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The Adonis Complex – Body Image Pressures on Gay Men

What do you think of your body?

Many gay men don't like their bodies very much.  That might seem surprising, given the amount of time many of us spend at the gym.  We probably devote more time and effort to cultivating our physical selves than any other demographic group.  Just the same, research indicates that straight men like their bodies most, followed by gay women; straight women like their bodies less than these first two.  The group that likes their physical appearance the least is gay men.

Why is this? 
Gay men spend a lot of time in places that place a premium on physical appearance:  bars, gyms, sex clubs.  We live in a sexualized subculture that places a premium on physical beauty, and media and advertising bombard us with images that reflect an impossibly high standard of physical beauty.  Under circumstances like these, it's easy to confuse who we are with how we look.

We all like looking at attractive men, of course.  Still, more and more men – even men with bodies that most of us would agree are muscular and very attractive – find themselves very dissatisfied with how they look.  At it's most extreme, this situation is called body dysmorphia – a preoccupation with some imagined defect in appearance when the person involved is actually very normal looking.  This problem can lead to depression and trouble forming healthy relationships.

Research indicates that eating disorders and body image problems are linked with public self-consciousness, social anxiety and feeling dishonest about who one really is.  Men with internalized homophobia who have difficulty accepting themselves as gay are probably especially likely to develop a distorted body image or eating disorder.

Compared with women, who generally only worry that they are too fat, many gay men worry that they are either too fat or too thin.  This misperception can become a genuine distortion disorder that could be called “reverse anorexia” or “bulkorexia.”   Even when dramatically muscular, men with this misperception feel they are too small or thin.

It’s easy to see how men who have grown up with images of limp-wristed, reed-thin gay men form this sort of reaction and seek to show that they don’t fit the stereotype.  Preoccupation with muscles becomes a way of relieving fears about our masculinity.

Places where gay men socialize especially bars, gyms, and sex clubs, often emphasize physical attributes or make those the first criterion for checking someone out.  It can be difficult for someone who is older than a certain age or different from the prevailing cultural standard of beauty to catch someone’s eye in a bar or club. 

The Western cultural tradition we inherited has often exalted the spirit while minimizing the physical body, despite the fact that our spiritual traditions often remind us that our bodies are a reflection of the divine.

In Judaism, God is considered to have created humankind in God's own image.  Christianity celebrates God putting on human flesh as the central event of history.  Pagan spirituality also celebrates the body.  Recovery of Goddess imagery over the past generation has helped women to understand their wombs and menstrual flow and other parts as sacred; exploration of both Pan and the Green Man in male spirituality has helped us do the same as gay men. 

And yet we often view or bodies with ambivalence or embarrassment.  One New Age chant I learned a few years ago goes, “I am not a body; I am free.  I am still as God created me.”  A related tradition sometimes talks about our bodies as “Earth suits.”  Both of these perspectives make me at least a little uncomfortable.  Sure, I am not “only” my body.  But my body is not a suit of clothes.  It is sacred: a pathway to the divine, something holy. 

My body is one of the things that makes me unique.  Bodies are specific.  I'm not a generic spirit.  My soul resonates within this particular body:  male, 46 years old, gay. 

As spiritual people, we struggle to give our bodies a proper place in our spirituality.   We need to love and accept our entire selves – including our bodies – without over-identifying and objectifying them.  Understanding that our bodies enable us to connect with other men and women through the mystery of lovemaking, through touch, through eating and drinking together, helps us to appreciate what a good thing it is to have a body.  At the same time, we know that flesh is mortal.  If we listen carefully, we know that our bodies are speaking to us over time telling us that our time here on earth is not infinite.  We will die.  The body is our teacher in this sense.  It enlightens our spirituality.

Accepting your body is a spiritual practice.  There are practical things you can do which help heal your body image.  First, take the concern seriously.  Don’t confuse who you are with how you look.  Develop a sense of identity based on all of your attributes and on your values, not simply on your appearance.

Put your body back together.  Consider stretching, yoga and massage as ways to help yourself feel like more than just “skinny legs” or “love handles.”  Indulge in body pleasures – long baths, massage, good sex, a walk in the park on a sunny day.  Make your own list.

Learn to appreciate body types in all shapes and sizes.  Don't trash men (or women) who don’t conform to the “buffed” image.  Seek alternative role models.  Don’t emphasize body size or shape as an indication of a man’s worth or his identity as a man.  Learn to value the person inside.

And finally, confront homophobia, including internalized homophobia.  Don’t accept being treated as a second-class citizen by straight society or by other gay folks.

John R. Ballew, M.S., is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Atlanta. He specializes in issues related to coming out, sexuality and relationships, spirituality and career. He can be reached via the web at www.bodymindsoul.org or at (404) 874-8536.

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