The recent viral online articles, “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat” and “A Straight Woman and a Gay Man Talk Body Image,” have garnered much attention in that they both offer novel insight into the difficulties that gay men face regarding their bodily attractiveness. It is evident that many gay men feel a constant pressure to look a certain way. Some of these idealizations include but are not limited to having six-pack abs, a V-cut body shape, toned arms and legs, and having little to no body fat in the midsection. Although these desired bodily features are not impossible to attain, they become unrealistic in the sense that gay men expect themselves and others (friends and dating partners) to meet these standards. But why is it that gay men feel that they need to meet these specific physical standards? And is it true (as the writers from Slate.com point out) gay men have higher physical attractiveness standards than do straight men or straight women?
These questions are tricky because there is not just one simple answer. I will point out a two perspectives that might shed light on this issue.
1. Creating a High Standard through Target Marketing
One reason gay men might place such a high premium on their physical attractiveness is that they are constantly being exposed to an ideal. This ideal can be seen in various media and business advertisements targeted towards gay male consumers, and these almost always depict shirtless, muscular gay male models (note the image). It is very common to see this marketing strategy used in the gay community. Many gay businesses, bars, and events utilize the attractive appeal of a male model in order to attract the attention of young, gay audiences. Let’s not forget Grindr! However, by exposing gay men to these ideal standards, gay men may feel a need to change their behavior (exercise, eating, etc.) in order to reduce the discrepancy between how they look and how the standard is supposed to look1. Though, this may be no different from the process that straight women and straight men go through to meet similar standards. For example, straight women are also exposed to fashion and beauty advertisements depicting thin, attractive women. Nonetheless, it is important to note that even though women are constantly striving to achieve an “ideal thin” body size, gay men feel a need to not only be thin, but to also be muscular2. This key distinction may reflect the higher body standards for gay men and the increased pressure to meet these standards.
2. Perpetuating the Standard through Partner Preferences
Although quite intuitive, another reason why gay men may feel a great desire to have an ideal body is to attract high-quality dating or romantic partners. There is evidence to suggest that gay men place exceptionally high value on physically attractive partners, similar to straight men3. Unlike straight men however, gay men have an increasingly difficult time finding a romantic partner because gay men represent a significantly smaller percentage of the population. Imagine taking your potential dating pool and shrinking it by 80-90%. Because of this, gay men may perceive a greater urgency to emphasize their bodily features in order to attract suitable partners that are not as abundant in the general population. In turn, this may cause gay men to be extremely picky when it comes to selecting a partner as well. For instance, it is likely that a gay man will want to select among other gay men who meet or closely resemble the bodily attractiveness standard. This may cause other gay men (those do not meet or resemble “the ideal”) to feel rejected or generally uncomfortable with their body because they are not able to attract a desirable partner.
Body image is a huge concern among many gay men, and the standards for a desirable body are getting higher. Even though straight women and straight men face similar concerns in regards to their body image, it is important to understand that gay men are under extreme pressure to conform to these standards, which may be the result of the different dating and marketing environments that gay men inhabit.
1. Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2. Yelland, C., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Muscularity and the gay ideal: Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in homosexual men. Eating Behaviors, 4, 107-116.
3. Bailey, M. J., Gaulin, S., Agyei, Y., and Gladue, B. A. (1994). Effects of gender and sexual orientation on evolutionary relevant aspects of human mating psychology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 1081-1093.