Male body dysmorphia: a force for evil in the gay community

“Sorry”, my boyfriend at the time was looking down apologetically; “For what?” I said, a little concerned. He gripped about a half-inch of tan skin on his stomach and said “I had takeaway pizza twice last week… I’m not in my best shape”. I looked at the skin he was gripping, stuck between sympathy and envy.

Muscle Body Dysmorphia – also known as The Adonis Complex or ‘Bigorexia’ – is an illness on the rise. There exist no firm numbers of who might be affected, but cases of men who suffer from body dysmorphia – or a warped perception of their physical self – have increased steadily over the last 20 or so years.

Our current understanding of the Complex is that there are men who see a distorted version of themselves in the mirror. What they see, when we see a potentially very attractive man, is a pale, flabby gremlin. They often have conscious if illogical or uncritical understandings of their condition, such as: potential mates prefer substantial muscle (found to be untrue), they are in competition with their peers or they are addressing childhood memories of being labelled ‘fat’ or ‘overly thin’. Or they have no opinion whatsoever on very extreme behaviour

This does not just affect gay men – straight men, out to assert masculinity against the tides of butch feminism, metrosexuality and overt criticism of ‘male-ness’, have been found to have deep-seated anxieties relating to their physical appearance.

But in the gay community a shoring up of insecurities e.g. family, friends and romantic, can be very toxic when we add body anxieties. Gay men are notoriously critical, or ‘bitchy’, about each other; and the club scene asks, in exchange for inclusion, subscription to certain norms. Two of these ‘norms’: drug use and bareback sex, have been well covered in recent times. But little has been said on the subjective field of physical appeal, although this might be the most tangible on any night out in in Soho, London, or Canal Street in Manchester.

It is why the ‘Adonis Complex’ is an appropriate term for muscle dysmorphia in gay men. In the place of divinity, many men idolise male celebrities or porn stars. Gays are well-recognised niche group for marketers to target – most often (if I little lacking in creativity) with homoeroticism. In these images there is no ambiguity about the ‘ideal’ male body.

These ‘relationships’, I would argue, are important – they are channels through which to celebrate and normalise MSM sexuality. But they foster a dark by-product: physical elitism, which is reenforced by popular images of skin-tight (or absent) clothing, unrealistic muscles and rare beauty.

It makes sense that gay men would be obsessive about their body with this images as a dominent feed between gay men and gay-targeted media. Especially for men who participate in ‘mainstream’ gay cultures, such as the club scene. The ultimate standard for the male body has been set by these media. So it is not hard to see why many men, fearing irrelevance if they become old or overweight, can become ‘over concerned’ (to warily use that word) with their physical appearance. This, again, is true in the straight world as in the gay one.

But in the gay world the catalyst – the male form – is everywhere. In our media, in the clubs, on the streets and in our bedrooms (which is, for the most part, lovely). Gay men are presented with the omnipresent male form in any gay niche group (by definition). Even in drag acts, much of the humour comes from the ungainly and overt masculinity of the performers. We have a common ‘currency’ in the male body – we all have one, and we all to one extent or the other desire one romantically and possibly sexually.

This omnipresence compounds our doubt and anxiety. We have no refuge within popular culture nor within groups of gay men. The nature of this is a cycle: as we try and convince others that we belong to this elite standard, we fuel anxieties in others (“Am I as attractive as he is?), as well as our own (“Does he agree with me? Does he appreciate how often I go to the gym?”).

All this is to say that pockets of gay men experience body dysmorphic disorder as a mainstream cultural presence, not an undercurrent. Stereotypes of gay men – which are, effectively, generalisations taken after a superficial glance – often cite vanity, obsessive attention to physical appearance, and obnoxious neurotic behaviours: “do I look fat? I feel fat” “My hair is so awful today” “don’t take a photo of me, I look disgusting!”. These behaviours do not tell us some gay men are arrogant, vain and in need of reassurance, but that they obsess over fine and often insignificant aspects of their looks. And for no other reward other than to wake up tomorrow and repeat.

Obviously: this is the opinion of gay man who has never lived a straight life, nor been exposed to the cultural stimuli of straight men. From this side of divide, however, the pressure to look good seems stronger among gay men then our heterosexual counterparts.

Either way, the pressure is there, and it is toxic. And if it exists among heterosexual men then: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander (without specifying which is which). Professional, personal and romantic lives are affected by a desperation to ‘look good’, without respecting the subjectivity of looking good or the part personality and mentality have to play in attraction. The internal menace of body dysmorphia is an ongoing concern, and one with far-reaching consequences. There may be no absolute solution – but understanding is the key to progress.

Jack Flanagan