It seems like every week another women’s fashion magazine is criticised for putting pressure on women to be slimmer and more ‘beautiful’. You might be forgiven, then, for thinking worries related to body image don’t really affect men. Actually one specific group of men are increasingly affected by these issues- those that identify as gay. In fact, in some ways the problem is even more serious in the gay community. Like an increasing number of women, many gay men are worried about not being thin enough, but on top of this, many are also concerned that they are not big or bulky enough. The gay community is affected disproportionately by both ends of the eating disorder spectrum. As a result the incidence of both anorexia/bulimia and reverse anorexia or so-called bulkorexia are common amongst gay men. But where do these body images come from and why do they affect gay men in particular?
Well, some people have argued that they can be traced to the 1980s when HIV first spread to gay communities around the world. Working out to maintain a healthy body weight or become muscular was one way of visibly showing you were ‘healthy’ and hadn’t contracted HIV. At the same time the gay scene become much more commercial – it was becoming more focused on bars, clubs, sex venues and the like. In such places body image is important and the image of the gay twink/muscular gay guy is everywhere. Have a look in the gay magazines on the scene or the flyers at your local gay bar/club. Even non-commercial spaces associated with the gay scene, such as cruising grounds, cottages etc are sexualised and emphasis is put on having an attractive body form. Another possible reason is homophobia that so many gay men suffer, is often directed at effeminate men. Just think back to school – it generally wasn’t the macho football captain who was taunted for being ‘queer’. Through being muscular and stereotypically masculine men can often avoid physical and verbal homophobia. The result of these things togther is that the slim twink and über muscular guy are privileged on the gay scene. The problem is that this is an unrealistic ideal that most men can’t live up to. This failure to live up to these ideals can cause eating disorders and psychological problems.
You might think working in HIV prevention has nothing to do with body image. Actually, they are much more connected than you might imagine. A gay/bi man who is insecure about his body is much more likely to have low self-esteem and to engage in risky sexual behaviour. In other words, men with a negative body image are more likely to have sex without using condoms and are more likely to become HIV positive (Wilton 2009). For this reason considering body image is an important part of many HIV prevention programmes. Issues related to self-esteem and body image are dealt with in our free mentoring and counselling programmes. If you would like to know more about these have a look at our website http://www.gmipartnership.org.uk/ .
What do you think about body image on the gay scene? Are these images a problem or should we just accept them as part of gay culture? Are they really entirely negative or could they have positive effects too? Should we actively try to change the images that are privileged on the gay scene?