More than physical: The impact of gay male body image on health, identity, and porn

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Athletic, fit, young, white, with six- or eight-pack abs.

Special coverage

Did that catch your attention?

It should, apparently, if you're gay. It's the description of what the most common image is of in visual media that target gay men, according to University of Toronto social work assistant professor David Brennan.

As the keynote speaker at the eight annual BC Gay Men's Health Summit at SFU Harbour Centre on November 1, Brennan questioned why these images are so consistently portrayed.

Brennan's work focuses on health and wellbeing of marginalized queer men and men who have sex with men and he gave a comprehensive overview of research about gay and bisexual men and body image. He was particularly interested in looking at the connection between health and body image and if gay visual media portray images that exclude people.

The good news

First up, there are some encouraging findings.

Brennan noted that studies have shown that gay men tend to take better care of their bodies than straight men do.

"When you look at population-based data sets across the globe—there aren't a lot—but almost completely consistently, gay men tend to have better BMI levels and less fat than straight men," he said. "In general, gay men tend to have healthier bodies."

Brennan also noted that rates of obesity or being overweight didn't rise in gay and bisexual male populations in spite of marked increases in the general population during the same time period.

But appearances alone, as we all know, aren't the whole story.

Beyond the body

Brennan noted that research has verified that both gay and straight men who view and purchase muscle and fitness magazines tend to have higher levels of body dissatisfaction. For gay men, he said this correlated with "social physique anxiety, which basically means feeling uncomfortable about your body in public, in a social situation."

Brennan analyzed data collected from 400 men at Toronto Pride. He found body dissatisfaction was linked not only to mental and sexual risk, but also, interestingly, to identity issues.

"Essentially we were looking at a drive for muscularity," he said. "The notion behind that is the desire to be more muscular either through behaviour, of drinking protein shakes, working with a trainer, et cetera, et cetera, or through beliefs, about 'I wish my legs were bigger', 'I wish my chest was bigger', et cetera, et cetera. This drive for muscularity was associated with being younger, with an increased risk for disordered eating, an increased risk in depression, sexual risk, and also an increase in internalized homonegativity. So a desire to be more muscular being associated with a desire or a discomfort—a higher level of discomfort—with your sexual-orientation identity."

He also cited a New York study that found that the desired body type differed depending on what gay men were looking for in a partner.

"They found that gay men rated lean and muscular men in the context of a short-term relationship as more attractive than for a long-term relationship," he said. "Those who had lower body fat themselves were much more discriminating in relationship to body fat and muscularity. So those who are fit and thin might be a little more discriminating about who they are going to date in any context."

Racial identity

With the majority of North American media images being of Caucasian men, Brennan and his colleagues also took a look at the relationship between racial identity and body image.

Brennan's research team conducted focus groups and an online survey with four communities: East/Southeast Asian, black/Caribbean/African, Hispanic/Latino/Brazilian, and South Asian. (He said these groups were chosen based on census numbers; aboriginal men were not included due to low population numbers and a lack of expertise on the research team for this group.)

He cited several quotes from participants, including one that became a title in the report: "You never see yourself reflected anywhere". Consequently, Brennan asked, "How do you think of yourself as hot if you never see an image that looks like you?"

He noted the numerous issues that men of these communities have to face, including how they are regarded by others both outside their communities, such as being fetishized or not conforming to racial stereotypes, and within their communities, such as judgment of interracial relationships or aversion to dating someone from their own culture due to internalized racism.

"There seems to be an experience of either being completely invisible, as a racialized person, or being completely fetishized. So the only thing you're viewed as is your race."

The power of porn

Brennan cited a Canadian study, which looked at whether exposure to pornography impacted the body, sexual, and genital self-esteem of male college students. The study found that increased amounts of watching porn correlated with lowered self-esteem.

"The more they watched porn, the more they felt less comfortable with their dick and less comfortable with the type of sex that they were having, and their capacity to have different types of sex."

For many gay men, porn was also used as a source for sex education, such as learning sexual techniques.

"The only concern I have about that is that it's film," Brennan cautioned. "It's edited, it's cut. What happens before, after, and in between takes is not there. That may change a little bit with the access of amateur porn, where someone just puts the camera on. But usually douching is not part of, for instance, any kind of sexual contact and the imagery might be, 'Oh, it can just happen any moment, any time'…So it's important to think about the impact of that."

He also referred to a New York study of men who had reported in engaging in unprotected anal sex. The study found that those who reported that bareback porn comprised up to three-quarters of their porn-viewing time were more likely to report having unprotected anal intercourse than those who watched up it up to 25 percent of their time.

