This article by Stuart Haggas @GetStuart with photography by Chris Jepson © www.chrisjepson.com first appeared in FS Magazine here.
Are you happy with yourself?
You’ll spot them throughout the gay scene: they flash a seductive smile of gleaming white teeth, their shirt is unbuttoned or non-existent, exposing an enviably toned body, their looks and demeanour radiate an aura of faultless impenetrability. They draw your eye, just as intended, because their very existence requires them to entice as much as possible.
These visions of male perfection don’t exist solely on the gay scene. You’ll see them anywhere and everywhere: at a bus stop, on the platform of a train station, at the shopping mall, online, on TV. They will most likely have already infiltrated your home.
There’s even one right here, right now, just to your left, looking towards you as you read these words. I am of course talking about the guy you see on the cover of this magazine, and countless others just like him.
You may say that images of sexy guys do no harm. However, some gay men see them as a benchmark of how we should all aim to be. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more healthy and attractive, failing to meet a standard we set for ourselves can have negative effects on our physical and mental health. Trying too hard can be equally detrimental, as it may lead to extreme choices like steroids or surgery.
Modern society places a great emphasis on how things look, so why would the gay scene be different? Many gay men nevertheless feel there’s additional pressure placed on us to look good, further believing that the sexualized nature of the gay scene intensifies this pressure.
FS kicked off 2015 not with the usual slew of New Year resolutions, but with a Big Gay Body Image Survey, receiving over 500 responses. Of the respondents:
- 36% described their body as average
- 18% said slim
- 17% toned
- 12% stocky
- 11% overweight
- 4% muscled
- 2% obese
But altogether 71% of those surveyed admitted they’re not happy with their body shape.
The most common body complaint was a wish to lose a few pounds by getting rid of belly and love handles, alongside a desire to gain muscle – and with 73% of those surveyed saying they exercise and/or go to the gym, it appears the majority are already working to change.
Rory is 16 from Hadfield and considers himself to be overweight. “I have a bit too much fat around my chest, stomach and thighs. My arse is fine. I’m really happy with it.”
Richard, mid-20s from Darlington also identifies as overweight. “I think the stigma around being overweight can make life quite unhappy at times.”
“I am only 14 stone but feel 20 stone,” says Ty from London. “For years I’ve had issues with weight, and even been told I’m too fat to go out with. I try going to the gym, and can’t seem to shed the weight.” He admits to feeling pressure to go to the gym. “To get a date, to comply with what people want on apps. I go on dates, and after one date it doesn’t go any further. I’m not sure why. I know it may not be my weight, but it holds me back in everything I do.”
Marcus from London describes himself as stocky. “I have to admit that I am a victim of the whole ‘not liking my body’ thing, especially after being dumped by my ex who left me because I wasn’t muscular enough compared with his ex. He would show me pics of his ex or guys he fancied, and all of them had big ripped muscles. His obsession with muscular men left me feeling like I couldn’t live up to his desires as I wasn’t muscular enough. Also I find a lot of apps make me feel worse, because 70%+ of the profiles openly state that they are only looking for either slim, toned, ripped, muscular or fit guys. I am none of the above in my own eyes.”
“I feel I should have bigger legs and slim down the abs area,” says Giuseppe, late-30s from London. He admits to feeling guilty if he doesn’t visit the gym, “I feel that it’s a big discriminating factor.”
“Despite muscling up and slimming down body fat, I’ve still got my paunch and wish my limbs were bigger,” adds Matthew, 54 from Bath. “I haven’t got to where I want to be. I am getting there – fat down, muscles up. But only halfway so far.” He also feels guilty for missing a workout. “It is depressing not to keep trying and see the slowly improving results. I hate missing a training session.”
Alexander from Liverpool is in his early 20s, and describes his body as overweight. “It’s abjectly detestable in every conceivable sense. And if I don’t like it, how can I expect anyone else to?”
Guys at the skinny end of the spectrum face similar issues.
“I’ve been skinny all my life,” says Jay from Southampton, “and only in the past year been adding muscle. I’ve a fairly small frame as well, so only small tops fit me – I’m not wide enough to fill medium. If I’m at home relaxing, I feel guilty that I should be working out or doing something to improve my body.”
