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Should muscular gay men stop talking about body issues online?

Body dysmorphia is real – so why don’t we believe people who talk about the ways they see themselves?

In 2017, American reality TV star Austin Armacost posted a topless picture on Twitter and quickly became a laughing stock. The source of the hilarity was the disconnect between the image (Armacost is muscular and could comfortably be described as “conventionally attractive”) and the caption, in which he declared: “This is my body. No 6 pack, no bulging biceps, & a little chubby BUT I LOVE my body. Don't like it, unfollow #FuckTheHaters #Happy.’ Although the horny reply-guy community was on-hand to offer some positive affirmation, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Some people replied with reaction GIFs of celebrities rolling their eyes, while others described Armacost as “attention-seeking” and “really fucking pathetic”. The text of the caption became a meme, copied-and-pasted onto ever more absurd images; a toasted marshmallow, Winnie the Pooh, a dog wearing clothes. 

I use Armacost as an example – simply because he’s a public figure – but many six-packed gay men have met with a similar fate. On Twitter, a body image controversy flares up every other week (the latest, now deleted, was an actor hosting a pool party and revealing, disgracefully, that he isn’t friends with any fat people – for which he has now issued a solemn apology.) It could be a slim person declaring themselves ‘thicc’ or a toned influencer captioning a photo ‘body by pizza’. It could be a reference to ‘struggles with body image’ accompanied by a topless photo at the beach, with a wide smile and a caption framing this as the culmination of a profound journey. A 2018 survey by gay magazine Attitude found that 84 per cent of respondents said they felt under intense pressure to have a good body, while only one per cent considered themselves “very happy” with their appearance. And if there’s one thing gay men love more than having body image issues, it’s talking about them! 

For those of us who don’t look like we spend five days a week in the gym, it can be tempting to wish the six-packed gays would shut up. If they feel so bad about their bodies, how are we supposed to feel about ours? What’s being implied? “While I’m sympathetic to gym gays who suffer from body image issues – as someone who’s dealt with them myself – I think it’s important to be careful about the messaging we put out online,” one 24-year-old gay Twitter user, Kyle, tells me. “Speaking negatively about your fit body can inadvertently harm less muscular people in your community who read what you say, including queer youth.”

Saafyan, a 24 year old gay Twitter user, takes a similar view: “I guess I’ve always been aware that the image of a ‘perfect man’ that’s been projected across most media today is fiction and that most guys don’t – and shouldn’t – look like that. I guess when I see that other grown men with large followings online openly state they basically see the world through the eyes of a horny 13-year- old, I just can’t take it seriously.”

Douglas, 23, says, “ I think mocking anyone for their body – whether they're ripped or carrying a few extra pounds – is lazy, but mocking anybody who’s arrogant or exhibiting shitty behaviour is totally warranted. It just so happens that the narcissism (which is still ultimately rooted in a serious level of low self-esteem) and thus arrogance towards others is usually found in ‘ripped’ guys, who are endlessly chasing perfection and blind to other people, or how ridiculous they're acting.”

So if you have a slim or athletic build, do you have an obligation to keep your body image problems to yourself? I’m not sure. On one hand, it’s important to recognise the advantages that having such a figure affords you. No matter how much you might hate your body, this feeling remains an internal problem – it’s never going to spill over into real-world discrimination as it might if you were fat. If you manage to make peace with your appearance, you’ll realise the world never had a problem with it to begin with. There’s a hierarchy of desirability in the gay world and being skinny, to the point of often being underweight, isn’t at the top of it - but I can’t claim to ever have been oppressed as a result.  “I wouldn’t say I’d feel pressure to not talk about my own body image online because I’m slender - it’s just something I’ve never felt the need to openly complain about.” Saafyan says.

