Gay men are notoriously body-conscious, spending hours at the gym in sweaty pursuit of bulging biceps and sculpted abs. But when does the desire to look good cross the line into a body image problem?
Women are no longer the only ones struggling with this issue. One study found that 43 per cent of men are dissatisfied with their overall appearance — a figure that has nearly tripled in the past 25 years — and that almost as many men as women are unhappy with how they look. As men are starting to discover, body image issues can derail your love life, keeping you from finding a partner and being happy.
As he approaches 40, Carl is realizing how much of his life has been spent obsessing over his body. It started, he says, when puberty hit and he began feeling things for other boys. Isolated and confused, he, like many others, turned to food, spending his teen years overweight and miserable.
But things changed once he moved to the big city. “I came out of the closet and went right into the gym,” he laughs. “Of course I wanted to look good — I wanted to get laid.” That was only part of it, though. “I wanted to be like the guys I was seeing in porn,” he admits. “To me, that’s what gay men were supposed to look like.”
After many years at the gym, Carl’s physique improved, but no matter how many compliments he received, he says he was never entirely happy with his body. Once he lost his excess weight, he started obsessing over small details.
“There was always something that could be better,” he says. “My calves were too puny, my shoulders weren’t broad enough, and on and on.” At times he felt like a slave to the gym, but this body obsession seemed a normal part of being gay. “Everyone has an ideal type that they want to be,” he says. “Twinks want to be thinner, bears want to be bigger and gym boys want to get more ripped.” But now, facing middle age and the inevitable changes it brings, he recognizes the futility in chasing perfection and is starting to accept his body the way it is.
Having acknowledged his body image issues, Carl is also realizing the impact they have had on his personal life. Single, with few significant relationships in his past, he admits that the critical eye he cast over his own body was also directed at potential partners. “I told myself that I had high standards,” he says, “but really I didn’t give many guys a chance.
“I would find some little thing wrong their bodies and reject them over it.” In retrospect, Carl says that he looked to a partner to reinforce his image of himself and, in his mind, settling for someone who didn’t have a perfect body meant that he too fell short.
When he would start dating someone, Carl’s partners found his body image issues difficult to take. “They said I spent more time at the gym than I did with them,” he says. “It’s true. I was too self-absorbed for any relationship to really work.”
But the gym was only part of it. Carl says he was forever counting calories and monitoring his diet, making him a miserable dinner date. What’s more, he would drive his partners crazy by taking forever to get ready, always careful to find the outfit that would mask his imagined flaws. “I was forever looking to them for reassurance,” he says. “I needed them to tell me I looked hot, but when they did I wouldn’t believe them.”
The only relationships that did last were with those who we equally self-absorbed. “I’ve been with guys where the only things we had in common were going to the gym and obsessing about our bodies,” he says. “We just fed off each other.” Needless to say, these weren’t the healthiest relationships, and Carl insists he would have left them earlier if he had a little more confidence.
“When your self-esteem is tied into your appearance and your appearance is never good enough,” he says, “you’re bound to make bad relationship choices.”
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