This article by Jaime Woo first appeared on the OurAgenda website here.
I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of guys on Grindr. I love scrolling through the profiles, watching as more and more men appear like magic. Sure, the app is nearly five years old already, but there's something about checking guys out that doesn't get old.
If you're like me, you probably quickly glance at the guys closest to you before skimming through the stacks of men to find ones that catch your eyes. Inevitably the guys with the great eyes, smile, or abs get the messages. I'll usually take a look at what they write, but I never read too deeply into profile descriptions.
There will often be some guys who, despite Grindr's reputation as a hookup app, will write that they are looking for something more. I don't blame them—I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic—but I do wonder how they expect that to happen, on an app with a mask with gear teeth as a logo no less.
In our culture, there's a huge emphasis on looks no doubt, and the pressure to be constantly sexually attractive is daunting. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, that one image holds the value of several pages of text, but what is it that our photos tell about us? A look at the Instagram accounts of gay men demonstrates how our desire to be alluring stretches far beyond hookup apps: we're not just showing it off when we're actively looking, because we understand that being in mainstream gay male culture is to always present the image of looking.
It doesn't take very long for gay men to realize that our value to one another is often linked to that as a sexual being. This can be reductive of our identities, but it's not necessarily unexpected: the common thread between men who have sex with men is, well, that they have sex with men. How we relate primarily is through our sexuality and the other commonalities are just gravy.
What has bothered me for some time now however is how predominantly our sexual value is tied to our looks: what we imagine to be sexy is too narrowly limited to how a person's physique. It's easy to argue that looks have always been important and it's never going to change, but my problem is with how looks seem to be the only thing that matters, and this is a dangerous path because looks inevitably fade. (If you've ever heard a gay man cry about turning 40, it's because he's equating his total value through only the lens of his looks.)
Why does this matter? Because when we internalize this idea that only the outside matters, we devote as many resources as possible to building that outside to be the best it can be. It's no surprise that many gay men love shows like the Real Housewives: we mock their devotion to exteriors and yet we also deeply relate to the pressures to do so.
The bigger question becomes what happens when the only way we can see ourselves is through our looks? RuPaul famously ends each episode of her show RuPaul's Drag Race with "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" And while it could be dismissed as Oprah-style musings, there's a firm truth in the words—and she isn't talking about just loving our outsides—furthermore it hints that the work toward loving ourselves isn't trivial.
For me, it took a long time to figure out the parts of myself that I loved, the parts I wanted to work on, and probably most importantly which feelings were my own and which were messages from outside telling me I wasn't good enough.
There always seems to be a hundred times more negative messages than positive ones, right? Our teeth are too stained. Our waist is too big. Our clothes are too dull. Our sex life is too infrequent. Our interests are too weird. And the threat always seems to be being unwanted: do these things our way or end up alone forever! Worse, we have internalized these ideas and police one another with them. We tell one another that we're too fat, too femme, too this, and too that: is it no wonder that gay men have such low self-esteem?
The sad thing is that we tell teens that it gets better and we devote considerable attention to anti-bullying campaigns, but then we turn around and bully the hell out of ourselves and each other. Tangibly, research suggests that not only do gay men suffer from lower self-esteem than the general public, but that that leads to them making poor choices, choices are that potentially dangerous, choices that they would not make if they loved themselves.
Obviously the process toward loving ourselves is a long and difficult one (and not exclusively the issue of gay men either), more so than I could ever explore in one post. However I know how it starts: it begins with reflecting on our values and asking ourselves if we're truly happy. And if not, we have to imagine what that happiness looks like. It's confronting judgments that we make on ourselves and others and seeing whether they are our own or if they are "hand me downs" from others.
It's not easy. I still get down that my body isn't as fit as it used to be, that my features are getting duller. But I'm getting better at resolving those fears. I work hard on myself outside of my looks, to find ways to love myself beyond the shape of my body. And through finding different ways to love myself, it allows me, as RuPaul suggests, to love so much more of others. I've been continually surprised by what I find sexy in a guy, and I actively work on making sure that doesn't atrophy.
It brings me back to the idea of sexiness and Grindr. I don't necessarily mind Grindr as a way to meet guys, but I also don't think it's healthy as the only way to meet guys: like a sugary cereal, it's best in moderation and as part of a complete breakfast. When I'm asked about my thoughts on how Grindr is flawed, I talk about how we miss so many cues, how sex appeal is tied mainly to body shape. It saddens me that we can't see how a guy dances to a song, or tells a joke, or talks about something he's interested in, because these are all potentially sexy qualities.
So I challenge you to first reflect upon yourself and to establish the ways you are sexy outside of your looks. Now it's true that what people find sexy about you may be different than how you view yourself, but the exercise is important because it widens our idea of sexy. We have to fight hard against an ever limited list of what can be considered sexy, because that is a world with less things to see as beautiful rather than more.
And who doesn't want to see more beauty in the world?
About the author: Jaime Woo is a Toronto-based writer with a focus on the intersections between technology and culture. His book Meet Grindr: How One App Changed The Way We Connect was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards.
You can follow Jaime @jaimewoo
Photo courtesy of www.jeffandwill.com