Openly gay British singer-songwriter Olly Alexander, the voice behind pop project Years & Years, was photographed for the pages of Teen Vogue when he was 18 years old. What would be a dream opportunity for most young adults was a nightmare for him because all he could think about on set was the catering: a "big delicious buffet with cake." It gave him anxiety because he was expecting cigarettes and water.
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Today, in a series of tweets, Alexander, now 28, addressed how he had an eating disorder when he was 18, consumed for years with what he was or wasn't eating. In the spirit of New Year's reflection, he is healthier and no longer triggered by those experiences, but rather, empowered to speak publicly about them. And while he's definitely not alone, as a gay person, Alexander highlights an experience of negative body image that is both isolating and all too common.
At the start of every year, Americans all set and flaunt their "resolutions," which time-honored tradition shows. Most of them concern the tenets of "happiness," as ingrained as ideas of patriotism, and we don't mean life or liberty. In 2019, happiness is the amount of money in your bank account, where you've traveled, and how hot you look. If you're gay and cisgender, and especially if you're white and/or particularly privileged, resolutions can be about any version of the above.
But ideas of what it means to be gay and "well," promulgated by seeing the same forms of media over and over that tell women they're never thin enough and men they're never buff enough, have had a historically and statistically unfortunate effect on LGBTQ people everywhere, regardless of how they identify.
"Much of our culture tells us that we won't get the things we want in life if we don't achieve these aesthetic conformities," said New York-based writer and editor Alex Blynn, who identifies as gay. "Nothing makes me feel less satisfied with my body or guiltier about my choices than the January-barrage of gay 'fitness influencers' sharing near-naked photos of themselves on Instagram. They show off their hairless chests and abs and quads while beaming ear to ear with impossibly white teeth and a large plastic container of protein powder in their hands. They're usually on beaches or on a balcony somewhere in LA."
For Blynn, who is six feet tall and weighs 245 pounds, because of these messages, and especially at the start of the deluge of New Year #fitspo, he is often left wondering what's wrong with his body. "I can run a couple steady miles, I occasionally lift weights, I practice yoga regularly, I even enjoy hiking," he told PAPER. "I adore pizza and marijuana. I also have a plethora of body hair, a gut, and thick thighs. And most of the time I do feel happy in my natural body, but the majority of mainstream gay culture certainly does not help me feel that way."
Although wellness is a spectrum of thought, habit, and experience, this concept narrows for cis gay men. It is most evident at the dawn of a New Year, when we are bombarded with posts on social media, on which gay men post before-and-after progress photos with vaguely spiritual captions; on which gay men talk and write breathlessly about their fitness journeys as if doing so is totally disconnected from the size of their bank accounts, where they get to travel (and how they fly when they do), what clothes they wear, who they surround themselves with, and what they look like.
As if a post on social media is just for them and not for an audience of occasional thousands; as if being seen as the hottest person in the room isn't inextricably linked to social currency, and all that affords; as if reinforcing a standard of beauty for those who look like you and believe the same things you do doesn't harm or exclude those who don't look like or believe the same things you do.
But what does that mean, really? And is any of it attainable? When is enough good enough?
Andrew Power, a New York-based graphic designer and erstwhile drag queen who performs as Hellvetika, hit a raw nerve on the Internet's reactive current this month, when he posted this tweet, despite having also shared his #TopNine images of shirtless 2018 selfies beforehand. "I just want gay men to be honest with themselves," he wrote, calling out "fitness journeys" as being a disguised gateway for social and sexual access.
The ensuing thread prompted a polarizing discussion online, with naysayers accusing Power of being a bitter and hateful gay criticizing the whole of fitness culture, who was probably also just ugly and jealous. They also called him a hypocrite due to his own online shirtless selfies. Those who agreed with Power said that he was most likely confronting an inconvenient truth and calling out the privileges of those holding this "truth" sacred.
When PAPER spoke with non-binary Brooklyn-based performance artist Blvck Laé D., they echoed similar sentiments as Power's. "I think that we as gay and queer people tend to focus on fitness, not for ourselves, but for other people," they said. "Usually potential suitors."
London musician Neo 10Y (real name: Nik Thakkar) acknowledged the historical pressure tied to all this, citing a "Tom of Finland meets Venice Bitch/Beach aesthetic" that's become a gay goal, but feels that as a community, we've made strides forward. "I feel that queer progressives over the last few years have been leading the body diversity conversation, and helping us all to accept who we are on the outside," he said, though he's shared plenty of ToF-leaning thirst traps online over the years.
"It's hilarious," Power wrote on Twitter. "I've been called ugly & lazy, people assume I don't go to the gym myself and that I'm lashing out because I'm jealous and bitter, several people have made fun of me for being short lol."
