Peter Ward writes candidly about upholding gay male beauty standards while trying to resist them.
by Peter Ward
Pick a category. Are you average, toned, slim, muscular, large, stocky, or athletic? Pick another category. Are you a twink, bear, cub, preppy, muscle, jock, leather daddy, clean-cut, masc? As gay men, we have become accustomed to categorizing ourselves and each other based on our body-type and outward appearance. When creating a profile on gay dating apps, I ask myself, “Is it conceded to say muscular? Maybe I should be a bit more conservative and go with athletic.” The male standard of beauty within the gay community has been hammered into us by the media and our own subservience to it. Navigating it can be exhausting! My own personal struggles with it has created a man who although intelligent and attractive to some, is deeply insecure about his appearance.
I cannot get away from the standard of beauty we as gay men have come to idolize. While beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, we are constantly bombarded with images of ripped, toned men with generous bulges, and jaw lines to die for as the golden standard. We buy ridiculous amounts of protein, pre-workout, and post-workout supplements and spend hours at the gym to create the body that others will find desirable. We spend money that we don’t have on shoes, clothes, and accessories that we cannot afford just so someone will glance at us or turn their heads to us on the street. All that talk about beauty being on the inside is clearly nonsense!
I am certainly not immune to this. I spent my early to mid-20s obsessing about my appearance, racking up credit card debt to wear the latest trends. I was so far gone in debt that it made me miserable from about twenty-three to twenty-seven. I had nice clothes but could barely make my credit card payments. I prioritized my wardrobe over things like financial security. The best part: even though I had this nice wardrobe, I was still insecure. When I would go out with friends, I would base my appearance on the reaction of others. I was so afraid of not being desirable that I would get drunk so that I would have the balls just to make-out with someone. If I made out with guys or got lucky, it was a good night. If I didn’t, it was terrible and I was ugly.
Now at 30, I am financially responsible but still insecure due to these standards of male beauty. I obsess about my body; and by obsess, I don’t just mean working out. I obsess about not working out, about not working out hard enough or as hard as the guy next to me. I hit the gym 5 days a week, trying to get the body of “those” guys at the gym (you know who they are) that we all pine for, have. Yes, it is great to work out and be healthy but let’s be serious, I work out the way I do so that I feel desirable and can get laid. I do it to feel secure but I don’t ever think that day will come. I don't enjoy drinking crazy amounts of protein or scheduling my meals or taking supplements. I want to have the body that guys stare at and need to have. I want to be in the “muscular” category. If it were just about being healthy, I wouldn’t obsess about missing the gym or eating a slice of pizza or heaven forbid, having a cookie! I wouldn’t stare at myself in the mirror, picking apart my body, wishing for better abs, or bigger arms and of course, a nicer ass. No matter how many times people tell me how handsome I am or even that I have a nice body, it is never enough!
Why do this to myself? Why not be happy with the way I look as is instead of always trying to look like someone else? I have better things I could be doing instead of putting in hours at the gym. Yes, while I idolize men like Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth, for me the culprit is Facebook and Instagram. Scanning images of “real” guys with these amazing bodies drives me crazy! It makes me feel like I am not working hard enough or eating enough. I mean, if they can do it, why can’t I? Jealousy, envy, and guilt seep into my consciousness and I find myself comparing my body to other men ALL THE TIME! Recently, I became sick and had to miss the gym a few times. I felt horrible! Each day that I did not work out I imagined myself becoming fat and undesirable, falling behind every other guy. I imagine that these guys on social media must have amazing lives. How couldn’t they? Thousands of people like their photos and leave messages of desire. They have the world at their fingertips, with guys willing to do anything just to touch them. This is the standard that I and many other gay men hold themselves to. We want to be one that causes guys to do a double-take, not the guy no one notices.
As gay men, we put this pressure on ourselves to look perfect. What’s worse, we expect perfection in the guys we date or better yet, hook up with. I think of myself as a nice person. I will talk to anyone and would never make fun of someone’s body type, at least not outwardly. These impossible beauty standards have me constantly scanning the field to find what I like. Apps such as Grindr and SCRUFF allow me to choose men solely on their looks. If their chest isn’t big enough, abs not ripped enough, or legs not thick enough, swipe to the left.