That said, there is often zero correlation between the way someone looks and the way they feel. I spoke with Emmy Brunner, a psychotherapist who specialises in eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. “Someone could be in a very healthy body and be very ill, and vice versa,” she points out. Spending hours each day at the gym doesn’t necessarily suggest a healthy relationship with one’s body image. For me, the time in my life when I’ve been most slim – doing hours of cardio each day and viewing sugar with a combination of dread and longing – was when I felt the greatest disgust with the way I looked. I can easily believe that these gym-fit people on social media are being sincere when they describe themselves as ‘chunky’ or imply that when they look in the mirror, they don’t like what they see. 

“I can easily believe that these gym-fit people on social media are being sincere when they describe themselves as ‘chunky’ or imply that when they look in the mirror, they don’t like what they see”

Sean, a 23-year-old gay man, agrees. “At one point, I would have felt scornful about hot guys posting about how fat or out of shape they look. But the more my own body has changed, and the more I’ve interrogated my own relationship with it, I’ve realised that how your body looks really doesn’t correspond with how you feel about it. Really, that’s the entire crux of dysmorphia as a condition. I’ve been really fat at some points and am now quite dadboddish, but how I see myself has barely shifted. So I try not to mock. I often just feel sad when I see people with six packs bemoan how bad they look. I have no reason to think it’s insincere, and it shows that perception of yourself is deep-set, and not easily shaken. Even when you look, conventionally, 10/10, there’s still the capacity to feel horrific about your own body.”

Does he think it’s irresponsible for people to voice these issues? “We all have voices telling us we don’t look good enough. But if people are well enough to work through and push past that voice, I think they should try that. It’s important, if you can, to not always voice the worst thoughts you have about how you look – not only is it unhelpful for you, but there’s a certain responsibility in terms of how you talk about your body, because other people are taking that in and setting their own standards about how to look based on it.”

People talking about body image online, particularly if they are perceived to be “conventionally attractive”, are often accused of being attention-seeking. I suggest to Brunner that, even if some people are doing it for cynical reasons, if they’re jumping on a bandwagon or chasing clout, it’s safer to assume that everyone is sincere, and react accordingly.

“Even if that's true, even if some people are (talking about body image for cynical reasons), you have to ask why. It’s still not very healthy behaviour, is it?” Brunner says, “Even if we entertain that reality and go, yes, some people might not be struggling so much with body image, but they recognise that this is a way of getting their needs met, then I would think “My God, what's going on with that person, that that's the route that they've chosen to go down, that they're actually willing to present themselves in such an artificial way?”

“When we’re presenting ourselves in an artificial way, that’s when we feel most lonely. We’ve all done it. We've all been in a big group where we've thought ‘I’m a bit out of my comfort zone’ and acted in a way that doesn't feel authentic. It feels really fucking lonely when you do that.”

It follows that even if we ascribe someone with the most cynical reasons possible for talking about body image, even if we think they’re basically chatting shit for attention, we still shouldn’t be so quick to condemn them - or turn them into a meme. ‘Attention-seeking’ is used as an insult but it’s worth considering why someone is seeking attention in the first place. 

“I often just feel sad when I see people with six packs bemoan how bad they look. I have no reason to think it’s insincere, and it shows that perception of yourself is deep-set” – Sean

In the current discourse around mental health, openness is exalted above everything else as the key to recovery (perhaps because ‘talking to your mates’ doesn’t cost the government money or resources.) But in the case of eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder (a mental health condition which causes people to spend a lot of time agonising over perceived flaws in their appearance), or body image issues more generally, talking about your problems risks being harmful. We should try to be aware of this and talk about the subject in a sensitive way (avoiding before and after shots is a good start, along with discussing specific weights) while also taking people’s disclosure’s in good faith - regardless of how annoying or performative they might seem. 

Ultimately, it’s not an individual problem and blaming individual actors does nothing to address the wider issues. As well as being subject to pressures from the various industries which profit off our continuing insecurity, most gay men are traumatised and damaged to begin with. We should try to treat each other with a bit more sympathy, because a majority of us dislike the way we look and we might be waiting a long time for a structural solution to that problem. A friend of mine tells me, “honestly, gay men’s body issues are out of control. Everyone needs a hug… and to not be so fucking cruel.”