Jay also admits to sometimes feeling guilty after eating food. “If I have the odd takeaway or chocolate, I feel that I’ve put bad things into my body and it’s hindered my results in the gym.”
“I’m skinny and not toned,” adds Stuart from Glasgow. “I feel out of proportion and unattractive. A lot of guys on social media and dating apps openly discriminate against ‘skinny’ guys – fat shaming is never OK but skinny shaming is so common. ‘Six-packs don’t count if you’re skinny’ is thrown around a lot. ‘Be gym fit’, ‘have muscles’, ‘masc for masc’ are pretty common on dating apps too. It’s hard to feel attractive as a twink.”
“I feel pressure to be in a certain group,” says Archie from London. “I’m 19, toned, and have more feminine features. I consider my personality still masculine, yet I am told I look like a twink. I hate it. One side of me wants to be the slim, lean build. The other wants to be a typical beefcake, because it’s what we’re told looks good, I guess.”
Body shape wasn’t the only issue that guys related to. David admits he used to avoid going to clubs and parties due to not being in good shape at the time. He now describes himself as muscled, but is unhappy about his receding hair. “I’d like a full head of hair, and a dick larger than 7 inches.”
For Benjamin from Romford, the problem is his height, “I pretty much feel pressured to look like the bottom stereotype: toned, short, cute, skinny. I’m taller than I’d like to be – I’d be shorter to fit into the bottom stereotype more.”
John from London says: “When I first moved to London I used to have small hang ups about my body. However those small insecurities were magnified when I went to my first gay club. There were lots of shirtless men with amazing bodies dancing, flirting and getting lots of attention, and there I was standing alone in the corner feeling sorry for myself while looking at my belly.”
Simon had a similar story. “The gay scene definitely had a negative impact on how I viewed myself. I deceided to join a gym and lost 25kg within a few months. I was starving myself on a daily basis so I could go into a club and take my top off. The need for attention in the gay clubs was affecting my health and mental health. Eventually I cracked and couldn’t starve myself any longer.”
Eric is 29 years old and describes himself as stocky. He tells us: “I once queued up to get into a very trendy bar in Soho. When I got to the door to pay, the man behind the counter looked me up and down and asked if I was in the wrong club, “XXL is in south London, dear”. I was mortified. I never went back.”
Of the 29% of guys who said they were happy with their body shape, some still felt they could look even better.
“I’m not perfect but I’m OK,” says Iain from London. “I work hard in the gym and you can tell.”
“Overall, I’m happy with the way I look,” says Ronnie from London, “but then I see guys bigger, younger and more muscled – gay and straight – and want to look like them.”
“I feel pretty good considering my age,” says Martin from London. “There’s always room for improvement, as sadly if you don’t look the part in the gay world no one wants to know you. My problem is I constantly compare myself with guys half my age. I forget I’m 50, and there are times when I’m not happy with the way I look. I should realise that I look good for my age but don’t often appreciate that.”
“All of us want to look as good as we can, and taking a healthy pride in our appearance is no bad thing at all, especially when it positively informs our overall sense of wellbeing,” says Positive East’s Andre Smith. “Gay men who obsessively focus on their image are very often, albeit subconsciously, attempting to compensate for a deeply internalised belief that without a chiselled face, great hair, and a perfectly sculpted six-pack, they will not be seen as attractive, worth loving, or good enough as they are.”
“It can be problematic if people think that they’ll feel happy or confident if only they can get their waist down to a certain size or make their arms big or develop the perfect six-pack,” agrees GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Chances are, unless you really deal with your insecurities, changing your appearance won’t make that much difference – you’ll never feel like you’ve done enough.”
Feeling unattractive can lead to low self-esteem – and gay men with low self-esteem can be more inclined to risk their health by having unsafe sex, as Andre explains: “A preoccupation with what is often no more than ‘imagined’ defects can lead to depression, anxiety and difficulties forming relationships. A lack of self-worth and low self-esteem can have potentially dangerous consequences, leading to depression, eating disorders, acute anxiety, drug use, and in some instances risky sexual behaviour. Many gay men who feel unlovable or suffer from self-hatred often use emotionless sex as a coping mechanism.”
“I’ve often heard men explain that they had unsafe sex because they didn’t feel confident enough to demand condom use,” Matthew adds, “so the way that we feel about ourselves, and how attractive we are, seems to have an impact for some people on sexual safety.”
