As I was guiltily eating the last piece of pizza, I started thinking about our perception of the ideal body image, our unhealthy desire to be perfect, and how many of my clients would be horrified if they could see me now. I don’t think it’s much of a secret that in the world of gay men, the relentless pursuit of having the perfect body is a favorite pastime. In some instances, that drive towards perfection can help us to achieve our goals and can be a powerful motivator. But, as with most things, there’s a fine line between what could be considered a healthy pursuit of what we want and an obsession with perfection that can lead to serious consequences. The airbrushed ideals of what we think we should look like have contributed to roughly 10 million men with an eating disorder including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. And out of those 10 million men, it is estimated that 42% of them identify as gay.
I think it’s important to understand however that when we are discussing eating disorders among gay men, it is not necessarily always about a desire to adhere to cultural expectations of the perfect male physique. Although that may be how it appears, I would suggest that is just how the symptoms of an underlying issue can manifest. Even though great strides towards equality have been made, growing up gay can present a whole myriad of issues that can lead to coping mechanisms that are ultimately unhealthy, eating disorders fall into that category. Bullying, discrimination, the fear of coming out and/or being rejected for being gay, even the internalization of the ever present message that homosexuality is wrong, can significantly contribute to the onset of an eating disorder.
In gay culture it’s pretty commonplace to joke about having an eating disorder, to go to extremes to be ready for “pageant season” (or what most people call ‘summer’) and to be “one stomach flu away from our goal weight.” However, the real life ramifications are much more serious and can be responsible for reduction of bone density, onset of type II diabetes and even heart disease.
Not only did eating that last piece of pizza that I mentioned earlier make me think about body image and perfection, it also reminded me of the little boy that I used to be growing up in a small farm town in the middle of Kansas. He was short, fat and gay and I don’t think there was a day that went by that he wasn’t beaten up, picked on or put down for just existing. I understand that my story is not uncommon, but I also don’t think it’s a story that we share enough. Ultimately, struggling with an eating disorder should become less about losing weight in an effort to “fit in” and more about losing our demons so we can stand out.