I hate to admit this, but when guys who do not fit my standards message me, I find myself saying, “Are you kidding me?!” How terrible is that!? Who the hell am I to think that this person is not worthy of my time? I am guilty of exactly what makes me so insecure, validating men based on their looks. No wonder the cycle doesn't seem to get broken! By the way, although I have dated and been with all types of men (does that sound bad?), my type is usually a ridiculously ripped, hot Asian man.
Gay men have to deal with the struggle of being different in a world that is against us. When we come out, we think that part of that struggle is over. Gay culture would like for us to believe that we as a community will help to uplift and empower each other. What bullshit is that! We come out to belong somewhere only to be told that we belong in a certain category. Walk into a gay bar or club and what do you see? You see dancers, bartenders and entertainers gawked at by drooling men. Go to Pride and what do you see? You see floats that represent different categories of beauty in the gay community. You have the Black and Latino guys with the big bulges, the corn-fed, all-American white boys, the fashion-fierce twinks, the bears and their cubs, etc. What is the purpose of perpetuating these standards and stereotypes?
I don’t think the answer is that gay men are just innately more shallow than heterosexuals. In fact, we probably are not all that different from heterosexuals. Human beings have always placed those who are different or deemed inferior into categories. Men place impossible beauty standards on women all the time. As gay men, we have been constantly told that we are different, unnatural and not entitled to the same rights as everyone else—well really just heterosexual, white men. We are grouped together as if we are all the same.
Maybe that’s it? Maybe we group each other into categories to show that although we are gay, we are different, even from each other. Perhaps it is resentment that we feel towards one another. Muscled, “masculine” guys are tired of being grouped into the same category as flamboyant, “feminine” guys. Those “feminine” guys are then resentful of the “masculine” guys because they fit into society’s image of what a man is supposed to be. They are able to navigate the hetero world well; flying under the radar and making straight people feel comfortable around us. So they become the standard that we should all aspire to. At the end of the day, I think it is really just about being accepted. When we are in the closet, our biggest fear about coming out is be ostracized and maligned by society. We seek the acceptance of our families and society and it is probably just easier to be a gay guy who looks like the ideal straight man. But nothing worth having is ever easy!
The gay male community can reach astronomical heights if we were to leave these beauty standards behind. It sends a terrible message that while we are fighting for equal rights and breaking down stereotypes, we are stereotyping each other. It shows derision within the lines and corrosion from within the gay rights movement. This will lead to only some gays being able to live their lives freely and openly. For me, letting this ridiculous standard of beauty go it means opening up my heart to someone who truly makes me happy and loves me for me rather than just someone who is easy on the peepers, and more importantly, allows me to accept that I look the way that I look. I may want to be the muscle boy that every other person pines for but in reality, I love carbs. It would allow me to lead a more balanced life, able to concentrate on other passions such as politics and charity. At the end of the day, what is at stake is a more enjoyable quality of life. I am finding this to be true. I went on a date with someone recently who, although fits one of my requirements—cute Asian boy—does not fall into the category of muscle boy. And you know what? I had a great time and cannot wait to see him again!
So there is hope! The first step is really the most basic but the most difficult. It is acceptance. It is acceptance of yourself and acceptance of others. Yes, it is ok to have some standards. After all, we want what we want. But take a chance! Life is too short to be hung up on your abs or the abs of others all the time. We are all people of great substance and depth. We each bring a different perspective to the world because each of our stories is different. Let that shine through. Find that outlet that makes you feel great about yourself and dive in head first! I find that the more charity work I do the better I feel about myself. Making a difference in the lives of those struggling within my community makes me feel much better being able to bench press a certain amount of weight. Find what feeds your soul and keep eating!
Peter Ward is a 30-year-old gay professional. He is a community activist and a member of the Brooklyn Changemakers, a group of young professionals seeking to advance the mission of Brooklyn Community Services.