Why is There No Gay Men’s Body Liberation Movement?

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash.

“Gay Fat”

“You’re not fat fat, but you are gay fat,” said the guy I was dating at the time when I expressed that I felt like I didn’t particularly fit into gay culture.

These words, which at the time were deeply hurtful, continued to bother me for years. They illustrate the ridiculous, restrictive, and unattainable body norms that govern gay male culture. I often ponder what exactly it means to be “gay fat.” “Fat” is a social construction, a term that often functions as a general category in which we place anyone who does not meet cultural standards of size and/or appearance. The notion of being “gay fat,” as opposed to simply “fat,” illustrates that gay male culture and Western culture have different body standards.

I call this ideal gay male type the normate gay: the slim, toned, appropriately masculine, appropriately hairy, white, cisgender, and able-bodied gay man who embodies the collection of characteristics gay culture values most. The bodies of gay men who have less social and sexual capital because they are regarded as “deviant” — those who are of color, trans, disabled, fat, or fem — are defined in contrast to the body of the normate gay. The normate gay does not, in fact, exist, but is an idealized and unattainable cultural figure. Though some gay men may embody the normate gay to a large extent, appearance standards are set to create a constant state of lack that aligns with consumer capitalism in the form of diet culture. As sociologists Nathaniel C. Pyle and Noa Logan Klein observe:

“The prevalence of these media representations [the body promoted by mainstream gay media] creates an enormous pressure on gay men to conform to this narrow ideal body type, much like the beauty standards that are imposed on women and have been thoroughly analyzed by feminists. Rates of eating disorders and other body image disturbances are high among gay men, which may be taken as evidence that body image ideals exert pressures on gay men similar in strength to those faced by heterosexual women.”

Gay men clearly suffer from a host of body image issues, disordered eating, and full-blown eating disorders. Yet, despite existing similarities between appearance standards for women and gay men, there is no gay men’s body liberation movement to the extent that one exists within contemporary feminism. In gay men’s culture there is little discussion of diet culture, body positivity, the concept of “health at every size,” or feminism.

The absence of a sorely needed gay men’s body liberation movement is the product of cultural ideas of toxic masculinity — aspects of masculinity that produce socially harmful effects such as domination, misogyny, homophobia, and violence — and toxic gay masculinity, a subcategory of toxic masculinity that describes aspects of masculinity within gay male culture that are similarly detrimental.

Toxic masculinity, as a set of cultural standards for what men should be or do, is not monolithic. Gay men can simultaneously be victimized by toxic masculinity, as expressed by straight men, and perpetuate toxic masculinity against other marginalized men. Toxic gay masculinity functions around the desire to embody the normate gay type and to police those who fall outside the parameters of this cultural ideal, thereby reinforcing structural forms of oppression such as sexism, cissexism, racism, lookism, sizeism, and ableism.

I prefer the terms “body liberation” and “body justice,” as opposed to the more popular term “body positivity,” because body positivity is increasingly co-opted by the weight loss and diet industry. Some diets, for example, market themselves as involving “body positive weight loss.” Body positivity as a feminist concept stemming from the Fat Acceptance Movement, however, is about radically accepting and making peace with one’s body as is. “Body positive weight loss” is therefore at odds with the original intentions of body positivity.

The now widespread use of the term may also prevent us from seeing sizeism as a social justice issue. It is not enough to feel “positive” about one’s own body or the bodies of those one interacts with on a daily basis. The word “positivity” can prevent us from seeing body liberation as a civil and human rights issue and that body size should be a protected category similar to race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The terms “liberation” and “justice,” which imply the need for systemic change where body size is concerned, are, by nature, more radical and less co-optable by diet culture.

There is no gay men’s body liberation movement because norms of masculinity prevent gay men from seeing and addressing the extent to which diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed.

