Page last updated 20 January 2017
Links last updated 17 February 2018
Gay men and body issues
What this is about
Gay men experience eating disorders and have concerns about their body image.
Uncredited photo | 14112
Ideal body: or, peer pressure, eating disorder, mental health issue, body image issue?
There is widely reported evidence that gay men are up to twice as likely as straight men to face problems with eating and their self-image and weight, and be dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating disorders can be brought on by gay culture (the need to have attractive and thin bodies, defined muscles etc); identity and sexuality crises, and problems accepting that you are gay, among other causes.
Research in 1990 concluded that gay men weighed significantly less and were more likely to be underweight and to desire an underweight ideal weight than straight men. Compared to the heterosexuals, homosexual men were less satisfied with their body build, and scored significantly higher on the “Drive for Thinness” scale of the Eating Disorders Inventory.
A 2002 International Journal of Eating Disorders report found that 20 percent of gay men are anorexic, and 14 percent suffer from the related eating disorder bulimia.
That research was updated in 2011, and found that:
48% of gay men would sacrifice a year or more of their lives up in exchange for their perfect body.
10% of gay men would agree to die more than 11 years earlier if they could have their ideal body now.
Nine in ten gay men admit they enforce “unrealistic” images of lean and muscular men in conversation.
Only a third of straight men said they would give a year or more for an ideal body shape, and 77% admitted buying into the body image ideal. Gay respondents were consistently more affected by body concerns and more likely to make body comparisons than straight men, and were also significantly more likely to use what the study authors called “body talk”: speech that implicitly or explicitly reinforces or endorses the traditional western standard of male attractiveness: tall, lean, muscular, toned body with clear skin and a full head of hair.
In 2012, the Stonewall Survey found that
45% of gay and bisexual men worry about the way they look and wish they could think about it less.
21% of gay and bisexual men have had problems with their weight or eating at some time in the past.
13% of gay and bisexual men have had a problem with their weight or eating in the last year, compared to 4% of men in general.
66% of gay and bisexual men who have had a problem with their weight or eating have never sought help from a healthcare professional.
In 2015 Huffington Post reported that
“gay men and bisexual men are 7 times more likely to binge and 12 times more likely to purge than heterosexual men. Despite making up 5 percent of the male population, some 42 percent of men with eating disorders are gay.”
The warning signs of anorexia are:
You have lost 15 to 20 percent of your body weight.
Friends say you’re too skinny, but when you look in the mirror, you can’t see it.
You’re preoccupied with thoughts about food and calories.
When you’re hungry but don’t eat, you feel a sense of victory.
You weigh yourself a lot.
You feel bloated or nauseated after eating only a small or normal amount of food.
You feel cold when the air temperature is normal.
Anorexia is a serious disease that causes unnecessary suffering and, in extreme cases, even death. Treatment options are available; start by talking to your doctor. Recovery will greatly benefit your health, make you look and feel much better.
The causes of anorexia in the gay community are now thought to include:
Coming out: Fear of rejection/experience of rejections by friends, family and co-workers;
Internalized negative messages/beliefs about oneself due to sexual orientation, non-normative gender expressions, or transgender identity;
Experiences of violence, contributing to development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which research shows sharply increases vulnerability to an eating disorder;
Discordance between one’s biological sex and gender identity;
Homelessness or unsafe home environment;
Body image ideals within some LGBT cultural contexts;
Difficulty accessing treatment and support;
Lack of family/friend support if not a part of an accepting family/community;
Insufficient information and education about eating disorders.
John Paul Brammer devised an action plan to combat this problem:
Diversify the representation of bodies in gay media.
Make mental health a priority in the gay community.
Normalize getting treatment for mental illnesses.
Tackle internalized homophobia.
Validate each other.
It is clear that as activists we have a part to play in providing support and information to others.
Realjock, Undated: Perfect Bodies? Gay Men, Athletics and Anorexia
Patient UK, Undated: Anorexia Nervosa
NHS Choices, Undated: Anorexia nervosa
NHS Choices, Undated: Eating Disorders
DC Intersections, 12 July 2010: Body image in the gay community
Salon, 2 Mar 14: A hidden epidemic: Eating disorders in the gay community
Huffington Post, 22 Oct 2015: Eating disorders are rampant in the gay community
NEDA, undated: Eating Disorders in LGBT Populations
Daily Telegraph, July 2017: Nigel Owens: My 27-year battle with bulimia
ABC News, 17 October 2017: Why gay porn is helping to fuel body dissatisfaction for gay men
NBC, 16 February 2018: Rippon’s body image comments highlight hidden struggle among gay men