If the most common New Year’s resolutions are any indication, January seems to be the month of repentance, atoning for all the decadence of the holidays.We tell ourselves that we’re going to stop spending so much money. We’ll spend more time with family. We’ll get organized. And – we’ll exercise more and lose weight. So I wasn’t surprised that The Advocate ran an article on its website this week titled, “Are You Gay Fat? 5 Ways to Keep That Get Fit Resolution.”
Wait. Gay fat? Not just fat, but gay fat? I’d never heard this term before. Upon Googling “gay fat,” lo and behold, Urbandictionary.com offered up this definition:
A gay man who does not have a gym-perfect body, but rather carries a body fat percentage in the 12% – 20% range. A man who is considered gay fat within the community would likely be considered athletic, physically fit and in-shape within the greater cultural context.
I shouldn’t be surprised (or shocked) by the fact that a slang term has been coined that reflects the body image standards within the gay male community – standards that differ significantly from their heterosexual counterparts. But I was. So I’m going to use this as an opportunity to unpack this term, and to address the consequences of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating within the gay male community.
To start with, let’s look at the recommendations made by the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health regarding healthy body fat percentages for men:
|20-40 yrs||Under 8%||8-19%||19-25%||Over 25%|
|41-60 yrs||Under 11%||11-22%||22-27%||Over 27%|
|61-79 yrs||Under 13%||13-25%||25-30%||Over 30%|
(Source: Gallagher et al. Am J Clin Nut 2000; 72:694-701)
Based on this chart, if you are a male with a healthy percentage of body fat, then you are gay fat. And “underfat” equals “attractive and desirable” in the gay male community.
Numerous psychological research studies on body image and eating disorders among gay men reinforce this reality. For example, Letitia Anne Peplau, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, published a study in 2009 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior titled “Body Image Satisfaction in Heterosexual, Gay, and Lesbian Adults,” in which the prevalence and degree of body dissatisfaction was compared among gay men, lesbian women, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women. Compared to heterosexual men, gay men reported more negative evaluations of their appearance and more preoccupation with their weight, with 42% of gay male participants reporting that their body image negatively impacted their sex life. Several studies, including a series of studies conducted by Australian researchers Yolanda Martin and Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University, indicate that gay men are far more likely than heterosexual men to objectify themselves and other men, and that objectification is associated with body shame, drive for thinness, and overall body dissatisfaction. This objectification appears to be reinforced in the media that’s directed towards gay men – for example, a 2008 content analysis of the images of gay men used in four major gay publications (The Advocate, Out, Instinct, and Genre) revealed a high degree of objectification in these images, as well as a high importance placed on a specific body type. In other words, the models peppered throughout these magazines tended to be underfat and muscular – definitely not gay fat.
I’m very familiar with the research literature on body image and eating disorders among gay men – these issues have concerned mental health professionals and researchers for decades. And, as I reflect on the “gay fat” concept, I’m struck by how much gay male body image culture parallels the body dissatisfaction, eating disorder, and objectification trends among young women. I’m also struck by how strongly gay male popular culture mirrors what we see in fashion magazines like Vogue, InStyle, Elle, and Cosmopolitan – publications that dictate and reinforce the popular culture of its readers. Young women in the United States live in a body image-toxic culture, and increasingly we’re seeing the same phenomenon in gay male culture. However, I don’t think we’re at a point where eating disorders and body dissatisfaction in men – even gay men – is taken seriously at all. Time for a change.