I like my body... now. It's been a long time coming, with plenty of effort and experience, but finally, in my late thirties, I feel good when I look in the mirror. I find myself attractive, and that is fairly new to me. I struggled with my body image my entire life -- mostly because I didn't like my body, starting from a very young age.
As you can imagine, being a fat, painfully gay kid in the 1980s, there was no shortage of sadness and tragedy in my life. I was raised in Woodbridge, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, which, for those who don't know, was seen as the Canadian equivalent of the Jersey Shore. You can imagine how narrow and rigid ideals of bodies and masculinity could be and what this could mean to someone who didn't fit in. I was used to getting teased a lot and being left out, so I felt right at home when I entered the Toronto gay scene in my late teens in the 1990s.
Spoiler alert! There is a hierarchy of attractiveness in the gay community. And as gay men, our experiences with other gay men are influenced by where we rank in this hierarchy. It is very easy for us to measure ourselves, those who we desire and those who desire us against the same ideals of attractiveness.
Though there are many who experience attractions outside of the norm, I am sure you will agree that the young, white, lean, muscular, cisgender (non-trans) body is overrepresented and celebrated in contemporary media and gay culture, and therefore accepted as most attractive.
"Effeminate" behaviour is a characteristic that ranks very low in the attractiveness hierarchy. This, unfortunately, is completely homophobic and misogynistic.
This idealized body is anchored in heteropatriarchy. Meaning the "ideal man" is represented in an image of the straight man, who is incidentally athletic and muscular. This man is not "feminine," but he is "masculine" in the traditional sense. Traditionally, "effeminate" behaviour is a characteristic that ranks very low in the attractiveness hierarchy. This, unfortunately, is completely homophobic and misogynistic.
"Masculinity," a specific body (you know the one) and a dash of internalized homophobia construct a very clear hierarchy of attractiveness. And though most men are not at the top, we continue to celebrate it. Think Grindr, Scruff, gay dating sites, gay TV, gay ads and all porn, for instance.
So when I got to Toronto, I quickly discovered that where I ranked and where I wanted to rank were two different places. I crushed on guys who were "out of my league." I watched my "more attractive" friends meet or date guys who ignored me. I saw others get attention while I was ignored or rejected. I felt bad about my body, which was mostly fat, with little or no visible muscle. My face was pretty and my mannerisms were soft, leaving me pretty low in the hierarchy.
So I took action. Not at first -- at first I took drugs. Lots of drugs, partying every weekend (Wednesday to Sunday) and eventually Monday and Tuesday, too. It's easy to say I think I partied so much because it numbed my experience as the guy at the bottom, but I was also really happy to be having fun, partying.
We need to understand how normative ideals of bodies and masculinities are harmful to everyone!
I did, however, eventually get motivated to change my body and self, essentially. As my body began changing, I was finally getting attention I had always longed for. I was no longer invisible. My obsession went from partying to working out. Like many gay men, the gym became a priority in my life and I kept making the changes I wanted to see happen.
Slowly, over time, my body image has recovered. Now that I'm older, I just don't care as much about what other people think about my body. That, plus I've spent a lot of time being nude around other gay men, like in my gym locker room or other spaces where gay strangers are nude together.
I'm generally more comfortable with my body. There are many factors that contribute to my journey from young, gay, fat kid (with thoughts of suicide) to the person I am today, so it isn't fair to credit just one or two things -- I've been around the block.
Today I am happy with who I am. Today I still work out (though not obsessively), I still party (on special events and holidays), I definitely still have a "soft" side, and I'm still fat (by my own definition) and I kinda love it all. I'm still me, just older and wiser.
Any system that makes us believe our bodies are somehow wrong is a bad system.
So now I'm not afraid to talk about my body and my story. I talk about it with friends, family, colleagues, strangers, anyone who wants to talk about the shitty system that makes us feel bad about our bodies. We need to understand how normative ideals of bodies and masculinities are harmful to everyone!
If you agree with this, you should check out m.bodiment.ca. Here a group of gay, bi, trans and queer men share their experiences with body image.
This project has been created to help get that conversation going. You'll be able to see that though everyone's experience is different, what is common is that everyone has felt bad about their body in one way or another.
And that's the point. Our bodies aren't wrong; the system is wrong. Any system that makes us believe our bodies are somehow wrong is a bad system. We need to shift our thinking: all bodies are good bodies. We need to rethink what we find attractive and ask ourselves why we think the way we do.
And we need to talk about it -- all of it.
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