“I’m doing Keto for Pride,” an acquaintance recently told me. “If my body looks better,” he explained, “I can make enough tips bartending to cover several months of rent.” Gay men dieting for Pride is not unique. I share this anecdote not to criticize someone for dieting — people can do what they want with their bodies — but to give one example of a widespread practice. Furthermore, it shows that some bodies are literally, monetarily, worth more in gay culture based on their level of desirability.
Diet culture is a set of beliefs that elevates certain body types over others, equates thinness with health and worth, and, as a result, actively oppresses those who fall outside the ideal. It is connected to other forms of structural oppression — imbalances of power that are built into the way society functions — such as sexism, racism, cissexism, and ableism.
Diet culture is also a constituent part of mainstream gay male culture. This can be difficult to recognize because diets, as they are marketed to gay men, are often cloaked in masculine disguises and described as “fitness journeys,” “training programs,” or “personal development.” Dieting, for gay men, is often connected to the process of “coming out” in that one must discipline one’s body in order to be a fully self-actualized gay man, to be present in gay culture. It is a part of modern gay male identity.
The Normate Gay
The ideal body touted by diet culture aligns with body standards in the gay male community, or what I call the normate gay: the young, white, thin, cis, able-bodied, appropriately masculine, appropriately muscular gay man that, as the norm gay men should strive for, often goes unnamed within gay male culture. The normate gay is contrasted against those who have undesirable bodies or who are fetishized: fats, femmes, queer men of color, queer trans men, and queer men with disabilities.
Why is There No Gay Men’s Body Liberation Movement?
Talk Queerly: a bi-weekly column on LGBTQ culture & politics
This is especially true during Pride Month. Messages within gay culture tell gay men to lose weight, get “fit,” tone up, and work on their “Pride body” for the express purpose of looking socially and sexually desirable at public Pride events and celebrations. Those working within the diet and fitness industry also target gay men with promises that their particular regimen will help gay men achieve the ideal body in time for Pride. An ad for personal training I encountered on Instagram, for example, touted a 9-week “Pride Ready Training Program” that promised to help gay men achieve their “fitness goals” in time for June Pride festivals. Let’s call such programs what they actually are: “Pride diets.”
Gay men often oppress their own through body shaming in an attempt to alleviate the stigma associated with queerness.
This is, in part, a function of gay shame owing to the fact that being queer is not as socially and culturally acceptable as we might think. Pressure to conform to the normate gay ideal remains evergreen within gay male culture, but is amplified during Pride Month due to the enhanced cultural focus on the LGBTQ community and the targeting of LGBTQ people as capitalist consumers.
This enhanced focus results in the notion of a “Pride body”: the normate gay taken to the extreme when gay men feel pressured to alter and discipline their bodies within a condensed period of time in order to be “Pride ready.”
The philosophy of Pride, rooted in the gay liberation movement of the post-Stonewall period, is incompatible with the precepts of diet culture. Diet culture, and its harmful messages, have no place at Pride, and a greater conversation needs to be had regarding the incorporation of body diversity into Pride events.
Pride and Health at Every Size
The philosophy of Pride that emerged from the change in tone and tempo of the Gay Rights Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s rested upon the following basic tenants: No hiding one’s sexuality; no living a double life; an assertion of being gay without shame; not denying one’s basic identity or denying oneself; the freedom to express one’s identity as one saw fit; and a newfound sense of dignity in a collective gay identity.
The philosophy of Pride encompassed a shift in language as well. Members of the Gay Liberation Movement that emerged in the wake of the Stonewall Uprising used the more colloquial term “gay” — over the more clinical “homosexual,” with its connotations of illness and shame — to assert their sexualities with openness and exuberance.
Not only did gay people articulate what they were not — sinners, social pariahs, mentally ill, or criminals — but also a sense of themselves as a unique people who were an integral part of American society. This notion is represented by the slogan “gay is good,” coined by noted gay rights activist Frank Kameny in 1968. To be gay is not good with qualification; rather, it is simply good as is, much like the slogan “black is beautiful” expressed the inherent worth of black people.
The philosophy of health at every size (HAES) aligns with the historical roots of Pride. First articulated by activists within the Fat Acceptance Movement of the 1960s, HAES has been around for decades, but has only recently garnered mainstream attention, and is now a registered trademark of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH).
The HAES model rejects the notion that size can be equated to health and that an individual’s weight is a matter of personal choice. A HAES approach essentially involves cultivating healthy lifestyle habits — whatever that means for an individual and their needs at a given time — without focusing on or linking health to the attainment of a particular body size or aesthetic. The HAES model, furthermore, is both individual and systemic. It can shape how individuals approach their own bodies as well as inform research, policies, and institutions such as the scientific and medical communities and the fitness industry.
