I’ve been researching body image and eating disorders for my radio show tonight. As someone who first got involved in gay publishing in the 1970’s, with Gay News and Him International, I’ve watched the changes to the ideal male image. In fact, Him was instrumental in importing the ongoing fad for muscular men to the UK.
Him introduced muscular American models to the British gay market and, as one mainstream journo noted at the time, from then on it was “Jocks Away!” in gay mens mags. Him also began the first column on building a hot body, with gym and exercise tips.
Since then, the muscularity fad has become increasingly extreme, with odd fashions for particular muscle groups emerging. At first it was pectoral muscles, aka ‘disco tits’, twinned with a firm flat stomach. Now the pecs are relegated to second place. The midriff region is now the focus, having morphed into the currently fashionable, and to me, rather repellent, insect-like, segmented thorax.
The gym has become a home-from-home for the young gay man, with many spending three or more hours there every day. They’ve also embraced cosmetic surgery and dentistry, waxing, laser hair removal, and make-up, including bronzer, blusher, and eye shadow.
The question is: why? If it’s all about health, as many claim, then why are so many of the same men such enthusiastic, not to say excessive, consumers of alcohol and other recreational drugs?
My first instinct is to pin this on consumerism. Manufacturers have long looked for a way to get men spending on their appearance the way women do. And that can’t happen until men are generally as dissatisfied with their appearance as women are. Gay men just happen to be the laboratory rats for this particular social change.
Incidentally, women have also played along, pushing their husbands and boyfriends to pay more attention to ‘grooming’ (telling word), pointing at neat buff gay men and crying, “I wish you were more like him.”
But why do gay men go along with it? Do we think we have to have disco tits and a sculpted thorax in order to be desirable? And why is it so important to be physically desirable in the first place? Surely being desired for you character and achievements is better than being desired for wasting hours every day doing something as essentially silly and useless as repeatedly lifting up lumps of iron?
I can understand Americans fitness-obsession. In a country where, shamefully, a serious illness can bankrupt you, it makes sense to invest a lot in your physical well being. But need they take it to such extremes? And do we need to copy them?
In the end, isn’t the gym-induced endorphin rush just another temporary drug fix, like the booze and the pills? Call it ‘internalised homophobia’, call it ‘living in a homophobic world’, something is driving this, and it doesn’t look too healthy to me.