Gay Skinny Isn’t Straight Skinny: Surviving Being Too Fat in a Gay World and Too Thin in a Straight One
I am currently a graduate student who is working toward becoming a therapist who specializes in LGBTQ counseling. I decided to take a Queer Theory class to better prepare me for this role. One of the assigned class presentations was about Gay Days, which is an annual event held both in Anaheim California and in Orlando Florida’s Disney World resort locations. The video clip that was shown during the presentation consisted of a montage of photographs taken at Disney’s Gay Days from years past. I sat and watched as a deluge of well muscled gay men with v shaped bodies, washboard abs, perfect tanned skin, and shaved chest hair all of which was clad in designer shades and tiny swim suits, whiz past on the screen. I looked around the room for a reaction from my classmates. Did they notice the obvious pattern too?
I thought back to my time spent in south Florida, particularly in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, both of which are considered to be a “Gay Mecca” for men. I have a large group of gay friends there that come from both Cuban and South American backgrounds, as well as a few that were born and raised in the Miami area, but they all have one thing in common, they are extremely body conscious. So body conscious in fact, that we all have a running joke about it. We call it the “South Florida Gay Diet.” This diet is very strict; one must have a lettuce leaf with salt for dinner, and then several vodka cranberries to follow. Dessert is a huge no no! Mustn’t be a glutton, because no one likes a fat girl in a Speedo honey!
Possessing now what I consider to be the average Pittsburgh gay body, I was in shock when I first started going to south Florida. The big eye opener was when I went to Haulover Beach for the first time. Haulover is a gay, clothing optional beach located in affluent Bal Harbor, which is part of North Miami Beach. Even on an off day, it is flooded with thousands of gay men seeking sun, relaxation, and more often than not, they are seeking attention. They strut up and down the beach in a show like fashion, like flamboyant peacocks using their ornate tail feathers to attract a mate, or in this case trying to draw attention to their bronzed, near perfect physiques. “Look at me and my hotness, and be in awe as I stare you down from behind darkened designer shades. “
This particular time I was staying with friends in Wilton Manors (a.k.a the gayborhood), which is about a 30 minute drive from Haulover beach. While braving Miami traffic en route to the beach, I noticed several billboards in Wilton Manors along the way. There were billboards for liposuction with giant images of attractive men oozing sex from their every pore to demonstrate that yes, you too can look like this with a little nip and tuck here and there with the surgeon’s knife ! There were also numerous Billboards advertising laser hair removal for men to get rid of that pesky body hair that hides those perfect pecs, and plastic surgery for men to tighten those faces and hide the fact that you are really 50 with a surgically created 21 year old physique.
Finally after wading through traffic, I arrived at Haulover. I parked and walked through the giant hedge of sea grapes to be greeted with a pristinely white sand beach and azure blue water with a backdrop of shoulder to shoulder high rise glass towers full of luxury condominiums with ocean views. The beach was packed, and it was hard to find a clear space of sand to set up camp. I got settled in eventually after fighting for my space on the sand. I sat for most of the afternoon and watched all the lively activity going on. Every gay man on the beach, or what seemed like nearly every gay man, because the average bodied gay man was swept away in a flood of silicone, testosterone, and sinew, all looked like a carbon copy of each other. It was like watching a beach full of Ken Dolls. Each Ken Doll was nearly identical in body type only they came with the option of picking a different skin tone, hair type, and various accessories like designer shades or skin tight swim trunks that highlighted over exaggerated posteriors and even more obnoxiously bulging anteriors . Most of the Ken Dolls chose the no clothing option. I remember feeling very inferior and I clearly remember telling my friends that I felt the need to put a bag over not only my head, but over my entire body in order to fit in.