A recent Harvard study found that those with mental health issues were more likely to become HIV-positive, and the more mental health problems a person had the more likely they were to become positive.
These men were also more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour such as unprotected anal sex if they had more mental health issues.
Peter tells us that his self-esteem issues led him to becoming HIV-positive. He says, “I fully believe that I became positive due to lack of confidence and self-esteem issues. I would only go to saunas, parks, toilets to meet men. I felt because I was fat I wouldn’t be accepted in clubs. I would drink at home and then head to the sauna where I would go into darkrooms and have lots of unprotected sex.”
FS editor Ian Howley tells me that Peter’s story does not surprise him. He says, “Last year we conducted a survey of gay men who use saunas. What we found was that the gay men who used them did so for several reasons, but the one that kept on popping out was ‘I don’t feel welcome on the gay scene’. Many of those stated it was due to not looking ‘gym fit’.”
Where do these standards come from?
“The image in my mind is of every other gay man having the perfect body, modelling CK trunks,” says Benjamin. “Not looking like that not only makes me feel like I’m letting the side down, but also that others will not like/date me.”
“Perhaps it’s because we’re attracted to the same gender that we get so hung up on the way that we look,” Matthew from GMFA says. “With gay men there’s the opportunity to compare like with like, so you’re more likely to be conscious of it if your partner has bigger muscles, nicer eyes or a fatter cock.”
The effect that HIV/AIDS has had on the gay community is another factor, as Matthew explains. “It was reported that when HIV was first having an impact, lots of gay men started to go to the gym and put on muscle, to avoid any hint of wasting illness. If you’re living with HIV, a lot of people will expect you to look as though you’re ill, even though most people with HIV in the UK don’t have any visible symptoms. HIV is still such a stigmatised condition, it’s not hard to imagine why people would want to avoid looking as though they have it.”
Not only do we want to look good when we’re out on the gay scene, now there are the added demands of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, plus gay apps and websites including Grindr and Gaydar – all of which necessitate pixel-perfect profile photos and selfies, including the seemingly obligatory full body shot.
As Ty, Marcus and Stuart have already said, many of us feel bad about the way we look when using apps – in fact 35% of those surveyed said they’ve received negative comments about their profile pictures. Steve told us: “I was asked if my teeth were false and I get asked about the regularity of my gym attendance.” Jack reported commments such as, “ugly, unattractive, you don’t deserve to be alive.” Jaz, who describes himself as overweight says: “I get lots of comments about my body size. I get daily comments telling me I’m fat, to fuck off, and many telling me I need to join a gym. It can be very hurtful.” Yossie, who is of Asian descent told us, “I get told all the time that I’m ugly because I look ‘like a chink’. I get many ‘Yuck, Asian’ comments and many telling me to go back to China.”
FS editor Ian Howley says: “When we went through the feedback from the survey many of the negative comments people got were due to size and race. It’s scary how racist some of the comments were – many unprintable.” He continues: “Many of the gay men who were getting ‘fat shaming’ comments said it’s hurtful and makes them feel bad. One man, who wanted to remain annoymous said: ‘It came to the point where the daily abuse about my weight led to me trying to kill myself several times. It took a lot of support to get over these issues. I now stay away from apps for the sake of my mental health’.”
Many also feel that Britain’s gay media portray a narrow, one-sided version of our gay scene, escalating the pressure to look a particular way.
When asked whether gay magazines do a good job of representing the diversity of gay men, 44% said no, 50% said sometimes, and only 6% said yes.
Richard from London believes gay magazines are “full of Muscle Marys, drugged-up scene queens, Dj’s and rent boys. You rarely see average looking guys with average bodies because sex sells and the commercial gay scene is shallow.”
“The gay press is very one-sided and ridden with clichés,” says Simon from York. “It does not represent how I feel as a gay man and hasn’t moved with the times. There’s more to life than cock and poppers. The body image they portray is unobtainable, and nobody can have that good a social life without doing themselves some damage. I know – that used to be me.”
“They perpetuate the image of gay men as always being semi-naked, camp and highly promiscuous,” adds Richard from Birmingham. “They don’t represent the large number of people that don’t fit by that image.”
