This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
I grew up hating my body. I had stretch marks and curves in the “wrong” places. I came out as a gay man a few years ago and I thought I could finally find comfort and acceptance, but it didn't take me long to realize how toxic the culture of body shaming was in the gay community.
“No slim, no obesity, no ngondek (femme)”
“Not for fat AND ELDER”
“Sorry guys, I’m Chub”
Those lines were taken straight from bios of Grindr profiles that I read this morning. They made me question why I decided to redownload the dating app time and again. The last profile bio I came across just broke my heart. Should that person apologize for being plus-size in this world? Should I?
When I came out, I was excited to live in a time with plenty of dating apps for people like me to meet one another. I was ready to dive into Indonesia’s gay culture head first, looking for love or a one-time companion to get me through the night. I was naive then. I did not yet realize that once people saw my picture—my round, grinning face, thick glasses, oversized T-shirt and pants—they immediately marked me as undesirable. Hundreds of men rejected and ignored me, or even mocked me for having the nerve to ask them out.
From my observations over the years, gay men can be very unforgiving when it comes to judging different body types that people have—even more so than straight men. They cover up their discrimination with “sassiness”. But it’s not funny nor cute. It’s cruel. It’s no surprise that so many of us struggle with body image issues. Many gay men spend a lot of time in the gym hoping to look like ancient Greek gods someday. Then there’s this pressure to label yourself a certain way—masc, femme, jock, among others. Your fashion sense and how you carry yourself matter too, especially in big cities like Jakarta.
After years of trying and failing and picking myself back up, I’ve finally made peace with my appearance. I’ve accepted that some people will straight down reject you for your looks. But maybe because looking for approval is something that comes naturally in me, I need affirmations too sometimes. I think many people will agree.
I got in touch with other gay men to learn what their journey to self love is like. Names have been changed for their safety, and because we’re gay, we use fancy pseudonyms.
Cherie Fox, 25
I have always been undermined because of my appearance. Once, someone called me ugly to my face. This person said that he went out with me because he “pitied” me. Other people have eagerly asked to meet in real life but once we did, they looked for any excuse to get out of the date. All those things have made me feel like, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me.”
That’s why I work out. Besides to become healthy, I also want to fit in with the gay community here. I take care of myself by working out, wearing better outfits that flatter my body, and keeping a skincare routine. That’s because all my life I felt like I was not accepted. But then again, all those efforts have paid paid off now. I’ve gained a lot of confidence from it, and now men want me.
In Yogyakarta, the gay dating pool is pretty much small and homogenous, which is why it’s kind of hard to find someone because I’m very open with my sexual orientation. Then Grindr came and boom—my self-esteem dropped so low. Usually after I shared my pictures, the guys there either straight up blocked me, or rejected me because I didn’t have facial hair, or they thought I looked “too hipster” and “too queer”, which didn't make sense at all.
At that time, I felt like I didn’t belong to the so-called universal beauty standard for gays. It made me change my looks. I started to wear more casual and masculine clothes—no more crop tops. I also stopped dyeing my hair. But now I realized that it was such a stupid decision. Now I feel much more comfortable with who I am simply because I don’t think I have to be someone else to make others happy, you know?
Thom Berry, 28
I have heard all the insults— fat, chubby, ugly. I was actually being mocked by these guys on Grindr or Jack’d. It hurt, actually. There were times in which I challenged them to meet me so they could say that shit to my face. But they just blocked me every time. I pitied them in a way, but also I pitied myself for even wasting my time texting them back. I was desperate. I was 19 and still a virgin. At that time, I let anyone fuck me because I thought I wasn't worthy of having a cute boyfriend. For some time, it worked.
But years passed and I felt depressed, and even suicidal. I didn’t like looking in the mirror. I hated my thighs, I hated my chest, I hated my feet, everything. I’m not saying that all that hatred has gone, but at least now I feel much more confident and brave enough to have a certain degree of self-worth. I’m still fat but at least I’m loved by my friends, and I believe that’s enough.