Denver-based psychotherapist Larry Cappel published a piece online last weekend that caught my attention: “Why Gay Men Hate Their Bodies.” He makes some good points. I found myself agreeing sometimes, violently disagreeing at times, and contemplating my own personal experience with body dysmorphia in myself and others.
I tend to bristle at blanket statements about “gay men this” and “gay men that” — such as “Gay men…frequently have a hard time finding someone to fall in love with who isn’t also wrapped up in the same impossible quest for a Hollywood body.” It’s too easy to contest that kind of vast overgeneralization. Cappel’s argument is stronger when he pinpoints his observations: “Gay men who are obsessed with their own body image tend to only date others who are also just as obsessed with how they look, making it hard to break the cycle. It’s pretty rare to see a gym-toned gay man with a gay man who is just average in appearance.” My immediate response is — well, it depends on where you’re looking. Slick fashion magazines? Pornography? Church newsletters? The gym I go to (the West Side YMCA) has a lot of gay members, and you can definitely see buff guys working out every day of the week, but you also see plenty of guys every age and shape on the treadmills, taking classes, lifting weights, and hitting the showers.
One of the best things about gay marriage being legalized in several states is that we are seeing public acknowledgement of hundreds of gay couples, many of whom have been together for years and most of whom don’t look like movie stars or fashion models, thereby giving the lie to the horrible myth that says “Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”
Like Cappel, I have clients who fret that they’re too fat, too thin, too old, not muscley enough, and/or their dicks are too small, they don’t live up to some standard of gay male beauty, therefore they can’t bring themselves to date or have sex. This is almost always perplexing to me, because evidence to the contrary is sitting right in front of me. But it’s never very helpful for a therapist to say, “That’s a dumb thing to think! Stop that right now!” With someone who’s suffering with self-judgment about his looks, I usually try to find out where he got his ideas about what he’s supposed to look like. He had to be carefully taught some standard of appearance — who or what does he see as the authority in this matter?
That investigation is easier said than done. A lot of these messages get implanted so young that you can’t remember where they came from, except a vague sense of “society told me.” There is a stereotype about gay men that we are fixated on appearances — that’s fine when it comes to fashion and design and flowers and food and interior decoration, but it makes us shallow as people. Well, that judgment overlooks the impact of our personal histories. Unless you grew up in an unusually accepting environment, you probably grew up quite fearful that other people would find out that you’re “different.” To survive, you probably paid close attention to other kids to figure out how you were supposed to look or act in order to pass for some version of normal. This hypervigilance carves all kinds of wounds on our souls, not the least of which is internalized homophobia — a conscious or unconscious aversion to looking “gay” (which usually means effeminate) and overvaluing acting “straight” (which often means hypermasculine).
When men I talk to can actually identify where they got their ideas about what they should look like, nine times out of ten the answer is gay porn. Now, gay porn is an extremely delightful form of contemporary entertainment, and I enjoy it as much as anyone else. It’s also an extremely codified realm whose inhabitants bear little relationship to what average gay men look like. Nevertheless, porn implants the notion that every guy has a huge dick and big muscles, every guy can get it up and fuck on command or get fucked at will and shoot a huge load every time. Somewhere in our brains we know intellectually that it’s an edited medium, that the films and pictures leave out all the messy bits, that the models all take enhancement drugs (often injecting them into their penises) in order to perform like porn stars. Yet somehow we can’t help comparing our bodies to their bodies and finding ourselves lacking.
Cappel’s article references Alan Downs’s book The Velvet Rage, which I too think offers a very astute analysis of gay male emotional development and a roadmap to authenticity. Downs outlines three stages of emotional development for gay men. The first has to do with working through toxic shame around being gay. The second has to do with working through shame about imperfection. Shame and anxiety about imperfection is pretty universal — those traits pretty much go with the human condition — but I agree with Downs’ assertion that gay men often go through a particularly intricate dance of striving to be excellent (The Best Little Boy in the World) in order to compensate for the perceived flaw of being gay. In that stage, any flaw can seem threatening to one’s sense of worthiness, and there’s a huge emphasis on getting validation from others. In this state of vulnerability, if you’re not being actively validated, it feels like you’re being actively invalidated, which is excruciating and infuriating and enraging…but rage is unattractive and socially unacceptable so you have to mask it: thus, the Velvet Rage. The third stage of development, in his view, is authenticity, where you have learned to validate your own existence, regardless of other people’s opinion. Again, easier said than done. But it can be done, with hard work and support.