While he noted that porn has become much more readily available due to the internet, he also has observed that the types of porn images available, such as amateur porn, have changed as well.

"There's now free and amateur websites, I'm wondering if when we're looking at porn that's not done in this expensive, glossy, Hollywood-like context, does it, or will it, or is it changing what we perceive as body images, as healthy, sexy body images?"

However, Brennan lamented the fact that research about gay men and porn is very limited, and he finds it unfortunate "considering the number of hours that gay and bisexual men are viewing porn, [and] the accessibility of porn."

Let's talk

Overall, Brennan emphasized that the desire to see sexy images or a fitness-orientation is not the problem.

"I do not want to pathologize that gay men go to the gym, or workout, or eat well, or take care of themselves, or exercise. That's not the point at all. The issue is when it becomes such pressure that it impacts our health and mental health. That's when I'm concerned."

Brennan said that neither he nor anyone truly knows at what point images begin to negatively impact gay and bisexual men, but is interested in considering ways that this stress can be alleviated.

He also pointed out the need for more discussion on this topic.

"We may want to see sexy images…and we don't have a lot of places where we can talk about these issues as gay and bisexual men because we're okay talking about bodies in that way, but not necessarily about our own bodies and our body image issues."

You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig. You can also follow the Georgia Straight's LGBT coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/StraightLGBT.

Comments (5) Add New Comment
BobInTampa
I really don't know WHERE to start on this article! Why not just say gay men are sex-obsessed, narcissist, racist beings who, despite those flaws, find it important to live a healthy lifestyle (that is, except for those who watch too much gay porn and have unprotected sex).

REALLY? REALLY?

I'm looking at the pages of VOGUE, ELLE and COSMO - hmmm.....loaded with photos of young, skinny/thin/anorexic pre- or just post-pubescent girls (can't call them women), selling everything from clothing to travel, to alcohol to cosmetics. They sell hundreds of thousands of magazines every months, and while the issue of eating disorders are whispered frequently, it's just an accepted fact that the media in general does set the standard for what is "hot or sexy." That dosn't make it right - it just SELLS PRODUCT!

So, i'm wondering why the author looked at "mens fitness magazines" only - when discussing body issues. Hmmm....I don't have a Masters Degree (i have a Bachelor of Science degree) but i don't think you need a masters degree to figure out that guys who subscribe to MENS FITNESS magazines are fixated on their bodies and therefor have higher levels of men who have body issues. How about gay men who subscribe to some of the more MAINSTREAM gay/gay friendly magazines - GQ, INSTINCT, ADVOCATE, ESQUIRE and DETAILS. Hmmm...yes, there are many lean/fit/muscular men in their ads, but by FAR they are more diverse - as is the subject matter in those magazines. So, do gay men who read THOSE magazines have a LOWER percentage of body issues than those referred to in the study? Hmmmmm......It's like saying men who subscribe to home improvement magazines have a higher percentage of injuries-at-home than those who live in apartments. VERY VERY VERY POOR RESEARCH.

OK, let's talk porn! Again, REALLY? 3/4's of the men interviewed who had unprotected sex watched bareback porn. REALLY? What percentage of those men also admitted to using drugs or alcohol when having unprotected sex? How about the fact that, according to AVN (adult video news), bareback porn makes up less than 20% of porn sales in the industry....oh no, what music do these men listen to? Could there be a link? How about video games? Are these barebackers also getting motivation from online gay video games? C'mon! Having safer sex is a decsion between consenting adults - gay or str8. Trying to make a link between bareback porn, gay male body image and STD's is just BAD SCIENCE - and i wont' be surprised if an anti-gay-marriage group (NOM) finds this "research" and uses it to combat our fight for full and equal rights!

On more thing on porn. I don't know if this researcher/author actually LOOKED for gay porn, but between the free sites, pay sites, webcam sites, and craigslist, you can find just about ANY form of porn that turns you on. There are "silver daddy" sites, leather/fetish sites, twink, guys-over-30, businessmen gay sites, bear sites (oh crap, bears are hairy, morbidly obese men who find other hairy, morbidly obese men sexy as hell..i guess they don't fall into the research equation, right?

Look. I'm 50 years old. I came out at 35 after being married to a woman for 12 years (and fathering a great kid to boot)....within MINUTES of hitting my first gay bar i knew that being 80lbs overweight was NOT going to work for me. Yes, did i feel pressure to get in shape, eat right and dream of being able to dance with my shirt off - showing my sexy body? YEP. Did it happen? YEP. Am I (or was i ever) a self-absorbed, racist, narcissist, sex-addict? NOPE! Was i able to more easily meet new friends, have new folks approach me (because of how i looked, acted and spoke) YEP!

