I’m issuing a challenge to gay men in 2020: stop posting pictures of your body online.
The exception is if you are actively working to disrupt the dominant narrative, because we need more representation of queer men of color, trans men, gay men who live in larger bodies, gay men with disabilities, and anyone who doesn’t align with the gay community’s current standards of appearance. Gay and queer men who don’t align with the norm are sorely in need of further representation, appreciation, celebration, and respect. If your social media presence is built upon challenging body norms, dismantling diet culture and white supremacy, or shaking shit up, then by all means, keep doing what you’re doing. I’m here to cheer you on.
For gay men — especially those who embody the lean, white, and muscular ideal — posting pictures of one’s body online is the status quo of gay male culture. But why is this the case? The answer is the influence of Western diet culture combined with heteronormativity: the belief that heterosexuality, based on binary notions of gender, is the default way of being and that all other forms of gender and sexual expression are less than. Conformity to both diet culture and heteronormativity in the form of online imaging practices further promotes these oppressive belief systems rooted in misogyny, white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, and consumer capitalism. When we support and engage in the production of such images, we give diet culture and heteronormativity our seal of approval.
To be clear, I’m not shaming anyone who has, or wants to, post pictures of their body online or who has participated in diet culture.
I understand the desire for community and connection many gay men feel all too well. The high rates of body image dissatisfaction, disordered eating, compulsive exercise, and eating disorders that exist within the gay community are not the products of individual gay men. They are manifestations of larger societal problems: diet culture, gender oppression, white supremacy, and heterosexism.
Much of anti-diet culture discourse focuses on the notion of being anti-diet, but not anti-dieter. However, while we can’t simply blame individuals for engaging in body-problematic practices — because we all live in, and are influenced by, a culture that promotes dieting and heteronormativity — change also starts with people being self-reflective of their own thoughts and behaviors, standing up, and working to dismantle these oppressive systems. To paraphrase anti-diet dietician and journalist Christy Harrison, we need to burn diet culture and heteronormativity to the ground. To this end, let’s look further at gay male body norms, how they are created via the intersection of Western diet culture and heteronormativity, how they are perpetuated through online imaging practices, and the harms they inflict.
Sociologist Mitchell J. Wood notes that because, in Western cultures, femininity signifies “gayness,” homophobia dehumanizes men who express femininity. The result, according to Wood, is that feminine gay men are seen as inferior to “more muscular and emotionally rigid gay men who embody the traditional essence of heteropatriarchal masculinity” — as well as inferior to straight men. Wood’s essential premise is that gay men experience body dissatisfaction at rates higher than other social groups not solely as a result of heterosexism, but due to their actual or perceived gender nonconformity.
Sociologists Nicholas Lanzieri and Tom Hildebrandt further argue that an attraction to, and idealization of, lean and muscular body types is inevitable in the gay community due to the social pressure for gay men to embody heterosexual masculinity. Put simply, you can’t manage stigma by changing your sexual orientation, but you can “act straight” and alter your physique (at least temporarily, because studies show that 95% of long-term weight-loss efforts fail).
Moreover, social scientists Hunt, Gonsalkorale, and Nosek, in a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Men’s Health, found that homosexuality is itself a risk factor for body dissatisfaction in men. They also observed that gay men’s desire to be muscular increased in proportion to their involvement in the gay community. Greater participation in gay culture likewise results in increased exposure to the pressure to embrace heterosexual and patriarchal notions of masculinity. Being immersed in gay culture, ironically, leads gay men to further uphold heterosexual norms, not queer expressions of gender and sexuality. These studies, however, do not specifically consider how Western diet culture influences gay male body standards in conjunction with heteronormativity.
Christy Harrison has forwarded, in my opinion, the most accurate and comprehensive definition of diet culture to date. She defines diet culture as:
“a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of ‘health.’”
Harrison further notes that “by and large, Western culture is diet culture” and that “[diet culture] masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness. It cloaks itself as connection.”
This definition is inclusive of the ways diet culture functions within gay male culture, though often unrecognized. First, gay culture’s body norms are not solely about the attainment of thinness, but conforming to a particular body aesthetic and level of muscularity. Second, because dieting in Western culture is primarily associated with women and femininity, gay male culture cloaks diet culture within a language of fitness as a path to self-actualization.