A Brief History of the Gay Male Body

When the gay liberation movement emerged in the United States in the late 1960s, body standards for gay men were not the gym-toned aesthetic of today, but the thin, androgynous hippie style often adopted by New Left men of the period. As the Gay Rights Movement progressed, and gay people became more socially and culturally visible and enmeshed within emerging forms of consumer capitalism, body standards for gay men became more idealized, unattainable, and rigid. The expansion of gay gyms, bathhouses, sex clubs, and porno theaters represented the co-optation of the philosophy of gay liberation by capitalists.

The normative body type that emerged during the mid-to-late 1970s is what some have referred to as the “Castro clone,” or, the sexualized image of the ideal white, working-class gay man. This look grew out of the Castro district of San Francisco, which became a gay mecca as urban gay communities expanded during the post-Stonewall period. The “Castro clone” often sported masculine fabrics such as denim and leather and typically wore form-fitting plaid shirts or t-shirts and Levis jeans, worn tight to emphasize the crotch area. A mustache or facial hair often topped off the hyper-masculine look. Some have also likened the “Castro clone” to the image of the Marlboro Man, a character of a rugged, working-class man used to market Marlboro cigarettes, who first appeared in advertising in 1954.

Body norms for gay men shifted with the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s to an even further idealized slim, toned, white, and able-bodied aesthetic. The amplified masculinity of the rugged “Castro clone” was replaced by an imperative to be smooth, hairless, and clean shaven. Though scientifically inaccurate, AIDS was described by medical professionals and the media as an explicitly gay disease or “gay cancer” (the initial name used for the condition by the Centers for Disease Control was GRID, or, Gay Related Immune Deficiency). In contrast to prevailing notions that gay men were diseased, the ideal body aesthetic of the time was one that connoted health, cleanliness, and physical fitness in the form of muscularity.

Activist and journalist Michelangelo Signorile, in his 1997 book Life Outside, argued that the muscular gym imperative heightened during the early years of the epidemic because doctors recommended steroids to HIV-positive gay men to combat wasting and other physical signs of illness. Signorile famously observed that, at this time, the most physically beautiful men were often those who were the most ill. Though doctors prescribed steroids with the intent to help patients combat the symptoms created by AIDS, steroid use in response to the epidemic further solidified gay culture’s masculine muscular ideal.

The anti-identity movements of the 1990s, such as third wave feminism and radical queer and transgender movements, which questioned the efficacy of the gender binary and other gender and sexual norms, led, in part, to the emergence of bear and twink subcultures, though the gay gym aesthetic still predominated in the mainstream. Gay culture and sexuality remain taboo and attaining an ideal physique is a way for gay men to visually demonstrate their morality, virtue, and control in the face of a society that regards non-heteronormative ways of being as deviant and shameful. Due to internalized homophobia, some gay men might regard their sexual desires and practices as “excessive” and seek to mitigate shame by disciplining and exerting control over their body size and shape.

Some historians trace the beginnings of contemporary diet culture to the work of the nineteenth-century social reformer Sylvester Graham. Graham argued that one’s appetite and morality were linked and that one could use food as a path to moral virtue. He prescribed a bland diet as a way for men to control their desires and exercise sexual restraint. It is therefore unsurprising that during the HIV/AIDS epidemic the ideal gay body type shifted from simply thin to a physique that was lean, sculpted, and hairless. The ideal gay male body type has developed over time to represent not just morality and virtue, but moral virtue on hyperdrive. Consumer capitalism, including gay media, further employs the precepts of diet culture to prey upon gay men’s desires to be socially and sexually worthy.

Dear Gay Men, You Are On a Diet

Lookism, or the personal, institutional, and social privileges and benefits conferred upon persons whose physical appearances align with cultural preferences, is rampant in gay male culture. The term was first coined during the 1970s by activists within the Fat Acceptance Movement. Michelangelo Signorile defines this concept as follows:

“the setting of a rigid set of standards of physical beauty that pressures everyone within a particular group to conform to them. Any person who doesn’t meet those very specific standards is deemed physically unattractive and sexually undesirable. In a culture in which the physical body is held in such high esteem and given such power, body fascism then not only deems those who don’t or can’t conform to be sexually less desirable, but in extreme sometimes dubbed lookism also deems a person completely worthless as a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism, or homophobia itself.”

