Hey I keep seeing that most of the gays in the gay community are well-toned. Are you not accepted as a fat person in the community or do they just not find that attractive?
In spring 2020, an anonymous user turned to the collective intelligence of the German Q&A platform gutefrage.net expressing his personal concerns: “I’m overweight myself and afraid of not being accepted.” Responses from the online community depicted mixed sentiments: While some users affirmed the societal rejection of fat bodies, others countered by asserting that within the gay community, specifically for so-called “bears,” there is a designated place for fat male bodies. The “gay community” comprises social networks and places where homosexual men interact with each other and manifest shared ideas of a gay identity. In this particular, German setting, its members can be assumed to be predominantly cisgender, white, and from urban middle-class backgrounds.
Despite the variety of responses in the aforementioned comment section, one thing becomes evident: homosexual cisgender male bodies experience pressure caused by restrictive, fat-phobic body standards. In the gay scene, binary notions of gender and clear (body) codes are a common occurrence. A striking example of this is the controversy provoked by a tank top released in 2016 by the U.S. fashion brand “Marek+Richard.” The garment, popular among young homosexual men, bore the inscription “No Fats No Fems”. Its designers explained that the print was meant as an ironic reference to “the infamous phrase you’ve prolly seen on your fave hookup app” – referring to the gay dating app Grindr that frequently makes headlines due to body shaming by its users. However, this supposedly self-deprecating critique provides deeper insight into a partly misogynistic subculture where the ideal of an athletically built, masculine-presenting, white, male body reigns supreme. In this subculture, fatphobia and questions of sexual identity are intertwined in very specific ways: Gay men tend to self-objectify themselves in romantic and sexual contexts, reproduce restrictive body norms by performing what is considered a gay identity and try to resist internalized, homophobic body images.
In 1994, psychologist Michael D. Siever, in his qualitative study on “Sexual orientation and gender as factors in socioculturally acquired vulnerability to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders,” observed that the experiences of homosexual men and heterosexual women in terms of conforming to restrictive body standards were strikingly similar. In his investigation, Siever interviewed 250 students who identified as female/male and as heterosexual/homosexual. After analyzing all the interviews, Siever formulated three key findings: Firstly, heterosexual women and homosexual men place a particular emphasis on having a slim to athletic body. Secondly, the body norms imposed on heterosexual women by dominant society are reproduced within gay subcultures with comparable intensity. Thirdly, the primary cause for this appears to be rooted in the sexual objectification of both groups. Siever references Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts’ objectification theory, which posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as the primary view of their physical selves. This internalized external perspective, the male gaze on one’s own body, was also identified by John Gregory Serpa in his comparative study in 2004 titled “A new measure of body dissatisfaction and its relation to self-objectification, eating disorders, and depression in gay and heterosexual men.” In this study, homosexual men, worried about their own physical attractiveness, engaged in harmful body practices such as body surveillance, the constant comparison to societal body ideals, and developing eating disorders. In contrast, the heterosexual participants in the study considered themselves attractive as soon as they became physically active on a regular basis. Within this discursive interplay of gender performance, self-regulation, and a partner-seeking culture focused on lean bodies, the gay body is subjected to a triple pressure.
In his Buzzfeed article, pointedly titled “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat,” New York journalist Louis Peitzman describes the challenges of finding acceptance as a homosexual, fat man in the local gay community. One reason he offers is the association of gayness with a specific standard of beauty and physical self-care. Research by Matthew B. Feldman and Ilan H. Meyer on eating disorders in LGBTQ contexts confirms Peitzman’s conclusions. They found that men who regularly engage in leisure activities within gay communities have a significantly higher rate of eating disorders compared to men who perform their gay identity less publicly. The societal stereotype of the gay man who diligently maintains his body and keeps it in shape is strong. At least, this is what the findings of Duane Duncan suggest. In qualitative interviews with gay men from Melbourne, Australia, the sociologist found that the ideal of a low-fat male body within the gay community and media representations of gay bodies are mutually dependent and reproduce each other. Both shape gay men’s understanding of their own masculinity and homosexuality. However, Duncan also points out that his observation varies from individual to individual. Therefore, reducing individual gay men’s body image conflicts to a blanket issue of gay communities is not sufficiently differentiated. Hence, Duncan advocates for considering the reflective capacity of individual subjects within the community.
The Collective AIDS Trauma and Internalized Homophobia
A significant unifying element of gay communities is the shared experience of discrimination within heteronormative dominant societies. The traumatic peak of stigmatization of homosexual men was the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, both of which were collectively perceived by the gay community as a major threat to their very existence.Peter Paul Bänziger examined the effects of AIDS on body politics in West Germany and Switzerland in the 1980s and found that initially, the image of the emaciated “AIDS body” was the central motif in both mass media and educational contexts. In contrast, Bänziger presents the later concept of the resistant “prevention body”: a fit, attractive body that visibly distinguishes the self-protecting subject from the supposedly weak, emaciated body of a person infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS.
Psychologist Arnd Bächler, counselor at the “Schwulenberatung Berlin” (Counseling for Gay Men in Berlin) sees the emerging fitness and bodybuilding trend of the 1980s as a counter-movement to the systematic devaluation of gay bodies. According to Bächler, back then, homosexual men simply wanted to look healthy by having a muscular body. Jac Brown and Doug Graham also show that power sport and the resulting muscular appearance were also meant to compensate for the perceived absence of masculinity in the eyes of the gay men they interviewed. They counteracted the homophobia projected onto their bodies in a misogynistic society by reducing fat and building muscle mass.
Discrimination from Within
As they become more integrated into gay subcultures, homosexual men are often exposed to the stress of conforming to an athletic, low-fat body ideal. Studies, interviews, and personal articles reveal that within gay communities, here exemplified through studies conducted in western, industrialized societies, there are explicit guidelines on what a gay male body should look like. These guidelines are primarily reproduced and reinforced in the context of partner selection and through dating apps, and are ultimately individually negotiated through one’s own body. When addressing the fatphobic elements within gay communities, it is important not to lose sight of other identity-defining categories and to consider the intersections that can result in in restrictive body ideals. People of color and transmen, for example, experience this pressure in very different ways compared to white, gay cisgender men.