Look, you can't look at fringe data and draw conclusions for an entire group of people. This is bad writing and bad science.
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V
BobinTampa - I think you should probably try reading the article one more time, and with the intent to understand as opposed to with the intent to respond.

You raise some good points about exceptions that the article did not mention, but you have to understand that this article isn't about those exceptions, this article isn't about you. This article is about the fact that there ARE gay men out there that are having their mental and physical health be heavily influenced by other people, advertisements, visual mainstream media, and porn. Some people have a much higher daily exposure to media, some don't. Some get easily influenced, some don't. Just because you are an exception does not make everything else go away. What Brennan is doing in his research is focusing on one group of people, and to no surprise, has been able to pull out conclusive data based on REAL PEOPLE that identify with that group. He's not saying that racists, narcissists, and sex-addicts are all gay, he's saying that gay men are susceptible to racism, fetishism, and low self-esteem. And even though EVERYONE is susceptible to those things, he's exploring what affects this particular group of people and how they are affected.

Perhaps you are much older and therefore have been able to sidestep this wave of everything-media, but for the 20 something year olds (older or younger even), it is a fucking shitstorm out there. And gay capitalism (or "niche marketing" if you want to sugarcoat it) isn't helping.
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V
I'm glad this article is here to bring more dialogue for these topics, because these issues are blatant and obvious, but have been like a tiny sliver under the skin--there, and bothersome, but unsure of where or why it actually hurts. But of course, it'd be nice to see a focus on different groups of people.. we exist and have problems too..
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JL
Here's the reason why this is so important for the development of gay men in particular: we only make up 3% of the population. I don't really care about straight people's fascination with Elle or Cover Girl - there's 90%+ of them to pick from - with gay men, and especially with fewer and fewer coming out now that most hide online in chat rooms - we have next to nothing to pick from. It's too easy to live a fantasy life online - flawless - and never deal with real gay men. And why not? Look at how awful we are to each other, how fast we reject each other and what little empathy we have for other gay people...after what so many of us have been through, after coming out, we find out we've been duped - we are treated even worse by other gay men with their expectations of post-doctorate degrees, expensive condos, $600 sunglasses, endless supplies of cash, and so on. We don't care about each other - we care about our individual selves and certainly don't want to be seen with gay men who are 'less than' what's suggested by the gay media, which often uses non-gay college athletes as cover models. So you've got gay erotic sites online full of images of straight young men and we turn around and expect all gay guys to look like that (or we think that, since we don't look like that, nobody's going to want us, so we never come out).

Here's what I've discovered, but I've never said this in public, and I doubt a lot of other gay men have either...being gay is a terribly lonely life full of a self-involved, narcissistic group of men whose emotional growth stopped at about age 14. We don't care about what happens to each other because for so long we've been an anonymous people with little to no interest in the well-being of the rest of the gay community. I sometimes think it's our affluence and over-education that has done this - we are so independent that we can literally buy our way out of ever having to deal with the gay people we don't want to be seen with - other minority groups have had to get together and learn how to get along. We don't trust each other, and we don't like each other. The majority of us appear to want a young straight guy - or the closest thing to it - and spend 30-40 years trying to find that and never do. Meanwhile there are dozens upon dozens of gay men within walking distance who never say a word to each other nor acknowledge each other in passing because nobody's good enough for them; in turn, this is why we have no pride or confidence in ourselves or each other - those who are hiding online know 'it doesn't get better' and want nothing to do with this. The gay marriage thing is such a long shot for those of us never finding anyone, or without the emotional tools to keep a relationship lasting for more than three months with this community of such broken men. I don't know what else to say besides the fact that it's not straight bullies that are causing us to kill ourselves - it's so often this hopelessness that we will be alone forever - other gay people don't care about each other - after sitting at home alone for so many years, it's very hard to see any kind of light or hope that being gay can ever feel good when it's always a losing battle within an indifferent, elitist community.
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madraven59
JL,
Wow. Now that's a topic worthy of research—“loneliness among gay men”. The issue isn't body image and media, the issue is what that's covering up.

Yesterday, I was walking down Davie Street with a friend and bumped into a mutual acquaintance and, despite his youth and good looks, it was easy to see how desperately lonely he was.

As you wisely point out, JL, we have no one more to blame than ourselves. As long as we worship the superficial, that's all we'll get. Maybe it's time for “Gay” to start meaning being real with each other. Get out of the chat rooms, shut down the apps, drop your Eric McCormack 'tude, and be the man you seek.
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