Why body dysmorphia and unhealthy body image issues continue to run rampant in the gay community.
Every morning, Jamal Jones rolls out of bed, shuffles over to his bathroom, and flips on the light switch. The 29-year-old Washington, DC, resident is slim-framed, by all accounts handsome. On those mornings, he can see the sleep in his eyes, the stubble growing on his chin—but that’s not what he’s looking for. Without helping it, he immediately starts scanning for that one aspect of his appearance he never seems to be satisfied with, no matter how much he goes to the gym or how many diets he tries. It’s body fat—any body fat he can see—that perturbs him.
Jamal suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD. It’s classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder in the DSM-V; sufferers become obsessed with particular aspects of their appearance they deem unworthy, no matter how unrealistic those thoughts may be. Jamal is also gay, making him one of many queer men who suffer from BDD and distorted body image.
It’s no secret that certain segments of the gay community hold high, near-oppressive standards of what counts as sexually attractive. Countless gay men have struggled to see themselves within it as a result. Studies show that gay men disproportionately suffer from eating disorders and negative body image, and BDD may affect gay men at a higher rate than straight men as well. Whether suffering from a diagnosable disorder like BDD, or just inundated with negative attitudes about one’s looks, it’s clear that when it comes to body image issues, gay men are hurting—and the root causes are likely endemic to the way the gay community functions itself.
Ken Howard, an LA-based therapist who focuses on helping gay clients, attributes a variety of causes to the proliferation of body dysmorphia in the community. There’s the idea, for one, that gay men know themselves to be somehow “different” from a young age, and are “continuously judged by a broader, generally homophobic global society,” as he put it. Feeling that difference could cause one to internalize higher standards of beauty as a coping mechanism. Other possibilities include anxiety about one’s “role” in the gay community, or even something as simple as the “increasingly muscular action figures” kids are raised with, with “impossibly muscular physiques that don’t really exist in adult reality.”
Regardless of what causes these body image issues, once one enters the LGBTQ community, they may begin to feel an immense sense of judgement from their peers—a sense that desirability itself only comes with a six-pack and chiseled good looks. For a queer person of color like Jamal, these pressures can be even worse; he cited everything from the impossible standards of male bodies he grew up watching on television to the overwhelming whiteness of the LGBTQ community as factors that reinforced his BDD.
Watch therapist Zach Rawlings discuss body image issues in the gay community with TONIC:
“I would run several miles every day until I became dangerously skinny,” said writer JP Brammer, as he recounted being picked on for his weight in high school in rural Oklahoma. “And based on my height and frame, I was at a very unhealthy weight.” After a year of struggling, he managed to regain some of his weight back, but things only grew more difficult from there. “After I came out, which was supposed to be this wonderfully, healthy, positive thing, it unfortunately triggered my anxieties again, because I was reconfiguring myself in a sexual context that I wasn't really prepared to enter,” he said. “The more I immersed myself in predominantly gay male culture, the more I started to feel inadequate in my own body.”
Those are inadequacies Brammer said he continues to feel, especially when he uses dating apps like Grindr—and they persist despite writing about his struggle publicly. The way he described the experience of being body dysmorphic is downright haunting: “You see yourself in your minds eye, sort of like a funhouse mirror,” Brammer said, “and when you see your flaw you sorta become obsessive about it. It's all you think about, it's all you look for.”
As a queer person of color, Brammer shares Jamal’s understanding of the way a many-layered identity can complicate one’s relationship with the LGBTQ community and one’s own body. “I think there’s a lot of social capital to be gained by being a handsome, cisgender, white, tall, muscled, gay man,” JP said. “I think that gives you access to things other people simply don't have access to—but again, that’s imported from the larger dominant society.”
Some gay men deal with their BDD by seeking out plastic surgery, a process that can be as traumatic as the disorder itself. It’s one that Reid Ewing, an actor known best for playing the character Dylan on Modern Family, said he regretted in a confessional piece he wrote for Huffington Post. Others turn to compulsive exercise, and sometimes develop muscle dysmorphia, a subtype of BDD that causes sufferers to “obsess about being inadequately muscular,” according to the National Eating Disorders Association—and expend huge amounts of time and money on gyms, supplements, and sometimes steroids to get the body they want.
“Regular exercise is important to maintain one's physical and mental and emotional well-being. I don't hear people really talking about it from that perspective. I mainly hear it as a way of being socially desirable,” explained Sharon Nesselle, a mental health clinician at the Los Angeles LGBT center. “There are those who think intently about doing things that build muscle and find that their only intent is to improve physical appearance. Bad intentions can lead someone to do good things. My hope is that over time the right intentions and motivation will keep them doing it.”
What’s clear is that negative body image takes a huge toll on the lives of too many gay men, and because its causes are so complex, it’s a hard problem to dismantle. For Jamal, his struggle to overcome BDD got worse before it got better. For a variety of reasons—personal dissatisfaction with his life, the unease he felt within the gay community, and his BDD—Jamal turned to sex and drugs to “fill a void” before he could seek proper treatment. Through therapy, he was able to overcome his addictions and gain a more positive self-perception, and today he’s in a much healthier place.
"I think the gay community is a great opportunity for collective healing,” as Brammer put it, “because we all have been damaged in the past."
Jack Hobbs is an intern for VICE.com. Follow him on Twitter.