By Juan Pawiroredjo
The majority of magazine covers, such as Men’s Health, and billboards give off the perception that the ideal, desired man is one that is perfectly fit. Modern advertisements and media campaigns that portray men as lean, muscular and fat-free, perpetuating society’s obsession with body image.
The gay community consists of many subcultures. A few of these subcultures include Bears, Twinks and Muscle Queens. According to Urban Dictionary, Bear is a term used by gay men to describe a husky, large man with a lot of body hair. Twink is an attractive, boyish-looking, young gay man and a Muscle Queen is a gay man who only desires to and exclusively attracted to muscular gay men.
Brad Taylor said he was introduced to the world of Bears after seeing a small ad in the back of a local gay magazine. “I was excited to see men who looked like me and were masculine,” he said. Today he holds the Title of Mr. La Leather, a contest where ten 10 from local leather-affiliated organizations and businesses compete for the coveted title.
In high school, Taylor didn’t really struggle with the fact that he was bigger than the other teenagers. “I was a fat kid, no doubt, but I was accepted as I was involved in sports like football and wrestling where my weight was an asset,“ he said. ”I didn’t want to date girls, so I became their chubby friend.”
He said he dealt with body issues by joining sports and trying to fit in.
He didn’t struggle with being accepted as a gay male in high school. “It also helped to keep my gay identity hidden as I did not look like what people thought gay was.”
Taylor said that he does have body image issues now. He’s competing in the International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago and expects his fellow competitors to be muscle-bound men.
“When I first came out, I hung out with mostly skinny guys and I lost about 40 pounds to try to fit in,” he said. “This is a big mistake that many young gay men make, trying so hard to fit in they change who they are. But I have also seen men gain weight to fit in with the Bears, so it works both ways.”
He thinks the gay community and most media showcase a generic gay man that has a chiseled body and almost “Ken Doll” appearance, he said. “Just try watching any gay character on TV – count how many of them have more than five percent of body fat.”
Taylor keeps a certain “look” to fit in with the Bear community and does so very well. “My look is a mix of bear and leather man, luckily those worlds cross over easily. I strive for a masculine everyday look and I never leave the house without wearing boots and facial hair,” he said.
Even though the actor does his best to fit in with a certain part of the gay community there are still those who don’t accept him for who he is. “I went to Universal Studios to audition and when I walked in the room the casting director looked at me and yelled: You are Shrek!”
Like most gay men in the United States, members of D.C.’s community say they have all been made aware of body-image issues, no matter what their body type. Mention “body image” outside of the gay community, and most people will think of a woman confronted with images of stick-thin fashion models. For gay men, the ideals and tensions are arguable more complex – or at least more hidden behind issues of acceptance they face simply for being gay. But many interviewed say they were disappointed to find themselves being judged for their external appearance in a community in which they sought acceptance.
Douglas Price is a 30-year old architect living in the Adams Morgan area of Washington, D.C. Price was born in Walla Walla, Wash., a very small farming town and realized he was gay while attending high school.
According to Price, Twinks are pubescent semi-hairless boys that look like they’re 12 but could be 18 and Bears are big hairy gay men. Price says he’s been called a Twink in college and hopes never to be called a Bear.
He hardly goes to any gay clubs but when he does, he perceives it as a very “Machismo” culture.
“Everybody has their shirts off and they’re all sweating and showing off what they have underneath their shirts. I don’t care. I’m skinny and I’m not some obese person who doesn’t take care of my body.”
Price continued to say that many gay men are “out for show. It’s kind of odd; I don’t want to go over and touch it. They’re there for a reason they’re out in the clubs to show off what they’ve worked for. That’s good for them but I don’t want it.”
When Price was born, he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had to undergo surgery at age 1. As a result of the surgery, Price ended up with a rather large scar on his left upper arm, close to his shoulder. This led him to feel self-conscious about his body and to never take his shirt off in public, he said.
“It looks more like a burn mark than an actual skin cancer scar,” he said. After his teenage years, he said he grew to love his scar and at one point even thought about getting a tattoo version of it on his opposite shoulder.
Price wasn’t always skinny, but he dieted “for fun” in college.
“There are definitely times when you think you’re fat. My best friend Logan and I came up with entertaining diets; for example we had the orange diet where you’re only aloud to eat things that are orange. That lasted for about two weeks; we only ate cubes of cheese.”