For most of my young adult life I was thin, or at least thin by the straight definition. I am six foot two inches tall and my weight normally fell within the healthy standard set by the American Medical Association, that being between 175 and 185 pounds. It wasn’t until I came out, that my weight became an issue and a constant internal conflict. My straight friends would say “you are so skinny”, my gay friends would say “girl, you are getting a little thick, you need to diet!” It drove me crazy. I was too fat in the gay world, and too thin in the straight world. It never became a real issue until I went on a date with someone to whom I was very attracted. The date went well, or so I thought, but I never received a call afterward for a repeat performance. The guy was mutual friends with some of my close friends. I was told that he felt that I was too fat for him and that I would need to slim down before he would consider dating me. I weighed 180 pounds at the time. Certainly not fat, but I didn’t think that at the time. His comment devastated me and sent me spiraling into an obsession over my self-perceived, imperfect body. I starved myself down from 190 pounds to a very emaciated 158 pounds. I obsessed in the mirror about every ounce of fat. I worked out to the point that I had lines and curves just like those Ken Dolls on Haulover beach. I was a men’s pant size 28 and those began to become too lose. I dieted to the point that I couldn’t walk across a room without being dizzy and also to the point that my Mother asked me if I was “sick” which was her way of asking if I had contracted HIV. I had a straight coworker at the time tell me that she would never date a guy like me, not that I was asking to nor had I asked her opinion on the matter. When I asked why not, she replied that men should be beefy and stocky, not thin. I was too skinny for her. My gay friends, on the other hand, said “honey, you look fabulous!” This ultra lean body of mine didn’t last long, thankfully, because I realized that I couldn’t maintain that weight without feeling totally miserable. I like food and I like being able to enjoy a meal without feeling horribly guilty and running home to the mirror to self loathe every night. I also learned, years later, that my former date had a severe eating disorder and still does to this day. As I grew older, the need for perfection faded and I learned to somewhat accept my body for what it was. It is my body and what I was given to work with, although I still sometimes feel the need to obsess and be unhappy with my recently turned 40 year old body. After all, a lot of gay men in their 40’s have faces and bodies that appear to be decades younger. One slice of the scalpel and years fade away. One prick of the hypodermic needle and lines can be obliterated. A little silicone here and there and I could be a real man, right?
The message to gay men is quite clear. In order to be considered attractive you must look like the perfect specimen. You must have a body that looks like one of those marble statues of a Greek God. You must have a flat stomach with abdominal muscles that you could use to scrub clothing on with a rock solid chest, and you must have no body fat and little to no body hair. The message appears in various places, like billboards in gay neighborhoods, in various gay magazines, and especially on the television. The television series Queer as Folk is a prime example. Every actor on there was thin and had the stereotypically gay physique. Another show, Will and Grace, had a great line of dialog that illustrates my point. The main character was walking down a NYC street with a bag of carryout Chinese food. His friend flew past him on a bicycle and snatched the food from him and threw it in the nearby trash can while yelling “Gay skinny is not straight skinny honey!” If you leaf through any gay targeted magazine you will also quickly see my point. Page after page of advertisements and almost every one shows a shirtless hunk with the perfect body. It doesn’t matter what they are marketing, the model is the same. Selling real estate? Put an advertisement in with an oiled up stud in barely-there, low riding underwear filled to the brim with bulging, overexagerated manhood. Marketing drugs for HIV positive people? An oiled up, half naked man will do the trick to grab attention.
The question of why does this obsession over our male bodies happen, and exactly how far reaching is this problem, came to my mind. It appears that the problem is far reaching. Researchers Ilan H. Meyer, PhD, associate professor of clinical Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator, and Matthew Feldman, PhD, of the National Development and Research Institute, surveyed 516 New York City residents; 126 were straight men and the rest were bisexual men and women. According to the study results, more than 15 percent of gay or bisexual men had at some time suffered anorexia, bulimia, or at least certain symptoms of those disorders compared with less than five percent of heterosexual men. In contrast, sexual orientation did not seem to influence the risk of eating disorder symptoms among women. Researchers were puzzled by the cause. Dr. Meyer postulated that “"that the values and norms in the gay men's community promote a body-centered focus and high expectations about physical appearance, so that, similar to what has been theorized about heterosexual women, they may feel pressure to maintain an ideal body image." My opinion is that we as gay men have been chastised for most of our lives as having feminine traits. It is for that very reason that we overcompensate. We push ourselves to be the epitome of maleness. We obsessively push to have the perfect male form that exhibits everything that society dictates that straight men are supposed look like and be like; strong, lean, and full of muscle, with testosterone pouring from every inch of our bodies. The Ken Doll clones, in my opinion, will not be leaving us anytime soon.
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health (2007, April 14). Gay Men Have Higher Prevalence Of Eating Disorders. ScienceDaily.