Of course, in the social media era, our phones make it easier than ever before to fall into the toxic trap of comparing ourselves to other, more “fuckable” gay men. Instagram tends to get the most blame, but Lewis, a 29-year-old gay man who says his body “just doesn’t feel good enough,” argues that Twitter can be even more triggering. “I don’t follow a lot of guys who post [physique-based] thirst traps on Instagram because I got rid of anyone who posts the same content day in, day out,” he says. “But I still see loads of thirst traps on Twitter because the algorithm puts them [high] in my feed”
The pressure to conform to a certain body type is even harder to get a grip on when the finish line keeps getting pushed back over time. “As a younger gay man, when I came out, I was told I was too fat,” says 32-year-old Pete. “Skinny was the way forward and that was easier to achieve in some ways. I could eat less and be more active and lose weight.” But over the last five years, as he’s aged out of the twink bracket—in which smooth, lithe bodies are prized—Pete says the goal posts have shifted. “It doesn’t feel like skinny is enough any more,” he explains. “You need to be bigger, lift weights, and have abs, which is a lot harder to achieve.”
Alex, a 28-year-old gay man of color, says there’s a fetishistic element to the body image pressure he faces. “I have a boyfriend at the moment and he fully champions me, which is great—I feel at ease in my body,” he says. “But when I’m out, I still get comments from other gay guys about my body, so sometimes I feel like I have to keep working on it.” Alex says he’s affected by these comments because he’s a “natural people pleaser,” even though he knows some of them are totally inappropriate. “I get fetishy kind of comments—’I love muscular black guys’ and all that. And sometimes I do feel uncomfortable [about those comments] because I know that I’m more than my skin color and ‘good pecs.’”
If they’re not addressed, queer men’s body image issues can easily calcify into more serious mental health problems. George, a 35-year-old gay man, says his concerns began when a friend mocked his “skinny arms” nearly 15 years ago. “From that moment on, I’ve never felt comfortable in T-shirts or even shirts,” he says. “And it contributed massively to social anxiety in my twenties and early thirties.” George says this social anxiety even affected him in formal scenarios such as job interviews where he’d end up feeling “strangely inadequate.” He also believes it contributed to an eating disorder and affected some of his romantic relationships.
There are, mercifully, plenty of strategies to help in handling body image issues. Asking for assistance is an important first step. Keir, a 33-year-old gay man, says he undertook 18 months of counseling, partly to tackle body image issues, and reports that it’s been reasonably effective. “My weight has fluctuated a lot over my life, which has had the inevitable effect of impacting my self-esteem,” he says. “I don’t think my body image problem has improved a lot over that time—I still feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed about how I look—but my ability to push it to one side and just get on with things has definitely improved.”
Counseling may not be affordable or readily available to everyone, but Keir says simply opening up and talking to friends about his body image issues has helped. “I’m usually shocked,” he says. “Some people who, in my opinion, don’t appear to have any reason to have a body image issue turn out to feel as negatively about themselves as I do.”
Collectively, we all need to accept that tackling these body image issues is our joint responsibility. Think twice before you arbitrarily post your next shirtless selfie—is the immediate boost to your own self-esteem worth the triggering effect it could have on followers? Report the guy on Grindr who says he’d be interested “if you’d only lose a few pounds.” And try to remember that none of us is immune to the gnawing suspicion that the way we look just isn’t good enough. Behind every gym pic, even one greeted with a torrent of fire emojis, there’s another person battling their own body image demons.