Another user responded to Power's thread: "I go to the gym because I desperately need serotonin. Also, I definitely would be healthier if i lost weight. All the shit you talked about is at the back of my head as part of a melange of negativity saying that I'm not worthy. I try to work out in spite [sic] of all that." Another chimed in: "You called out 'gay men.' Which refers to all gay men on a 'fitness journey.'"
Power doubled down, writing: "People know that someone going to the gym a normal amount and trying to be healthy is not what I'm talking about right???? Like I'm referring to fitness obsessed guys who do steroids and are always talking about how they need to get bigger."
A video posted to his YouTube further clarifies his position and shows that Power knows he struck a chord of discomfort that also yielded discussion. But he said it is a necessary, and essential step for progress in helping gay men transform the way they see themselves.
According to a 2016 study, of 131 gay and bisexual men deemed the "sexual minority," 32% of them reported having a negative self and body image. Objectification theory is used to explain this experience, which poses the idea that men in the sexual minority face an increased pressure to achieve and maintain an "ideal" body — lean and muscular — in order to obtain the attraction and validation from male sex partners, not unlike straight women.
However, the ongoing negative effects of self-objectification include a cyclical pattern of monitoring one's own body, but focusing more on how it looks than how it feels or functions. Naturally, the study found that this level of physical dissatisfaction, the constant comparison to an ideal, leads to depression, anxiety when having sex, and overall, the undertaking of risky sex decisions. (For example the study found a direct link between HIV transmission between men who have condomless sex with men and elevated levels of body dissatisfaction).
In this 2008 study, co-authors found that among gay men, lesbians, and heterosexual men and women, gay men reported the worst sex quality of life as a function of their body image, with 42% of gay men stating their body image negatively impacted the quality of their sex life.
The perceived lack of transparency around the relationship between idealized gay body image and sex is something else Power called out, writing on Twitter: "You wanna be one of the guys standing in a line on a beach in Mykonos just saaay that [...] I'm not saying you can't DO IT, just stop bullshitting us omg."
Rembrandt Duran, a buzzy New Yorker who's been referred to as the city's most popular top on a mission to normalize gay sex, has arguably leaned into embracing desirable physical traits inextricably linked to having even more gay sex. But it's something he's felt less pressure to conform to, as he's become more comfortable with himself.
"I definitely learned that I had to [conform to gay attractiveness standards] when I first came out, and I was more expressive via the clothing I wore," Duran said. "But as I got older, it bothered me less, and maybe because I became numb to it, but it truly doesn't bother me anymore to 'play the game', especially if it's just a quick hook-up. I've turned it into almost a role-playing experience, but I'd never do that when it came to dating. I'd never date anyone I had to masc it up for or be performative."
Despite stories like Duran's, research might suggest that the widely held assumption of all idealized, hot gay men having the best sex in the world with other idealized, hot gay men could be little more than a myth. Regardless, that assumption continues to be reinforced by pressure within the community that many gay men know intimately.
Power remembers when he first moved to New York at age 22 and struggled to fit in: "I was very blind to what the whole fitness culture entailed," he said. "I didn't know what was possible and who I could be friends with, so I kind of wrapped up in all the wrong stuff. And I definitely spent a few years just working way too hard in the gym trying to look a certain way, trying to gain. Basically, I felt like that's what I had to do. How do I make friends otherwise? Why would people even pay attention to me?"
But this experience is shared by many across the divide.
Let it be known that gay men can engage in fitness for any reason they desire, and are not obligated to share their motives. Let it be known that this is true for everyone. If one's goal in going to the gym is to use the accepted standard of chiseled attractiveness to gain social and sexual capital, that's also an individual choice. But for choices that are so personal for gay men, why are they so aggressively reinforced within the community?
For New York artist and graphic designer HeyRooney, who identifies as queer, the reinforcement of a "gay adonis" standard means that the culture of wellness, then, fails to be an inclusive one. Take, for instance, what feels like an endless stream of Instagram accounts dedicated to showing only the bodies of toned gay men.
"We have to consider how or whether we invest energy in perpetuating that culture," Rooney said. "That doesn't mean everyone cancels their gym memberships, and it doesn't mean we shame fit bodies. It just means we spend less time worshipping them or feeling bad we don't look that way."
Tommy Hart works as an instructor for Equinox, an international, high-end chain of gyms, in which some clubs are considered gay meccas. In New York, an "all-access" membership runs well over $200 a month. For many members, it's simply a luxurious place to work out, accommodating of aspirational lifestyles. But in many ways, it also represents an undeniable intersection of social status and body politics. How can a toned, taut physique get you ahead, and what does it take to keep it up? Few feel that pressure more intimately than gay men. And for Hart, his literal job involves staying in "ideal" shape, and helping others achieve similar fitness goals.