“The pictures they have are all of fit guys, which is eye-pleasing,” admits Alan from Aberdeen. “Not every gay man is skinny or has muscles. Most of the gay guys I know are normal build. Sure I’d like to be as fit as the guys in the magazines – but I’m not, so why should I feel bad for something I’m not?”
“While it’s easy enough to point an accusing finger towards the gay media, which has, it cannot be denied, played a significant role in changing our perceptions and expectations about body image,” says Positive East’s Andre Smith, “there is also a personal level of responsibility we need to take. Meaning that as individuals we need to stop and ask ourselves why we are blindly buying into these images. Who are we doing it for? A little self-reflection once in a while can really help to put things into perspective.”
“The truth is, most of the gay media is commercial, and they need to sell copies, or have people pick up copies, to get revenue so they can keep going,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson.
“The problem is that it becomes a vicious circle: the gay media uses the body image that sells best, gay men see that as the idealised form, and then are more likely to find that attractive.”
To test this theory, our Big Gay Body Image Survey asked what type of cover model makes you more likely to pick up a magazine. The top five answers were: shirtless, toned, muscles/abs, in his 30s, white. The survey further revealed we’re less likely to pick up a magazine if the cover features someone who’s fat, skinny, in his late teens, or over 50 years old.
Perhaps our bodies aren’t all that’s in need of a transformation. It appears our attitudes of how we view ourselves and those around us might also benefit from an overhaul. And that overhaul doesn’t necessarily start at the gym.
“For those gay men who struggle with low self-esteem and confidence issues, I would highly recommend getting some form of counselling support – it can and does work wonders,” says Andre. “Confidence and self-esteem have a much longer life-span than a six-pack! A gay man who is comfortable in his own skin and who doesn’t feel that he needs to tick boxes in order to be deemed worthy is far more attractive and sexy than those who measure their worth through the eyes of others.”
A major reason for wanting to look attractive is to attract others to us. Yet, interestingly, the survey showed that what we ourselves look for in a partner isn’t the physical attributes. Personality came out top, followed by humour, looks, and then muscles.
When guys were asked to tick specific boxes, the ability to make us laugh, having a nice smile, nice eyes, nice ass, and average cock were the top-ranking attributes. Abs came in 7th, big arms 10th, big chest 11th, muscles 16th, and big cock 18th. The results also show that we prefer guys with short dark hair, and a hairy chest is preferable to smooth. Our least favourite attributes were big bellies, long hair, small cocks, skinny legs and small chests.
If looks and muscles aren’t the top priorities we seek in other guys, this suggests that looks and muscles might not be the top priorities that other guys want in us. Indeed, it appears our time might be better spent working on some jokes, rather than our abs!
To sum it up, we’d all benefit from being a little kinder, more accepting, and more light-hearted – to those around us, but most importantly to ourselves. I asked FS editor Ian Howley, to give me his final thoughts. He says, “telling gay men to just be happy with themselves is not going to address the problem. Telling fat people to eat less or go to the gym doesn’t help either. The key issue is to get gay men to work on their self-esteem. If we can build up gay men’s self confidence then issues of weight, muscles and the like will become less and less important”.
FS SAYS: HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE BODY IMAGE?
Body image is such a complex issue it’s difficult to know where to start in trying to address it. When we conducted the Big Gay Body Image Survey what came back was a mixed bag of results. Skinny men wanted to be bigger, bigger men wanted to be skinny, men with muscles wanted to have bigger muscles or thought they weren’t big enough, and ‘average’ men either wanted to be bigger or skinnier. Just about everyone wanted to change something about themselves.
When it came to who is to blame - the gay media took a battering. However when asked what is more likely to tempt them into buying a magazine, we were told ‘shirtless, hairy, muscles, white men’ were the desired cover – all the same things the gay media were criticised for.
On apps, gay men reported being bullied for being too skinny, too fat, not enough muscles, or having too many muscles.
The survey also suggested that gay men with severe body image issues are not making healthy choices in the sex they are having, with many putting themselves at risk of HIV and STIs.
So how do you tackle a subject like this?
It’s clear to us that many gay men lack healthy self-esteem. This is a major issue because how you see yourself, and what you think of yourself has a huge impact on most of the decisions you make. What you eat, how much alcohol you drink, the men you choose and the sex you have are all influenced by how secure and confident you are in yourself.
