Over the weekend, I was having a conversation with some fellow gay guys and we were naturally talking about boys (one of my favorite topics to discuss).
The conversation was fun but there was one comment someone made that really bothered me, that I've kept thinking about it. Someone was talking about this guy that he had met who had seemed attractive online but was disappointingly not as hot as he appeared to be on Instagram and noted that the guy had "a little bit of a belly."
This little remark, while not meant in a mean way, conveyed a sense of contempt that didn't sit well with me.
I am deeply insecure about my physical appearance and especially self-conscious about my stomach area. Over the summer in Sri Lanka, several relatives made comments about my belly which I found insulting. I had spent months trying to embrace a mindset of body positivity and come to peace with my insecurities but in just a few words, my newfound confidence had crumbled. Reflecting on these experiences, I wondered, how have we reached a point where a guy who doesn't have washboard abs is considered ugly?
Full confession: I follow several Instagram pages dedicated to pictures of hot guys. But over time I've noticed an unsettling pattern: the guy in the picture is almost always white and always has the body of a bodybuilder, with large muscular arms and six-pack abs and even bulky legs. Admittedly, these guys are undeniably attractive; but it worries me that this exclusive idea of male beauty is being promoted again and again.
The truth is mainstream society has an incredibly narrow and disturbingly problematic definition of male beauty- and unfortunately, this is even prevalent in the gay community.
Men come in all shapes, sizes, and skin colors. But if you look at the cover of magazines, you don't see this diversity reflected. Through advertisements, movies, music videos, and even porn, we as consumers are force-fed a certain definition of what it means for a man to be beautiful. He must be white, he must be tall and muscular, and he must be traditionally masculine. Any guys who fail to meet these criteria are deemed unworthy of adoration. This message is so deeply ingrained in our culture that even Justin Bieber, a conventionally attractive guy by any measure, felt the need to Photoshop his Calvin Klein pictures to increase the size of his muscles and his "package".
Our society's obsession with the bodybuilder physique is having negative consequences for boys and men, for both their mental and physical health.
First, this type of body is incredibly difficult to develop and maintain. For many guys, myself included, the idea of spending hours in a gym is unappealing. Additionally, there are many factors, including genetics, which influence someone's body type. Clearly, this beauty ideal is, if not completely unattainable, decidedly unrealistic. Yet teenage boys have been bulking up in pursuit of this ideal, taking harmful steroids and supplements for the purpose of muscle development.
A professor of psychology from Clark University notes that "men base self-esteem on body image and weight." So when we have such a narrow male beauty ideal, we are lowering the self-esteem of all the men who don't fit this definition. According to research by the NIH, "the percentage of men dissatisfied with their overall appearance (43%) has nearly tripled in the past 25 years and that nearly as many men as women are unhappy with how they look" and many men are having to deal with muscle dysmorphia (MDD). And it's no secret that negative body image can lead to eating disorders.
The fixation on this male beauty ideal is even more pronounced in the gay community.
According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, "gay or bisexual men [are] three times more likely than straight men to have body image issues." Studies show that gay men disproportionately struggle with body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Even worse, there is a racial element here. Look at any gay magazine and on the cover, you will see a muscular white man, a trend noted by the Twitter hashtag #GayMediaSoWhite. Countless Grindr bios say "No Asians, no blacks." The tea is queer people of color are being marginalized in our community of refuge. This is especially astonishing when you consider that the Stonewall riots, often considered the birth of the modern American gay rights movement, were started by trans women of color. To be clear, when gay media perpetuate the narrative that men of color aren't as attractive as white men, they are propagating racism. Having preferences is one thing, but completely denying the beauty of an entire group of people is downright dehumanizing.
Muscular white men do not and should not have a monopoly on beauty.
Personally, I'm attracted to guys of all races. And many of the guys I've been romantically attracted to haven't been "conventionally attractive". I fundamentally believe that there is beauty in diversity- and that includes the wonderful variety of body types and skin colors that is present in humanity. So here's to hoping that we can challenge the dominant narrative around male beauty and work towards creating a society where all guys-muscular or chubby, skinny or fat, tall or short, black, white or brown-can feel beautiful.