Lookism, then, does more than position someone as merely unattractive. It denies one’s very humanity on the basis of culturally-determined aesthetic standards. In gay male culture, it is not enough to be thin; rather, one must embody a set of idealized aesthetic characteristics in order to be considered desirable and worthy. Sizeism and lookism combine to create an ideal that is impossible for most to achieve.

Diet culture is hard to recognize within the context of gay male culture because it often appears dressed in a masculine guise to make its precepts more palatable to gay men. Gay men talk about “fitness journeys,” “gyming,” “gym goals,” and “meal prepping” — not dieting. But as Harrisonexplains, diet culture also “masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness.” This facet of diet culture is only amplified within the masculinized space of mainstream gay male culture.

Gay men may also engage in “clean eating” — another form of dieting under the guise of “health” — as a way to manage the stigma of being gay through appeals to bodily cleanliness and moral superiority. The assumption is that if we eat foods that are “clean,” we are, by extension, “clean,” and if we eat “unhealthy” foods we are therefore “contaminated” or “dirty.” I admit that for awhile I got into “clean eating,” in part, as a way to feel morally superior to other gay/queer men. My thought process was that if I didn’t have the ideal body aesthetic, I could at least feel better about myself because I was eating “cleaner” in comparison to others. In reality, food holds no moral value outside the value a culture — in this case Western diet culture — ascribes to it.

The invisibility of diet culture within gay male culture also results in some gay men seeing the end results of their personal “fitness journeys” as something all gay men can attain through discipline and hard work. The message is that anyone can achieve acceptance within gay culture if only they hit the gym and eat “healthy.” Such messages are diet culture dressed up as “fitness inspiration.” They may further be seen as anti-homophobic messages — not diet messages — because gay men may link their “fitness journeys” to overcoming bullying, harassment, and internalized shame.

The majority of these men, in the words of Harrison, “were born on third base but think they batted a triple.” Genetic privilege allows them to more easily conform to the normate gay ideal. Feminist activist and educator Warren Farrell refers to this phenomenon as “genetic celebrity,” or, the largely unearned adoration we bestow upon those whose physical appearances, based upon random combinations of genetic factors, fall within the parameters of what a particular culture deems “attractive” and thus desirable and worthy.

While thin or “fit” gay men may also suffer from body image issues that intersect with experiences of homophobia, they should simultaneously acknowledge their thin privilege and the fact that they do not have to face the pervasive stigma and stress experienced by those who live in larger bodies. Put differently, there is no system of oppression that marginalizes thin people in the ways sizeism and lookism oppress those who are larger.

Pointing out the extent diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed is challenging because it unsettles notions gay men have long held as truths. It is difficult for some gay men to acknowledge and surrender the social and sexual privileges conferred by normate gay status and to work towards collective body liberation.

Riot, Not Diet

The Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 are often cited as the origin myth of modern gay liberation (though, in fact, the Gay Rights Movement began several decades prior and a liberationist mentality developed across the United States simultaneous to Stonewall). Our gay ancestors, nevertheless, rioted, fought, and died so we would have the right to exist proudly and without shame. This includes the liberation of our bodies — not just sexually — but in all ways.

The solution is not for women and fems to prioritize the inclusion of gay/queer men within ongoing body liberation movements. Gay men must do it themselves, must create their own movement informed by existing critiques, and must give up the hesitance to address diet culture and body liberation because dismantling long-held ideals means relinquishing the status and privilege that comes from normative masculinity. An essential first step is to recognize where and how diet culture operates within gay male culture. We must, as our gay predecessors did, and as a popular third-wave feminist slogan tell us:

“Riot, not diet. Get up, get out, and try it.”

Reference

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