Me Myself & My Mirror
Three years ago, I lived by myself for the first time.
Previously, I had had a succession of roommates in apartments across Toronto, and, before that, I had been at my parents’ house in the suburbs. There had been nothing wrong with my most recent roommates, aside from being on different schedules: they worked nine-to-fives and I, as a writer, preferred irregular hours. I would work late when the still of the night provided the most access to creativity and then try to sleep in, but most mornings I’d be awoken by the roar of a hair dryer and buzz of a blender.
I moved to a less-established part of Toronto and managed to find a small house to rent at a ridiculous discount. In my new space, I could work until whenever I wanted and not worry about the impact upon anyone else. Dishes could pile up, laundry could be done continuously, and I could awake at noon without disturbance.
The biggest adjustment was going from one private space – the bedroom – to an entire private property. One thing I quickly realized was a considerable gap in interior design skills. I went to school for engineering, but while you might imagine that would make me tidy and precise it instead meant I was more pragmatic and efficient. Why, for instance, fold and store laundry when it has to be taken out to be worn anyhow? Better to leave them in large, albeit clean, piles awaiting the next wearing.
I missed the memo on what people needed inside living spaces, having previously been blessed with talented roommates who’d take up the slack. This meant basic things other apartments had I would be missing, and so, for nearly a year, I lived without essentially ever looking into a mirror.
My new space had two washrooms (I know, right?) and the one I preferred hadn’t been furnished with a wall mirror. Since I couldn’t be bothered to find one – let alone install it – I just lived without. Brushing teeth, washing face, and getting dressed could all be accomplished reflectionless – only when I needed to shave would I drag myself in front of the sole mirror in my place.
You might imagine that such a setup would be frustrating, but it was the opposite. It was absolutely liberating. It didn’t happen immediately, rather it slowly crept up upon me the way, for example, someone immersed in a new culture gradually accrues the language before realizing they can speak it fluently. Where once I equated seeing myself as some form of self-actualization, physically seeing my reflection a link to knowing myself, now I recognized it as more of an anchor.
Without the mirror, there were fewer subconscious reminders of the distance between myself and the cultural standard of beauty, those nagging thoughts that criticize and put us down even when we should know better. Teeth not white enough. Skin not clear enough. Arms too flabby. Chest too pale. Stomach too paunchy. The list can be endless, and everyday there appears to be some new way for us to hate ourselves.
Recently, I saw an ad for a teeth whitening service that subtly threatened women that a little yellowing could mean missing out on the love of their lives. How fucked up is that? As trifling as that ad might be, the messages we allow in undoubtedly change us. Along with jettisoning the mirror, I also consumed fewer images from the media, where the signals were ridiculously primal: muscular bodies that serve to both titillate and leave us wanting.
Of course I want to see the hot dude, even if he’s just chilling – and more so when he is intertwined with another hot dude. But if the mirror was the feedback gauge for how I compared to the ideal, a thermometer of sorts, then the media was the fuel for my insecurity, providing ever glossier, more beautiful images of young, thin men. This was happiness. This was satisfaction.
I thought I was immune to the increasingly toxic dosages of corporeal representation (as I’m sure many others are). I was too smart, too clever, too self-aware. But then why did I treat myself so dismissively, so cruelly if I was unaffected? I thought I could enjoy responsibly, to adopt the language of alcohol advertisements, but I was drunk without even knowing it. The media retreat acted as a reboot for my self-image, a cleanse.
There appears to be a desperate need for such cleanses. While straight men face similar pressures to be thin or muscular, in studies, the pressure appears more pronounced for gay men. One reported that gay men were 50% more likely to hypothetically give up a year of living in order to obtain a “perfect” body, men literally willing to die for desirability.
There have been many theories positing why gay male culture appears so entranced by the muscular form, and, like most cultural phenomena, the truth is that each one likely acts as a partial factor. My favorite is that the relationship between gay men is primarily found upon physical attraction, the desire for same-sex interactions is the most common thread aside from all being identified as male. It isn’t a stretch to suggest that the value many gay men feel within the community is tethered to their sexual currency, especially given that the broader gay population is broken down into smaller segments based on sexual identities – for instance, the leather or daddy communities.
Gay men use blanket assessments of personality traits to guess each other’s sexual positions – how does a top act? A bottom? – and it very much concretizes the notion that our worth and our identity are both tied up in our ability to be desirable. This may be the main separation between gay and straight men in terms of body image, with the latter having the permission to embody a variety of identities, sexuality being just one tranche of a heavily stacked tower.