HAES, put simply, is a social justice-based approach to health that provides a framework for both individual and collective body liberation. The philosophies of Pride and HAES are compatible; Pride and diet culture are not. Pride events should therefore be informed by a HAES philosophy.
Dieting for Pride is not only a function of diet culture, but also of rainbow capitalism.
Rainbow capitalism is a form of “pinkwashing” that, in the context of LGBTQ rights, involves the integration of the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ activism into corporate marketing campaigns for the purpose of obtaining a profit. These campaigns often involves slapping a rainbow on a product — rainbow Converse sneakers, for example — to signal a company’s supposed LGBTQ friendliness. A small portion of the proceeds from these products may be donated to LGBTQ organizations, typically those that are the most well known or mainstream such as the Human Rights Campaign or the Trevor Project.
Rainbow capitalist practices typically target the most privileged members of the LGBTQ community — white, middle-class, cisgender gays and lesbians — at the expense of the most marginalized. “Pride diets” are one of many forms rainbow capitalism may take. Though they are marketed as a form of fitness and a path to personal fulfillment, they are simply diets with a rainbow overlay and are similar to other Pride-themed products such as rainbow mouthwash, vodka, or shampoo. And ironically, it is the privileged who can afford to deprive themselves, to diet.
Linda Bacon, a weight researcher with a doctorate in Physiology and a proponent of HAES, argues that economics are to blame for the false promises made by diet culture despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We are sold the myth that dieting will result in acceptance, success, and happiness because, as Bacon explains:
“There is a huge industry that benefits from widening the boundaries of what is considered a problematic weight, including weight loss centers, supplement makers, drug companies, physicians, and purveyors of diet books, foods, and programs.”
In the case of “Pride diets,” the weight loss industry and rainbow capitalism combine to target gay men, in particular.
“Pride Diets” Do More Harm than Good
Dieting for Pride can result in serious, long-term health consequences. Body liberation activists and anti-diet dieticians such as Caroline Dooner and Christy Harrison point to research indicating that restricting food intake triggers an evolutionary famine response within the body. The body feels as though it is starving and as a result, moves its natural set-point weight range higher, or, the weight range in which one’s body optimally functions. The body, in an attempt to avoid a famine state, shifts to a higher set-point range to prevent future deprivation.
Research also suggests that “yo-yo dieting,” a term coined by clinical psychologist Kelly D. Brownell to describe the cycle of weight loss and subsequent gain often experienced by dieters, is itself a cause of weight gain — not people’s undisciplined habits or behaviors. The practice of annually dieting for Pride can result in just such an effect.
Gay men who feel pressured to “Pride diet” in order to fit in may, as a result, end up at a higher weight than where they started, negatively impacting their physical and mental health due to the yo-yo cycle and further feelings of disconnection. A study conducted by psychologist Christopher M. Davids, et al. on gay men’s body dissatisfaction found that a sense of connectedness to the gay community was related to fewer eating disorders among gay men. Conversely, a sense of disconnection from community was a trigger for disordered eating.
Pride at Every Size
Encountering post after post on social media about Pride that feature only white, slim, and toned gay men who are seemingly having the time of their lives is exhausting if we fall outside of the ideal — and most of us do. These posts are often not about Pride, but a cooptation of its philosophy for the purpose of self-promotion. They are internalized rainbow capitalism. Even the Netflix reboot of Tales of the City features primarily buff gay men despite its careful inclusion of racial and gender-diverse queers. The representation of some forms of human difference to the exclusion of others is not true diversity.
Pride should fill us with energy and hope — not diet culture messages — as it did for activists within the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Pride, as these bold trailblazers saw it, is a civil and human right. Pride should be come as you are — not only if you meet certain standards of acceptability. This should be true for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities — not just gay men.
Pride is replacing the norm with variation. Pride is embracing all bodies, in addition to other forms of difference, because Pride for some is not really Pride at all. As the popular feminist slogan goes, “a beach body means any body that can get to a beach.” A “Pride body” is any body belonging to a member of the LGBTQ community that is present at a Pride demonstration, celebration, or event. All bodies are worthy of joy, satisfaction, pleasure, and respect — of Pride in all its prismatic manifestations.
In reflecting upon the meaning of Pride, I am reminded of the words of the poet Lucille Clifton:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”
This is the essence of Pride: protest, celebration, and dignity in the face of a world that wants us to live small and in shame.
Pride is reveling in the fact of our survival, and it is a well of strength that sustains us through adversity. It is not about looking any particular way; rather, it is finding contentment in exactly who, what, and where we are. Collective body liberation should therefore be a constituent part of the broader meaning of Pride.
In the spirit of the Stonewall Uprising and gay liberation, let’s demonstrate, let’s riot — let’s have Pride at every size.