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.