And yet, the straight male and what he represents is intertwined in the gay culture’s sense of self. When we think about body image, we cannot and should not dissect it in isolation, as the perception of attractiveness has much overlap with the social construction of masculinity. Let’s call it the “masc” chorus: even in the other subcultures sometimes argued as less body fascist, like the bear or bareback subcultures, we still see reflected in their pornography an adherence to conventional ideas of masculinity.
It is this drive to be as manly as possible that grips many in our culture. We see it in the advertisements, on Grindr, and in the clubs. I have seen it in gay men that have grown beards and police one another to quell their inner sissies, because after all we know that fairies can’t truly be real. This is why the battle over our bodies is more important than some understand: the truth is that we are not just trying to reshape ourselves physically but psychologically too.
What’s heartbreaking is that the rhetoric used to encourage gay kids to come out, that they are free to be themselves, is countered by the fact that sexual viability prescribes to anything but individuality. A young boy exploring his sexuality by looking at the iconography of porn might recognize that the very roles sexualized are the ones he is attempting to break free from around him. Why do we scrap the wisdom that allure comes from a comfort within one’s skin?
Naturally, there are exceptions, but that we rush to raise them up as beacons against the problematic parts of the culture then only acts as reinforcement of the rule. With our current mob mentality on body image, there are tangible reasons to follow, rather than buck, the trend. There is more sex to be had by conforming.
One only needs to look at apps like Grindr and Scruff to see how hard the line is that men must follow: how rare is it to see a shirtless torso of a man without a lean or muscular physique? Profiles ask for real men, as if men do not come in all shapes and sizes. These apps with their hundreds of profiles act as tiny mirrors reflecting back to us who we should look like and how far away we are from that ideal.
We are given very little context as to these men:
how did they find the time or energy to achieve such a body –it surely isn’t easy. And yet simultaneously it is easy to not care, since the intended encounters are but temporary, and these men can be casually objectified, commodified, and consumed, as if Grindr were but a giant vending machine filled with junk food. Every time I open one of these hookup apps there it is, a solid wall of abdominal muscles, taunting me: do you want in or out? And if I wanna get laid, do I have a choice?
When we worry about how our currency within the gay culture will flounder without the idealized body, many of us assume there is no other option but to look like what a particular subculture finds desirable. But is it true only because all of us buy into that conceit? Part of what frustrates me about this conversation is the monochromatic view of value, the assessment of self-worth based on our sex lives: I am what I fuck. After all, isn’t this from where the fastidious commitment to body image stems?
Mauvaise foi. It means “bad faith” and was how French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described the trap we can fall under when we believe that we are out of options due to the fear of what making a choice could mean. It is sometimes more comforting to believe that we have no choice, no autonomy, but to go with the flow, even when going with the flow, letting ourselves get pulled by the current, is obviously an option.
I often think about the differences between individual and systemic values. The former inform the latter, and while the system can be slow to change, it shouldn’t dissuade us from changing our own views first. If only we spent as much time thinking about what we really want and the qualities that we believe bring us value as we did worrying about our weight, we would see that we have many choices. Even if we don’t – can’t? – change the images that we see, expanding our idea of self-worth is the better battle to tackle.
There’s more to life than fucking. It’s almost taboo to say within the gay culture because it acts as such a pivotal framework for our lives. There’s an equivalency that if you are no longer fucking, you might as well not exist. I’m not saying that fucking is bad nor that we should not have fucking as a meaningful component of our lives – I am saying that balance is key here.
When I do look at a mirror, there are so many things I’m not thinking about that are important, that make me feel good about myself. I’m not appreciating my passion for learning new things. I’m not reflecting on the supportive family and friends I have. I’m not giving myself a little boost for moving my career a tiny step closer in the right direction. Why do I only see certain shades of myself in the reflection? After all, placing all our worth into our looks is a downhill battle. It’s not just that we all age and that at some point we must come to terms with the fallibility of our bodies, but also, in the present, it is a slippery slope. There will always be a guy who is fitter, buffer, hotter than you, and the more we all try, the higher the bar goes.
On one hand, this seems like a net positive: Hey, everyone gets hotter! But whether we can afford all those resources going into this singular mindset is worth a pause. How many guys are using steroids to get more muscular, and why don’t we ever stop to wonder how we got to the point that that was necessary?
I ask a lot of questions, and, in the end, I don’t have nearly enough answers. But I have to ask those questions anyhow if not to at least crowd out the ones that pop into my head when I decide whether or not to eat dessert or when the pants I love fit a bit too snugly. I don’t buy into the idea that healthy body image means letting anything fly, but I think it’s important to advocate for showing off our beauty inside as much as we do on the outside.
Even if we don’t – can’t? – change the images that we see, expanding our idea of self-worth is the better
battle to tackle.