY IMAGE AND GAY MEN
Body image is emerging as a serious health concern in the gay male community. Popular culture’s unrealistic images of male beauty can have a definite impact on how many gay men perceive themselves and their bodies. For some men, this can result in poor self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, compulsive exercising, and steroid use.
The emergence of a “body perfect” culture in the gay male community has developed for many complex reasons. It has been suggested that a widespread culture of muscled bodies arose in part as a response to the AIDS health crisis in the 1980s and 90s. As AIDS devastated the gay community, people frequently wasted away and looked gravely ill. The onset of anti-viral drugs in combination with weight training changed the appearances of many gay men living with HIV. This new approach to their health became one way gay men could regain control of their bodies and feel empowered while living with HIV.
At the same time, many uninfected men went to the gym to keep fit as a way of visibly demonstrating their health (i.e. their negative status) to the world. In doing so, gym-built bodies became the standard for physical and sexual desirability in the gay male community.
At present, the challenges lie in building a community in which gay men of all shapes, sizes, and body types are acknowledged and valued.
Health and Body Image
There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good and to be in good health. However, body concerns become unhealthy when the need to change one’s appearance begins to interfere with a person’s social relationships and performance at school or work, or creates emotional distress (anxiety and depression) and/or physical health problems.
As in women, eating disorders in men are not just about food, but also about other aspects of a person’s life. For instance, eating disorders may develop as a means of coping with stress, low self-esteem, or interpersonal conflicts. The following are two examples of common eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa – a complex eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Thoughts about dieting, food, and body may take of most of an anorexic person’s day. Common symptoms include: dieting despite being thin; obsession with calories, fat, and nutrition; pretending to eat or lying about eating; preoccupation with food; and strange or secretive food rituals.
Bulimia Nervosa – an eating disorder characterized by frequent bouts of binge eating, followed by frantic efforts to avoid gaining weight. Doesn’t necessarily involve physically eliminating the food from your body by throwing up or using laxatives; making up for binges by fasting, excessive exercise, or going on crash diets also qualifies as bulimia.
Recent studies suggest that 10% of all eating disorder cases are men. It also appears that up to 80% of these cases are gay men. While eating disorders most often develop during one’s teen years, boys as young as 8 and men as old as 60 also have the potential to develop eating disorders. If you are or a friend is struggling with an eating disorder, more information and assistance can be found by contacting the Saskatchewan HealthLine at 1-877-800-0002 or by visiting their website at http://www.health.gov.sk.ca/Rr_eating_disorders.html.
The compulsive exerciser is no longer free to choose – exercise becomes necessary and essential to feeling good about oneself and one’s body. While temporary feelings of well-being or even euphoria may happen as a result of compulsive exercising, the individual in question can experience overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety when the opportunity to work out is denied or if one fails to work out to a certain standard.
While some men take steroids for legitimate health concerns, an increasing number of gay men are using anabolic steroids to gain muscle mass (also known as bulking up) that would be otherwise impossible without chemical assistance.
In addition to concerns about harmful impurities and chemicals in steroids bought on “the street,” anabolic steroid use can result in increased risks of heart disease, liver problems, change in blood pressure leading to stroke, and prostate cancer. Some people also experience severe mood disorders, aggression and rage, and impaired judgment.
Whether you are thinking about trying steroids or are currently using them, it is important that you consider the risks associated with steroid use. Try talking about some of these issues with a loved one or with someone you trust.
If you want to make some changes without stopping steroid use completely, consider reducing the number and length of cycles or using less potent steroids. Consider talking to your doctor about your usage and having liver enzyme and blood tests during your cycles of use.
Some Steps to Developing a Better Body Image
- Avoid buying health, fitness, and male fashion magazines that encourage unhealthy ideals. Love your body, not theirs!
- Recognize that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. There is no one “right” body size even though our culture wants us to think that there is.
- Remind yourself that your body size, shape, or weight does not determine your worth as a person or your identity as a gay man. You are a whole, healthy, and worthwhile human being just as you are.
- Be aware of the negative messages you tell yourself about your appearance; replace those messages with positive ones.
- Focus on qualities in yourself that you like that are not related to your appearance (i.e. you’re friendly, loyal, funny, etc).
- Find friends who are not overly concerned with weight or appearance. If you trust them, feel free to talk through your body anxieties with them.
- Look critically at the ads that push the “body perfect” message. For example, our culture emphasizes the V-shaped muscular body as the physical ideal for men. Instead of working towards a “perfect” male body, work towards one that is healthy and that does the things you want it to do.
- Demonstrate respect for men who possess body types or who display personality traits that do not meet cultural standards for masculinity.
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Student Counseling Services
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University of Saskatchewan
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USSU Pride Centre
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BridgePoint Center for Eating Disorders
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Phone: 306.935.2240 Fax: 306.935.2241