Body Image: Never Big Enough

By Benjamin Ryan

Originally published on Advocate.com October 20 2010 6:40 AM ET

 For anyone who’s ever stood and watched the glittering flesh parading past on gay pride day with a wilting sense of inadequacy, it should come as no surprise that numerous research studies have shown that gay men suffer from markedly elevated rates of dissatisfaction with their physiques compared to heterosexual men. The effects of this problem, psychologists find, go well beyond the worry that biceps are too small and waists are too wide. Body image is closely tied to self-esteem, and gay men who are preoccupied with perceived flaws in their physique are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Fierce competition to appear the most chiseled, a desire to cultivate a body reflecting the perceived ideal that men wish to attract, and as sexually charged media images collectively raise the bar to nearly unreachable heights, according to research papers on body image disorders among gay men. But there is another element that is distorting men’s perceptions, according to The Adonis Complex, the landmark book that several yeats ago exposed an epidemic of “muscle dysmorphia” among American men. Steroids, the authors argue, are so prevalent that our concept of the upper threshold of what a man can achieve at the gym without them is much lower than we realize.

It doesn’t take an Olympic doping expert to guess that the dude with the 20-inch biceps and virulent case of “back-ne” has more than a few synthetic hormones raging through his swollen veins. But, as The Adonis Complex explains, droves of men use steroids to achieve a relatively high level of muscularity while still maintaining the illusion that their efforts have been all natural. The result is that many a frustrated soul may conclude there’s something deficient about him if his valiant weight lifting doesn’t produce similar results.

On the more internal front, psychologists believe that the insidious effects of internalized homophobia influence body image disorders among gay men. The shame they feel, perhaps only unconsciously, over their sexuality may manifest in dislike of their physiques. Also, childhood teasing about mannerisms or appearances that didn’t fit the schoolyard norm may cause gay men to devote excessive attention to their appearance throughout adulthood.

“If you don’t feel comfortable with yourself, the body just becomes a concrete way of sorting out those feelings,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist and coauthor of The Adonis Complex.

Olivardia cautions against overemphasis on looks as a source of self-worth and recommends that gay men help each other increase their self-esteem by recognizing positive attributes in one another that don’t have anything to do with looks.

“It’s almost as if you’re building a house and you have only one pillar to hold up that house,” he says of men who base their self-worth on their looks. “It takes one kick of that pillar and the whole house crashes. If you have multiple pillars, multiple outlets of self-esteem, you can have a bad hair day and it doesn’t break your day, because you have those other pillars to support you.”