Trying to improve the self-esteem of gay men is tricky. But it’s doable. It all begins with you. You need to look at aspects of your life and see what you want to change.
EVERYONE has body image issues. Fat, thin, stocky, muscled or average... we all look at our bodies and want to change something.
It should be fairly obvious that the way to overcome body image issues is not to spend seven hours in the gym but to start looking at becoming happy with the size you are. It’s perfectly OK to look at your body and want to change something, getting to the point where you can say ‘I’d like to be skinny but I’m OK with not having a flat stomach’.
You can’t stop someone from calling you fat, skinny, stocky or whatever. But you can get to a place where someone’s opinion of you doesn’t hurt or hinder your life.
However if you want to do something about your ‘flaw’, do it for the right reasons. What you think about yourself is more important than what some random gay man on an app thinks.
“That’s easier said than done.”
Telling people to ‘just be happy with themselves’ is about as productive as telling someone who is overweight to eat less or to go to the gym. The chance of it making a long term impact is minimal. Overcoming low self-esteem is difficult but there is enough support and guidance out there. You don’t have to do it by yourself.
So what can we do for others?
Stop the body shaming. There is no point in advising young gay men not to worry about their body size, only for them to enter the gay scene and be told what their imperfections are on a daily basis. Here’s something simple everyone can do:
If you are someone who picks out people’s body flaws, please stop it. It’s bullying and you are not helping anyone.
If we can stop body shaming then we have a much better chance of getting gay men to work on their confidence and self-esteem rather than their abs – and become a healthier community at the same time.
Gay men, like anyone, are always going to have hang-ups about how they look. Pressures come from everywhere, from the TV we watch to the popstars we worship, not just from our own community. However reports shows that gay men who are content with themselves are less likely to put themselves at risk of catching an STI or HIV.
Matthew Hodson of GMFA told us: “Feelings of depression or low self-esteem can lead to men taking risks. At the same time, feelings of over-confidence can blind people to the risks that they are taking. When it comes down to sexual health, you’re better off if you know that you are neither a monster or Superman. Chances are you’re fine just the way you are.”
There is nothing wrong with hitting the gym or boasting a bit of a beer belly – the main thing is to do it for you and to make yourself happy. We gay men tend to work too much on our outer appearance rather than our inner self. The best way to overcome body image issues is to try and take care of your mind before you take care of your abs. You might find you’re just that little bit more satisfied.
7 ways to boost your self-esteem
Trying to change how you see yourselve overnight is an impossible ask. But there are small thing you can do now to help you move forward and boost your self-esteem.
Exercise - No, we’re not expecting you to join the gym or become a gym bunny. It’s a known fact that a simple brisk 20 minute walk can make you feel better. So if you are ever feeling crap, pop in your headphones and get your power walk on. However, if you can muster up enough energy for something more, then a 30 minute run can make the world of difference to you. Invest in some new trainers and some running socks. A good sweaty workout can be great for your mind and body.
Eat better - We’re not telling you to put the ice cream away. Healthier eating doesn’t mean you cut out all the treats or starve yourself. It means being a tiny bit wiser with what you put in your mouth. Eat plent of veg, get some protein from chicken or nuts. Eat an apple before a big meal - it tricks your brain into thinking you’re full so you’ll eat less.
Don’t drink alcohol - You can relax, you don’t have to give it up. But alcohol is a depressant. If you are feeling low about yourself then hitting the bottle doesn’t help. In fact, it can make you feel worse.
Stop comparing yourself to others - The song goes, ‘If everyone looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other’. We all can’t look the same. If we did then life would be boring. There is no harm in wanting to change your body shape, but do it for a healthier reason other than ‘I want to look like him’.
Join a group - It’s important not to feel alone when you are feeling low. If you don’t have a huge circle of friends then join a sports or social club. It’s a great way to meet people and improve your mental health.
Compliment yourself - Having a good hair day? Liking those new shoes you just bought. Tell yourself. It helps boost your self-worth.
Accept your imperfections - No-one is perfect. That’s a fact. The sooner you accept your ‘flaws’ the sooner you will not care about what people say. Own your imperfections!
Talk to someone - If it’s all a little too much, then talk to someone. There are many peope out there who can help you deal with any issues you have. Talking is a great start to overcoming low self-esteem.
This article is from FS magazine issue 146. Read it for free below.
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