The connection between dieting and moral virtue, which according to Harrison can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece and is emphasized throughout all of diet culture’s history, has an especially negative impact where gay men are concerned. Gay men’s engagement in diet culture is often a way to manage gender and sexual stigmas by appealing to, or performing, morality via dieting. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these practices became especially prevalent during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s to the mid-1990s as gay men sought to manage the intersecting stigmas of homosexuality and illness.
Finally, diet culture is a way for gay men to bond with each other and create a sense of community.
One of the ways connection via diet culture is forged is through the posting of images of one’s body online in the form of selfies, workout pictures, or so-called “thirst traps”: a representation of normative embodiment taken, and posted publicly, with the intention of eliciting approval and (sexual) attention from others. This sense of connection, however, is ultimately false.
Diet culture, for gay men, presents itself as a vehicle to self-actualization when, in fact, it distracts us from the work of true liberation and keeps us divided from one another. Who has time to question authority or fight the status quo when we are busy worrying about how we look and judging ourselves and others based on our bodies and how well we conform to heteronormative notions of sexuality and gender? This form of connection ultimately furthers both diet culture and heteronormative patriarchy.
Bodily images function as a passport for entry into gay male culture by visually demonstrating one’s participation in diet culture and heterosexual masculinity and, by extension, one’s normality and worth as a gay man. These behaviors are reinforced by the attention gay men receive from their online peers, thus furthering their commitment to these belief systems. I refer to this process as the (self-) objectification cycle, which goes something like this:
Feelings of internalized stigma, “gay shame,” or lack of belonging → use of one’s body to get attention via conformity to diet culture and heterosexual masculinity → attention in the form of objectification (the reduction of a person to a “thing” for another’s use, for example, sexual objectification) → attention and reinforcement leads to further (self-) objectification → one’s worth is defined by external validation and the extent of conformity to community and social norms.
We need to break this cycle and move from a “body positive” perspective to one of body liberation. The word “positivity” — and the act of simply feeling “positive” about one’s own body or the bodies of others — can prevent us from seeing body size and body autonomy as social justice issues. Author, blogger, and mental health professional Jes Baker defines body liberation as follows:
“Liberation is freedom from all outside expectations, even our own. Liberation is not having to love your body all the time. Liberation is not asking permission to be included in society’s ideal of beauty. Liberation is bucking the concept of beauty as currency altogether. Liberation is recognizing the systemic issues that surround us and acknowledging that perhaps we’re not able to fix them all on our own. Liberation is personally giving ourselves permission to live life.”
If you are in the habit of posting images of your body online, I encourage you to refrain and to think critically about how diet culture and heteronormativity are operational in your past or current social media practices. Are you doing so because you struggle with self-worth and desire external validation and acceptance? If so, can you instead be more self-compassionate?
According to psychologist Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three main components: 1) exercising self-kindness versus self-judgement; 2) being mindful by observing our thoughts and feelings instead of over identifying with them and getting caught up in negative ways of thinking; and 3) recognizing our common humanity — that everyone feels the way we do at one time or another, or experiences similar struggles. In her research, Neff found that self-compassion, among other positive effects, resulted in improved mental health outcomes, the cultivation of a healthy and authentic sense of self, and helped people to make real changes in their lives.
Ask yourself: What are you seeking by posting pictures of your body online? How do you want to feel, and what do you need? Can you give the same support and acceptance you desire from others to yourself? What small practices can you engage in to do so? It might be something as simple as repeating the affirmation “I am worthy,” or, drawing from the poet Walt Whitman, “I exist as I am, that is enough.” Neff suggests that, in moments of struggle, we talk to ourselves as we would to a close friend. By practicing self-compassion, we can move from the need for external validation to more mindful social media practices grounded in self-worth. Finally, what steps can you take to work against diet culture and heteronormativity instead of furthering them?
When we stop seeking acceptance via our bodies, we allow ourselves to imagine and create other forms of connection and community.
Doing so also allows us to become more aware of systemic injustice and how it manifests in our thoughts and behaviors and to see ourselves as agents of change. Stop posting pictures of your body online this year and see how doing so transforms the way you see yourself and the world around you, including how you treat yourself and others. This is, of course, just my suggestion. As Baker reminds us, liberation is freedom from outside expectations and giving yourself permission to live your life on your own terms.