Size Mat­ters

Hello Mr. Magazine - - SIZE MATTERS - Text by Stephen Lu­cas Illustration by Nathan Nankervis

As gay men, we have a way of con­di­tion­ing each other about the so­cial and sex­ual ex­pec­ta­tions of our out-and-proud lives, a “This is the way it is” about ev­ery­thing from good bot­tom­ing eti­quette to per­form­ing the blessed sacra­ment of car­dio. A par­en­thet­i­cally ac­cepted re­al­ity of be­ing gay men is that we face un­avoid­able pres­sure to be fit and groomed at any price. Body im­age is wo­ven into the fab­ric of our iden­ti­ties as gay men, and more of­ten than not, the two are in­sep­a­ra­ble. We learn, al­most gravely, the dan­ger of gain­ing weight: Not find­ing or hav­ing sex, not go­ing on dates, ex­pect­ing boyfriends/part­ners to leave or cheat when you pack on pounds, and not be­ing in­vited by even your best friends to the beach for Memo­rial Day.

Over­weight men bear par­tic­u­lar scru­tiny and era­sure in the gay com­mu­nity. At my heav­i­est, I learned it of­ten did not mat­ter how smart, thought­ful, artis­tic, suc­cess­ful, hum­ble, lov­ing, or in­sight­ful I was as long as I was, an over­weight gay man. At times, be­ing gay and be­ing over­weight seem like an­ti­thet­i­cal iden­ti­ties. In el­e­men­tary school, I was never “faggot,” I was al­ways “fatso.” Some­times, it seems so lit­tle has changed in 20 years: the look you of­ten get as an over­weight gay man from other gay men is no look at all. What we are taught to see in over­weight, fat, and “gay fat” men is lazi­ness, un­de­sir­abil­ity, and fail­ure. Some­how when I felt huge, I also felt the most in­vis­i­ble.

The un­com­pro­mis­ing ways we treat weight gain and bod­ies in our com­mu­nity ex­poses the doughy un­der­belly of one of our most de­struc­tive so­cial norms. Think of all of us who lost weight just be­fore or im­me­di­ately af­ter com­ing out. Con­sider how com­mon eat­ing dis­or­ders are among gay

“When we let down our guard and ad­mit we have strug­gled, we wa­ger that strength in hope of be­ing more

au­then­tic ver­sions of our­selves.”

men. Ob­serve the near-ob­ses­sive masses that flock to the gym for redemp­tion. For some, the pres­sure pays off in toned bod­ies and dis­tant mem­o­ries of their “for­mer fat kid” selves. Oth­ers find them­selves en­trapped be­tween body shame and some form of ac­cep­tance. Over­weight or im­pec­ca­bly ripped, we with­stand re­la­tion­ships with our bod­ies filled with fear, lay­ered with guilt, and poi­soned with per­fec­tion­ism. Fat sham­ing does not just harm those of us who are over­weight, it bur­dens us all.

Sex­ual pol­i­tics are one thing, but these stan­dards are so deeply con­nected to gay iden­tity that they ex­tend far be­yond our bed­rooms and black books. I have too fre­quently wit­nessed gay men at­tack each other with bla­tant dis­re­gard, faux­con­cern, mo­ral su­pe­ri­or­ity, and even full-blown catty bravado when it comes to weight. Call­ing some­one – any­one – “chubby,” “fat,” or any­thing of the sort is a di­rect in­sult to all over­weight peo­ple, the same way we’re all at­tacked when one of us is called “fag” on the street.

We would all stand to ben­e­fit by stop­ping the fat jokes, re­mov­ing “No Fats” and “Fit” from our dat­ing pro­files, and start­ing to en­gage each other in con­ver­sa­tion rather than com­bat. Our sep­a­rate and shared ex­pe­ri­ences with body dys­mor­phia re­flect a broader, haunt­ing anx­i­ety that we are some­how com­pletely un­de­sir­able in the eyes of other gay men. In these mo­ments, it’s clear our un­rest is of­ten a lonely de­sire for some form of gen­uine val­i­da­tion, val­i­da­tion we are all ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing to one an­other. But this de­sire can also in­hibit our abil­ity to im­part the kind of com­pas­sion we seek from oth­ers.

I con­sider my friend, Clay – over six feet tall, mus­cu­lar, hardly any body fat, charm­ing smile. While he pre­pares for bathing suit sea­son each year, I cu­rate ex­cuses to avoid beach trips. While he be­moans his love han­dles, I bris­tle. “If those are love han­dles, mine are love guardrails,” I say to make light of his re­mark. I imag­ine he knew it was a thinly-veiled joke, but when he tries to em­pathize by shar­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ence, it some­times feels pa­tron­iz­ing.

