An article came out last week revealing dramatically high rates of steroid use by gay and bisexual teen boys. With an average age of sixteen, the sample included 17,250 teenage boys, 635 of whom were gay or bisexual. An astounding 21 percent of gay and bisexual teens had tried steroids as compared to the 4 percent of straight teens. Given this disparity it’s clear that something needs to be done for our youth but it’s hard to determine what and how. While the reasons for the difference were unclear, the authors of the study suggest it could be an attempt to live up to the masculine ideal or a need to bulk up in order to fend off bullies.
They’re not are far off. Body image is a constant topic of conversation amongst me and my friends. They tell me about how fat they are, how they shouldn’t be eating this, how they need to hit the gym, and do I want to go on a run? They laugh because it’s funny that boys are having this conversation when really body image is a girl thing, often appropriating feminine lisps to broach the topic. But it’s not just a girl thing and maybe we’re expressing something deeper. Maybe the real joke is that we’re serious.
We are constantly exposed to the bare chests of other men through social media apps like Grindr and Scruff and the need to keep up your appearance in order to get selected is visible. A friend also recently pointed out to me that my newsfeed looks very different than everybody else’s. While it may seem normal for me to post shirtless photos, it’s not the same for the average Facebook user and according to #gay on Instagram it seems that being gay means that you lounge around in your underwear sporting a chizled stomach, making out with your even hotter boyfriend. This trend is then perpetuated by ads towards gay people, which feature models with demigod bodies. I can’t imagine having Grindr or access to any of these images in high school. It’s no wonder they make gay and bisexual teen boys feel self-conscious. On top of issues they already have with coming out, steroids must then offer a tempting solution.
I still remember how awful it was to feel weak and skinny. One of the worst feelings in the world was when a teacher would need a desk or some books moved and she needed “two strong men” to come and help her. When I would raise my hand, I was always looked over or if I was selected, she would send a third just in case. So in college I started P90X and I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me to lift something heavy at work. It was the best feeling in the world!!! I felt as though my manhood had been reinstated. I was a man again. Now that I’m addicted to the feeling of being a man, I’ll probably never stop working out.
However, now I fear that I am a contributing factor to others’ negative body image. I love working-out and I have a high metabolism, which makes many of my friends resentful towards me. When I’m in the presence of other people I never make comments about my body, but when the topic arises my friends will make slut-shaming remarks that I have to brush off as casual jokes. I’m skinny and I should have enough confidence in my body to be able to take the hit. But being fit doesn’t mean you’re insusceptible to the plights of body image and sometimes I wonder, am I perpetuating the issue or am I a victim of it?
I’ve sometimes fallen into the habit of thinking about my work-outs as punishment; punishment for not being good enough, for not being able to throw a ball, or for not being masculine enough. Is it bad that Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” has become more of a motivational song than one that I learn from? Because even when you’re at the top, body image is a constant struggle and I remember the time that my fwb relationship with Yari ended because he had found someone he clicked with better. That may be, but this guy was also twice my size in muscle with half the body fat. I started hating myself, believing I’d never be hot enough for anyone. I needed to workout more. I needed to eat more. I needed more because I was feeling less. I started working out as a punishment for being of lesser value. I also wasn’t allowed to articulate these thoughts because my friends would tell me to shut up; they have it much worse. I’ve since refocused my energies about working out into a more constructive mindset. Besides, I’m someone who has to work out in order to keep my anxiety levels at bay, or maybe that’s just something I tell myself… We certainly all have our ways of coping.
An ex-boyfriend of mine used to starve himself before major holidays like Halloween, Spring Break, and… summer (not a holiday but ok) or any time that he would need to have his shirt off. He also took fat burning pills that I threatened multiple times to throw down the drain. “You’re perfect! You don’t need these,” I would tell him. Despite the affection I showered him with, he had an obsession with the ideal gay body and would rest at nothing to be considered a part of the elite.
I also recently discovered that a friend of mine, Terrance, was going on a juice cleanse. Terrance is incredibly fit and when I asked him if he was doing it because he felt bad about his body he replied, “I always feel bad about my body.” His comment struck me: How many of my other friends must feel like this? If they talk about body image as much as they do, this must be the underlying sentiment for nearly every gay person I know.
I see the worst of it, however, for my friend Ricky who is larger set. He gets the most disgusting and disturbing messages from complete strangers on social apps telling him to “Go kill yourself fatty.” Guys treat him in the most terrible manner and he’ll let guys walk all over him because he feels like he deserves it. The fat-phobia in the gay community is incredibly high (especially in LA) and it’s a disturbing and a largely unnoticed trend that I fear will only increase as “gay culture” (ie ads, Grindr, etc.) also becomes more visible.
The gay community’s saving grace, however, is that there are different communities based on body type within the population. Bears, cubs, otters, and wolves oh my! There are subsectors of the culture that allow men to be of different body types. Women aren’t as lucky. It would be seen as objectification if we classified women as a certain animal. It’s hard to argue that a gender can objectify itself. Or can we? I’m not a huge fan of these labels, but I also acknowledge that they provide some comfort to people.
A lot of my friends are “cubs” who are into “bears” so I often go with them to bear bars. Bears and I typically aren’t attracted to each other, but I don’t need to get hit on in order to go somewhere and have fun. However, when I go there’s sometimes a backlash: “Who let the sixteen year-old in? Get out of here twink.” It’s either this or they’ll make jokes about me as if I’m not there. It makes me wonder if they’re resentful towards me because guys who look like me rejected them when they were younger. They think I have it easier so they take it out on me. In this community, we judge each other so much based on appearance. We make assumptions that aren’t real and we have opinions about how other guys should look. But how do we fight this? Because now it’s starting to effect our youth.
An initial step might be to stop taking ownership of the right to talk about anyone’s body but your own. Whether someone is fat, skinny, ripped, or bulky, how someone looks is no business but theirs. We all look different and no one is worth more or less than anyone else because of it. It’s also ok to speak up for yourself and assert your worth. There was a gay teacher in high school who would grip my arm every time he saw me in the hallway. “You’re so skinny. We need to put some meat on those bones.” I used to smile and laugh politely because I was a student and needed to maintain an image of being perfect, but now I look back and think how dare anyone tell me what I should do with my body. It’s my body and unless I’m harming myself, it’s nobody’s business but mine. I can’t imagine a teacher saying something like that to a girl. We think of boys being able to take anything, but with this new research maybe it’s time we start being just as sensitive to them as we are with girls.
We are the first generation of young people who are growing up while being out and accepted. It’s not quite certain how to take care of us and address our community’s needs because we’re not always visible and a lot of our issues are undocumented. How do you reach out to young boys who are not out yet? I predict that with the rise of hyper masculine images, these issues will bleed into the straight community. It sounds awful to say, but when markets starts harping on the insecurities of all men and it becomes an issue among all boys and not just the gay ones, there will be a greater call to action. Because you also can’t call out the closeted gay kid and say “Hey! You! This is your issue. Watch out!” Until then we can only do our best to serve as healthy examples for each other, treat each other with as much respect as possible, and even when it seems like the hardest thing to do, to love yourself. Because in the end love is what our community should be based on. Loving yourself for who you are and what you look like is a part of that.