Wednesday, April 14, 2021

12. Fearing Fat Is A Gay Rights Issue

 I first read “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” in 1989 in Bettina Aptheker’s Intro To Feminism course.  This monumental work remains seminal in it’s coneptualizing women’s complex relationship to their bodies.  One of the more notable points made was the correlation made between women’s financial, political, and sexual ascendance, and more limited and oppressive beauty standards.    As women gained power throughout the 1960s the cultural norms (or “shoulds” as I call them) pivoted from fuller body types like Marilyn Monroe to the impossibly thin models of Twiggy or Goldie Hawn.  The more women gained power, the higher incidence of eating disorders.  This was not an accident nor coincidence.

Since I started working with gay men in therapeutic settings nearly 25-years ago, many things have changed in the world.   We now enjoy greater social acceptance, legal protections such as Marriage Equality, and advancements in HIV treatment and prevention thanks to U=U and PrEP.  But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the profound terror so many gay men experience at the prospect of gaining weight.  This is also not an accident nor coincidence.  
You can’t stop progress but you can deter it when you condition any minority group to believe that their worth and value are contingent on:  (1) a man’s approval; (2) one's physical appearance; (3) standards that are nearly impossible for most people to maintain.  It is a very convenient way of making people believe, “Your contributions to the world are not as relevant as how much you weigh.  Your emotional wellness is not as important as how you body looks.  Your sense of wellness and joy are not as much of a priority as appearing thin.  And if you deviate from the program you will face a life sentence of shame, embarrassment, and loneliness."   

These messages are insidious, meaning they are so pervasive that we don’t always realize how normal they have become.  For example, “Will and Grace” was a groundbreaking TV show that arguably helped increased social support for LGBT individuals from 1998-2006.  At the same time, it repeatedly contained jokes about the two gay male lead characters terrified of getting older, gaining weight, and consequently being alone. Thinness is primarily the type used to advertise everything to the gay community from travel to soda, to drinking water to detergent to grooming products.  And while some dating apps have cracked down on hate speech and racist epithets, it is still accepted on most for people to write “no fats” into their profiles.

So why exactly are so many gay men so terrified of gaining weight?  In my experience, it comes down to four issues:      

(1) Fuckability.  Many men have a tremendous fear of not being desired or considered “fuckable” by other gay men.  This makes sense given that our identity of “gay” is inextricably tied to sex and it’s difficult for many men to think about their value and empowerment without being defined by a physical act.  In the United States gay men’s sexuality is directly tied to power and virility.  We are seen as strong, healthy, and worthwhile if someone finds us sexually desirable.  Ergo, if someone associates being thin with desirability, and desirability is key to feeling powerful and strong, then thinness will be perpetuated within the community ranks as a preferred standard or "should".    

How we change this:  (1) by recognizing that there is no universal standard of sexiness or desirability.  That all human bodies are attractive vessels of beauty, power and strength.  It doesn’t mean everyone finds everyone erotically desirable, it just means that every body of all ages, sizes, races, genders, has inherent worth and beauty.  From that baseline, we all have erotic preferences and attractions, and "types" with whom we prefer sexual intimacy.  Or to put it another way, there is a lid for every pot


(2) Control.  What frequently gets lost in this conversation is how many gay men ascertain and intensely maintain a locus of control.  For most of us the world was not a friendly place when we realized we were “different” from other boys.  We often had to learn survival strategies early on:  ways to navigate social situations, hide in plain sight, compete and thrive better than those trying to bully or harm us.  We adapted to this hostility and hate by becoming expert micromanagers of our words, our expressions, our achievements, and especially our appearance.  So if you have survived traumatic circumstances by exercising a considerable amount of control, and suddenly your body is changing in ways you can’t completely regulate, then you will likely experience terror.   

How we change this:  Accept that the body changes as it ages.  It is not a weakness, a flaw, nor a character defect.  You can still be successful, accomplished, powerful, even when the body carries more weight.  I describe my own body in the third person as “the body” because I see myself as an energy that is carried by the body.  Doing so makes the body changes seem less personal, less about “ME” and more about the natural fluctuations of the aging process.  I don’t need to control every inch of my body in order to contribute meaningfully to the world and have a lot of fun with others.  

(3) Limited exposure.  Because weight gain is still so taboo in the community, many gay men have not actually known someone who is hefty and happy.  The only gay representations they see in mainstream media are of those of thin men.  They accordingly make friends and form social circles around others who are similarly sized and familiar.  They consume social media which tailors images and messaging that are based on their perceived preference.  Adam Singer, Creator of Adam’s Nest has built his entire business on changing this by celebrating queer representations of all different ages and sizes in his marketing.  He recently shared with me, “The feed shows you what they think you want to see based on what you’ve told them is desirable with your clicks and likes.  If you liked people outside of the narrow definition of what ‘they’ determine you ‘should’ like, then you see something different. If not we end up being complicit in reinforcing a narrow view of what is popular and desirable.”  In other words,  if you have no experience or exposure to larger men feeling joyful and empowered, and you are only "liking" pictures of people who are thin, then you will likely respond to the possibility of gaining weight as something dreadful and fearful.   

How we change this:  All it takes is following a hashtag (#) to expand your virtual horizons.  I’d encourage you to try the hashtags #gaybear, #bearweek, #gaysilverfox on Instagram or other platforms to see what images come up.  In a post-COVID world, I also encourage people to attend any of the dozens of social festivals / bars/ celebrations /that prioritize “bears” and feeling sexy at any size.  They are out there if you look!  

(4) Homophobia.
  Just like the misogyny described in “Fat Is A Feminist Issue,”  gay men similarly

internalize messages of homophobia which inform, “there should be less of you.” We are told we should be less present, less proud, less loud, less feminine, less sexual, less old, with less curves and wrinkles.  We are constantly instructed politically, sexually, and physically to take up less room.  Imposing rigidly thin mandates against others are ways of perpetuating this form of homophobia, disdain, and contempt for gay people.  And yes, I know it’s often gay people doing it, that’s why I refer to it as "insidious," i.e., people aren't always aware when they are harming and shaming this way.  When we internalize these messages about how we “should” look, and then perpetuate and shame others for gaining weight, we are both victim and enforcer of an anti-gay agenda.   

How we change this:  By noting that loving your body is a politically radical act. When we practice love over fear, approval or admonishment, celebration over shame, mental health over “shoulds”, we begin to push back on the homophobic narratives keeping so many men feeling alone and afraid.  We recognize that our true pride and liberation is going to come from resisting homophobia in all forms, especially those trying to control our bodies, hearts, and minds. 

When one of us hurts, we all hurt.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer. This need not be.  We are at the beginning of a new decade of aging, healing, playing, loving.  By the time I turn 65-years-old, there will be more people living over 65-years than people under 18-years. Why not enjoy getting older and building community by celebrating diverse bodies, healthy thoughts, abundant touch, and lots and lots of fun!  

To see more of Adam's Nest and his diverse collection of art, clothing and whatnot, please press here.

 Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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