Archives for October 2013

Gay Men’s Bodily Attractiveness: Why a Higher Standard?

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?

physique image

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.

man in mirror

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.

References:

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.

Already Out? Thank Your Straight Friends

“I’ve been out for years, so how am I supposed to participate in National Coming Out Day?” asked one of my gay friends. My reply: “Thank your straight friends.”

No, really. Thank your straight friends.

One of the great things about National Coming Out Day is that it sets aside a day for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender to publicly affirm their sexuality. It’s a day of celebration and cathartic release for these individuals. However, the individuals who celebrate are mostly LGBT individuals who have recently come out or who are in the process of coming out. Other LGBT individuals may feel differently about this holiday. In my experience, I have encountered lesbian women and gay men who brush this holiday off because 1) they are already out, and 2) they don’t feel the need to reaffirm their sexuality. Although there is really no changing how gay man and women feel about issue, National Coming Out Day should be more than just affirming your sexual identity. Specifically, Coming Out Day should also be a day where we show our sincerest gratitude and appreciation for those who supported us and accepted us from the very beginning: our straight friends.

coming out

Taking a step back from my usual blog posts, I want to emphasize the important role that gay-supportive men and women (a.k.a. allies) have played in helping young gay men and lesbian women make their transition. Without the unconditional, loving support from our straight friends, there would probably not be a National Coming Out Day. At least in my personal experience, my straight friends were my foundation when I was coming out. I hardly knew any gay people at the time, so I had to rely solely on the support of my straight friends. Reflecting back 5 years ago (seems like only yesterday), not only did my straight friends accept me for who I was, they also provided me with a sense of belonging. That is, even though I thought the words, “I am gay”, automatically isolated me and made me different, they reassured me that nothing had changed. I was still their friend, and I was still Eric. These simple actions taken by my straight friends made all the difference, and their support has ultimately shaped who I have become today.  To me, that is definitely worth celebrating.

Therefore, in honor of today, I say will say this: Celebrate your sexual identity, but also celebrate the straight friends that have supported you.

Romantic Bad Luck

An open and uncomfortable secret for some gays and lesbians is that they sometimes develop crushes or fall in love with straight men and women. A simplistic answer is that there are more straights than gays and by a sad numbers game, this sort of thing just happens. Because these unrequited feelings are just romantic bad luck, the crush itself isn’t really a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem is solved by declaring it “not a problem.” This explanation, while well intended, ignores larger concerns and actually can make gays and lesbians worse off.

gay-love

Another explanation for what is going on is due to psychological factors in how people think about an ideal romance. We learn what a successful romance is by looking at romantic paradigm cases like Romeo and Juliet, Disney princesses, or even sitcoms like Friends or Sex and the City. Psychological studies show that people tend to misremember their own romantic experiences as versions of these paradigm cases1. For example, if a couple’s family does not like the significant other’s in-laws, the couple tends to exaggerate the fighting and may even imagine plots to break up the couple a la Romeo and Juliet. A couple that constantly breaks up and gets back together due to major differences like marriage, children, where to live, etc., may remember their experiences through a lens of Ross and Rachel rather than as they actually were.

Cheshire Calhoun, a philosopher who focuses on gay and lesbian identity, points out that the paradigm cases almost exclusively cast heterosexuals. Gays and lesbians, like anyone else, look to these models for guidance about what a genuine or authentic romance should be like but have psychological dissonance because the cast of characters they see, one man one woman, is different than the cast of characters they want, two men or two women. Homosexuals aren’t massively mistaken here, but rather are trying to build a romantic model with the best materials they have available, which just so happen to be heterosexual examples. I think when gays and lesbians do fall in love with straight counterparts, it is because they are trying to live out the romantic models they have grown up with as best they can.

Kurt

One way to help address this dissonance is to provide gays and lesbians with romantic models featuring gays and lesbians. Movies and TV shows are now making gay and lesbian relationships more common, and this is a good start, but none of these models have the kind of currency that the above romantic models have. In short, the more models that show functional gay and lesbian romances, the more likely the romantic substitution will get smaller.

References:

1. Averill, James R. and Boothroyd, Phyllis, “On Falling in Love in Conformance with the Romantic Ideal,” Motivation and Emotion, 1 (1977): 235-47. De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1987), 181-184.

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We thank Kurt Blankschaen for contributing this post. Kurt is currently pursuing his PhD in philosophy at The University of Kansas.

The “Forbidden Fruit” Phenomenon

It is obvious that gay men do not have a sexual attraction to women. This absence of attraction ultimately eliminates women’s need to self-protect against awkward love games or unwanted sexual advances. Women have an appreciation for their gay male friends because they are able to provide a platonic friendship without the sexual overture. But are there times when a straight woman may wonder or hope that her gay friend is romantically interested?

forbidden fruit

For the most part, women desire men who will care for them, empathize with them, and listen to their concerns. Because gay men have such an instinctive ability to easily provide these things to their female friends, is it possible that these actions may arouse the desire for her gay friend to be a romantic partner? By providing a loving and nurturing relationship to his female friend, a gay male may become romantically or even sexually desired.  I call this the “Forbidden Fruit” phenomenon. It should be kept in mind that even though gay men are not attracted to women, women still have the potential to be attracted to gay men, as their heterosexuality does not discriminate between gay or straight men. Although the last thing that a gay man wants to do is sleep with his female friend, gay men may play along with his female friend in a way that teases her curiosity without ultimately doing anything sexual1. For example, gay men are not afraid to get crazy with their female friends on the dance floor.

“Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by God, there’ll be dancing!” – George, in the film: My Best Friend’s Wedding

Although exchanging loving words (e.g., “I love you”) and romantic-like gestures may become awkward in most opposite-sex friendships, a gay man may appreciate his female friend’s admiration, and this admiration may be beneficial to his overall self-esteem.

References:

  1. Hopcke, R. H. & Rafaty, L. (1999). Straight women, gay men: Absolutely fabulous friendships. Berkeley, California: Wildcat Canyon Press.