Recent research has shown that eating disorders and body dysmorphia have become major problems in the gay community. One study found that 42 percent of men with eating disorders are gay or bisexual even though we make up less than 10% off the population. Gay men are also 7 times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than straight men.
There are a variety of explanations for this problem. For one, the media and gay culture incessantly objectify gay male bodies and portray them as oversexualized, six-packed Adonis types, which puts impossible standards on the gay community. Simply look at the latest reality TV craze in gay culture, “Finding Prince Charming.” The star of the show, Robert Sepulveda Jr. (pictured above), represents the ideal, and the rest of the cast hardly strays from that ideal.
Objectification theory states that sexual objectification makes people hyperaware of how they look and may lead to dissatisfaction when those people compare themselves to the unattainable, cultural standards of beauty. As unrealistic as the standards are, it seems as though we internalize them and then enforce them on each other.
Further, our culture pressures men to be masculine and shames them for being feminine, and even when we break free from heterosexual culture and come out, we are often still driven by those same heteronormative standards. To a large degree, gay men still idolize masculinity and shame femininity, and one of the best ways to express masculinity is through our bodies. As we know very well from all those headless torsos on Grindr, what screams masc more than a rippling six pack?
These are all contributing factors to this huge problem, but as a psychotherapist who works primarily with gay men, my clinical observations have led me to speculate that there is another emotional explanation for this issue, which derives from our early experiences of growing up gay.
As gay men, we often know from a very young age that we are somehow different. Many clients report feeling this before the age of five, and it often manifests as gender non-conforming behavior, or not exactly feeling like a boy or a girl. Soon after that time, we start to receive subtle or overt messages from the people around us that there is something unacceptable about being different, something worthy of rejection. Often we get these messages not just from our friends and communities, but also from the people we love and depend on the most, including our parents.
Through those early messages, we get a taste of what rejection feels like, and it hurts deeply, like a life threatening injury. For a child under ten, being rejected by parents and community is actually life threatening, so the feeling of rejection that we go through at that young age may become linked with possible death.
So at an age far too young, many gay boys are faced with a crucial and defining choice. Keep sharing our authentic selves with the world, and risk feeling rejection again, or avoid the emotion altogether by hiding the parts of ourselves that our parents and communities wont accept. Most of us choose the latter because that is the path that gives us the best chance of survival. And with that decision, a very important link gets forged –-avoiding an emotion, and surviving.
In place of the authentic selves that we hide and repress, we construct a false self, a self that can never be rejected or abandoned. The false self is all about perfection and control. If we can just be perfect, we tell ourselves, everyone will accept us, our parents will love us, and we will never have to feel those painful emotions again. We search for areas in our lives where can be perfect and win the love of our parents and communities, areas where the false self can excel; school, extracurriculars, careers, and of course, our bodies.
We see the bodies that receive acceptance and love in our culture, we listen to the body standards that our parents place on us, and we resolve to be perfect in that regard. Gaining weight or revealing an undesirable body part comes to be associated with rejection, which still carries the weight of death in our minds. When we sense that our bodies aren’t exactly the way they “should” be, that may open up the door to that feeling of rejection, which can be experienced as a terrifying, life threatening loss of control. So we find a way to regain control and avoid the feeling; through purging, fasting, working out, hiding the body part, etc. Again, avoid the feeling, and survive.
As with anything in life, our decision to run from the feeling only makes the feeling more threatening. As the feeling gets bigger and scarier, our standards become stricter. The smallest imperfection can put us at risk, and so our ideas of perfection can become increasingly and often impossibly strict. Where others see perfection, we still see flaws.
At some point, we decide to come out of the closet. Maintaining the false self and seeking perfection becomes too exhausting, and we finally embrace our repressed sexual identities. But coming out is just the beginning of undoing a lifetime of emotional patterns, because we didn’t just repress our sexual identity, we also repressed our authentic emotional core. The emotional coming out process usually takes years because it means being vulnerable and giving up power and control, which goes against everything we knew growing up. Often gay men still crave perfection and intensely fear rejection years after they come out, and when it comes to our physical bodies, many gay men find themselves completely stuck, unable to abandon their false, perfection-seeking self and embrace their authentic, imperfect bodies.
In some respects, the gay community is a great catalyst for the process of shedding the false self and embracing authenticity, encouraging people to be themselves and love who they want, but when it comes to body image, the gay community can actually hinder that process. Instead of reducing our fears of rejection, the rigid body standards within the community can reinforce those fears, and exacerbate them.
So the maladaptive links remain – imperfect body means feeling rejection means possible death. We continue to control our bodies as a way of avoiding painful emotions and surviving.
So what’s a possible answer? The simple answer is to stop running from emotions, but obviously that’s easier said than done. When we avoid an emotion for a lifetime, it builds up inside of us and can feel completely overwhelming to access. The real answer may start with reversing emotional isolation. Rejection may feel overwhelming because we’ve always experienced it in isolation, since that very young age when we felt it for the first time. The same often goes for our other negative emotions, like shame and anger.
Letting other people in on our painful emotions might feel like going against everything that makes us who we are. It means giving up the power and control that has made us feel safe for so long, but there is one old adage that I use constantly with my clients: The only way out is through.
In order to move past the body image issues that keep us pained and stagnant, we have to find safe spaces and supportive people with whom we can share the painful emotions. People who will hold the space for us, and help us to regulate the emotion, and allow us to realize that it will not overwhelm us or cause our death. People who don’t buy into the rigid body standards of our community, and who will not further shame us for our struggles.
When we stop running from ourselves, we start gaining comfort with ourselves, and accepting ourselves. From there, we open the door to loving ourselves, and our bodies.
Nick Fager, KIP Fellow
KIP has a new therapy group starting for gay men with a focus on body image. The full description of the group can be found here. Email email@example.com with questions or to join. You can also follow Nick on Instagram @gaytherapy.