It is dif­fer­ent to be fat than “gay fat.” What I want my friend to rec­og­nize is that my ex­pe­ri­ence has been worse than his, but why? I don’t want his or any­one else’s pity, and I don’t need any­one else to con­firm what I al­ready know through ex­pe­ri­ence. When I fi­nally corner him and he ad­mits that yes, it is dif­fer­ent, I feel no re­lief or sat­is­fac­tion. And by push­ing so hard, I in­val­i­date what he’s shared with me. Where I feel he un­fairly con­flated our re­spec­tive strug­gles, I’ve also dis­counted the sig­nif­i­cance of an­other gay man, a friend shar­ing a deep and im­por­tant vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Worse, who if not me, as his friend and con­fi­dant, would take his vul­ner­a­bil­ity se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing his largely ideal ap­pear­ance? I stand to gain noth­ing from him rec­og­niz­ing my strug­gle as worse than his (and I’m not con­vinced my ex­pe­ri­ence has ul­ti­mately been much worse).

What do we re­ally know about each other’s in­ter­nal lives be­yond that which is shared with

us? The trust it takes to share our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties with one an­other is pro­found, es­pe­cially as gay men. As a group, we seem to have en­cour­aged each other to be stronger and more stoic than I would have ex­pected. We en­cour­age each other to con­trol our bod­ies, our sex­ual prow­ess, our ca­reers, our so­cial per­sona, and count­less other facets of our lives.

When I think about what I re­ally wanted from Clay in those con­ver­sa­tions, I re­al­ize it was less per­sonal than po­lit­i­cal. I wanted his buy-in. I wanted some­one in his shoes to touch my pain and pro­tect me. I wanted some­one in his shoes to also shud­der when he hear the in­ces­santly fat-pho­bic lan­guage in gay cir­cles. I wanted him to be able to imag­ine what that would do to me well af­ter the bars had closed for the night. And I imag­ine now he re­ally just wanted the same from me.

When we let down our guard and ad­mit we have strug­gled, we wa­ger that strength in hope of be­ing more au­then­tic ver­sions of our­selves. But it’s an im­per­fect and some­times volatile gam­ble. We ex­pect some­thing oth­ers can’t nec­es­sar­ily pro­vide. We im­pose our thresh­olds of pain onto oth­ers, as I did with my friend. We re­treat fur­ther if we feel mis­un­der­stood. When it pays off, though, the re­ward is im­mea­sur­able. When we feel heard in those mo­ments, when our friends, lovers, and part­ners ex­tend us kind­ness and com­pas­sion, we can achieve a re­lief and com­fort we might not oth­er­wise find on our own. But we have to rec­og­nize these trans­ac­tions are big­ger and more com­pli­cated than we some­times re­al­ize.

Pub­lic body sham­ing is as com­mon in our com­mu­nity as pri­vate body-im­age strug­gles. If we rec­og­nize that body shame is com­mon, if not en­demic among gay men, we be­come ob­li­gated to im­prove our re­la­tion­ships with our bod­ies and those of oth­ers. Fear of fat en­cour­ages us to at­tack one an­other, and body shame dis­cour­ages us from be­ing open about and rec­og­niz­ing our strug­gles. The one re­in­forces the other. In the in­ter­est of our shared ex­pe­ri­ence as gay men, we must ac­knowl­edge our com­mon suf­fer­ing and emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties so as to do bet­ter by one an­other.

We have a lot of work to do. We have to cre­ate a less hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for all of us, start­ing by rec­og­niz­ing that many of us strug­gle with our bod­ies. We have to rec­og­nize that some of us bear par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges be­cause we are over­weight, while oth­ers face chal­lenges we might not be able to see or imag­ine. The fear and the shame defin­ing these strug­gles don’t ben­e­fit any of us, but rather stand in the way of a more mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion. Just as we ought to ex­tend more com­pas­sion to each other, we must also ex­tend that com­pas­sion to our­selves. Stephen Lu­cas is in an in­creas­ingly ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He cooks, writes, pon­ders fem­i­nist/ queer the­ory, and works in health pol­icy in his spare time. When ev­ery­one else was dress­ing up as ghosts and fire­fight­ers for Hal­loween in third grade, @StephenMLu­cas went as John F. Kennedy.

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