When I used to look in the mirror, I didn’t see my reflection staring back at me. Instead, I saw a catalog filled with men who were the archetype of physical male perfection. Then I would subtract my image from the sum of these perfect specimens and find the remainder of what stood between myself and the way I felt I was supposed to look. The remainder is what I saw. That was my self-image.
The remainder kept me looking pretty good for a while. It motivated me to wake up early in the morning for cardio and lift weights six days a week. It prompted me to choke down supplements and cut carbs before swimsuit season. For a while, I thought this was perfectly normal, as so many other gay men were also wearing the remainder as their self-image and working hard each day to close the gap until they became one of “them.” One of the perfect ones.
When I contracted HIV, it only furthered my obsession with trying to personify the image of outward health. I felt as if I needed to be better than just fit, because now I also needed to overcome a mark against me. If the quest for a good body was putting me in a bad headspace before, now I was entering into a deep insecurity psychosis.
In my mind, I thought this was all a part of being healthy and “keeping up with the gay Joneses.” Regardless of my motivations for why I was going to the gym, I was there. It didn’t matter what my motivation was for eating well, I was still watching my diet. It would seem this was a perfectly fine, albeit vain, method of staying healthy and in shape. But the more chiseled my abs became and the more my body fat dropped, the further my goals of perfection seemed to be.
In 2014, the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that gay and bisexual men were three times more likely than straight men to have eating disorder issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “While there is no single cause of eating disorders, research indicates that body dissatisfaction is the best-known contributor to the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.”
I started using dangerous pro-hormones (or andro) and even flirted with the idea of taking illegal steroids. I began using water pills and smoking cigarettes to avoid eating late at night. I became simultaneously disgusted and obsessed with the body culture of young gays reliving popularity fantasies of their high school years.
Vanity is like a controlled substance. Some people can indulge every once in a while, while maintaining a healthy grasp of what is important — while others become completely addicted to surface appeal and are always looking for their next fix. The more you use it, the deeper and deeper your dependence on it becomes. And just like with any addiction, recognizing that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Truth be told, I started writing this essay three years ago, but was still so deep into hating my own body that I couldn’t finish it. I would like to think that in those three years, I have overcome my body image issues and no longer struggle with only seeing the negative every time I look into the mirror. But if I am being honest, I have failed more than I’ve succeeded. It certainly isn’t for lack of trying. I have read books on self-confidence, focused on the value of my actions, and tried to prioritize being healthy without any specific physical goals in mind. However, my journey to be nice to my own reflection has at least reinforced the truth that I don’t have to change anything to be worthy. I know perfection doesn’t equal happiness. In fact, it is the antithesis of it.
The most marked difference in my life now is that I am powerfully drawn to people who can live in their entire body without hesitation or fear, even if I haven’t yet learned to do it myself. Yes, I still obsess over the scale from time to time and covet the body parts of others, but the self-awareness that this is bad for me has at least taken the edge off the desperation. I no longer want to achieve perfection. I want to achieve happiness and acceptance of my imperfect self. And that’s something.