"We're kidding ourselves if we say we're spending at least an hour a day lifting weights six times a week because 'it's good for your heart,'" Hart said. "Whether it be the movies that glamorize masculine men with massive shoulders, social media 'celebrities' with shredded abs and hundreds of thousands of followers, or even a lot of the porn that I watch, I feel like I'm not sexy or worth anything as a young gay man if I don't have a strong back and a big chest to show off when I post a photo or when I'm at the club. The real problem is, I feel like I need a great body so that I get attention from people who wouldn't otherwise look twice at me."
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For Paris-based artist and musician Casey Spooner, who is one-half of electronic pop duo Fischerspooner, working toward having a "great" body became part of a performance, a personal politic, and ensuring his success. "I was under immense pressure to perform as my career was in free fall due to the banking collapse of 2008," Spooner said. "I started chanting, My body is a weapon, my body is a tool, my body is a language, my body is for you."
This chant became a mantra that he explored through his music over the next nine years. When his album SIR was released last year, Spooner debuted an archetypal new image, complete with an aforementioned Tom of Finland physique, handlebar mustache, leather chaps, and all. This visual narrative was intentionally employed to take a close look at homosexuality and its relationship to the ideal cis male body, but this artist's experiment had its own real-life consequences.
"In my pursuit for visual perfection, I found myself struggling with self-esteem and dysmorphia," Spooner said. "I never felt that I could fully achieve the body I wanted so that I could draw connections between art history and gayness." Where life imitated art, Spooner, too, became lost in an image, though he said he did attain what he was after. "I've learned happiness and perfection are painfully allusive."
Like Spooner, Power also once believed he could achieve a fit body if only he tried hard enough. "I've spent all this time thinking that I could become a certain kind of image," he said. "I really thought that I could do it by being healthy and that it would be maybe three or four years in the gym really pushing myself that I could become this ideal. Once I realized that there's often so much dangerous risk and sacrifice at stake, I let a lot of that go."
A legitimate danger of chronic body dissatisfaction among gay and queer people, and especially gay men, is overdoing it. In addition to more mental and social symptoms of body dysmorphia including depression, poor job performance leading to unemployment, sexual anxiety, and high-risk behavior, there are more severe physical symptoms resulting from dysmorphia: steroid abuse, muscular injury, and disordered eating habits including overly restrictive diets, such as over-reliance on dietary supplements are a few.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30% of people diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) also have an eating disorder. BDD is also a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and people with OCD may feel as though taking action on those thoughts is the only way to make the thoughts stop. It's easy, then, to see how an obsession with muscles, translating to hours in the gym, could be considered part of an OCD lifestyle.
Most of the people quoted for this story mentioned any of the above afflictions affecting how gay and queer people view themselves. Still others only wanted to speak off the record about their harrowing experiences with forms of body dysmorphia.
About three years ago, I was in a place of financial ruin that I'd never previously experienced. I had just returned to New York from Indiana after two years away "finding myself." I returned, nursing the wounds of a breakup that left me feeling unlovable and worthless. I was 26 going on 27; I struggled to find work for months, and had to settle for a string of minimum-wage service jobs to make ends meet, and one of them was working the front desk at a downtown Equinox. I had to pay my rent in installments as money slowly came in, both from those jobs and kind loans from friends. I survived for months on one $1 pizza slice per day, and I lost some weight and got compliments from men who had never noticed me before the weight loss.
The sole perk of my gig at Equinox was a free membership, and so, at the pinnacle of high social standing, class privilege, and attractiveness was me, a Black, non-binary, queer, femme-presenting person, spending up to two hours at a time on a Stairmaster. I lost even more weight, could fit a 27 waist for the first time since high school, and still more gorgeous gay men told me how good I looked and that I was skinty. I posted my first-ever shirtless selfies online and my sex life improved. I loved the attention. The broken heart was buried with idealized self-image. I really loved that, too.
After about a year of this, I got higher paid jobs, dropped that free luxury membership, and my monetary outlook improved. I started eating more regularly because my body craved it, and I noticed my body return to a more "normal" weight. Though I was fully self-supporting financially and started looking and generally feeling healthier, the compliments and sexual attention stopped. That's when I started throwing up. At first, once a day, then, after every meal.
I told a friend I felt myself spiraling, and I got psychiatric help. It has taken years of professional opinions and personal choices, but I have a fuller view of myself than ever before. And even though I still feel invisible in a Venice Beach lineup of shirtless gays — because, to so many of them, I am — I don't feel pressure to look a certain way. I do feel obligated to make sure I feel my best. Sometimes that's in tandem with a regular, manageable (for me) fitness routine. Mostly it's about my support system. And in the three years since my body-image rock bottom, I've become more grateful for the strength of it, and the strength within me.
And thankfully, for every story like mine, there are other antidotes to toxic sides of wellness culture. One online trend that emerged at the end of 2018 was #TopNine posts. Here is one from activist and writer Adam Eli, who told PAPER, "I thought it was true for so long that in order to have a voice or a platform in the queer community you have to look a certain way. But now I know it isn't."
Additional reporting by Brendan Wetmore
Photo via Getty