The orange diet wasn’t a one-time occurrence for Price. He tried it again at a later time in his life.
As a child, Price was chubby and he felt embarrassed about it at the time. “Having to be told that you were hefty and then having your mother take you to the hefty section to buy clothes wasn’t much fun,” he said
By the time Price went to college and lost all his weight, he very much enjoyed it.
“My mother would say, ‘you’re anorexic,’ to which I would reply, ‘no I’m not I’m pretty and tiny,’ ” he recalled.
“I take care of myself but I don’t overdo it. People who are buff are doing it for a reason. In the gay culture being buff is done for a reason n—to be noticed for how pretty their abs are,” Price said.”I’m not going to work out obsessively, I’m happy with what I am at the moment.”
Everybody is obsessed with weight, not just the gay scene, Price said.
“Gays take it a little bit further.”
He sometimes wonders what other people do to be very skinny. “There are some very skinny gays and I think to myself, ‘how did you end up being 35 with a 24 inch waist?’ When that same person chows down more than I, I catch myself thinking, you’re odd.’”
Price says people should be more content with their bodies. “There are people that will never be skinny and there are people that will never be fat. Be happy with what you have.”
Price doesn’t have any problems with weight anymore, but does have a problem with the lines that are starting to appear on his face. He takes actions to fight the lines that the aging process has brought upon his face and doesn’t want to be judged about it.
“I do Botox. It’s my body and I can do whatever I want with it,” said Price. “There are lines that I like to call crow’s feet that are always there.” In a thesis writen for the Department of Socieology at the University of British Columbia, Bener Esref wrote: “Images of the ‘ideal’ body have become the norm within the gay male community. While at times past the gay male was typically associated with having an effeminate body type, very slender, with little to no muscle tone, this has long changed. Mass media has associated the gay male with the ideal, muscular body type.”
There are some that have struggled with this issue and have tried to change their bodies to fit the stereotype portrayed by the media. There are those who have struggled with body image issues in the past, but have come to accept who they are in the end. One of these people is Neal McKinney.
McKinney, a 23-year-old Texan who lives in D.C., said “I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin in the past.” McKinney said that according to his BMI (Body Mass Index) he would be considered obese. He cares about his appearance and said that he particularly cares about being more in shape. He would like to be healthy, but the societal pressures he feels to be fitter have had an impact on his desire to be fitter, he said.
Getting into the gay community was a bit of a struggle according to McKinney. “My only link to the gay community was the Internet,” he said. “Websites like gay.com were some of my recourses. In the chat rooms I got my first taste of really feeling uncomfortable with my body size.”
McKinney said he has always been an athlete and therefore didn’t have a slim body but at the same time he didn’t engage in any hardcore training so he wasn’t buff either. “I was just stocky, solid, short and black.”
It was through the experiences talking with people online, he said, he began feeling self-conscious about who he was and how he looked, because he wasn’t acceptable to many guys he communicated with on the Web sites he frequented. He wasn’t sure how that came about because before his connections on the Internet he never communicated with other gay guys on a deeper level, he said. He didn’t know how to connect with other guys in real life. “You need to lose weight,” “you’re really short” and “I don’t like black guys,” were among the things being said to him by the guys he chatted with online, he said.
McKinney said that having to navigate himself through the gay world and all its different labels — Twink, Bear and others— created the need for him to label himself as being “something.”
“So I identified myself with the Bear community just for description’s sake:the heavier gay man who’s typically hairy and typically white.”
He wasn’t ever interested in being skinny, he said, because he knew that would require some drastic measures. “I was never a size zero, but I wanted to be fit,” he said. “In the Bear community it’s more acceptable to be a little heftier.”
His driving desire for a long time was to be more solid and have muscle mass, just to appease to other guys, he said. Guys would always tell him that they weren’t into bears or that they’re not attracted to guys with a 34-inch waist, he continued. “For a while I couldn’t understand it. I thought it was me, but at some point I realized that it has nothing to do with who I am. People are going to nitpick about who they feel they’re attracted to.”
According to McKinney a lot of that comes from the neuroticism that exists in the gay community. “Luckily I have better things to do with my life than being attractive to one person. I’m not going to be attractive to every person and I’m OK with that now,” he said.
Even though McKinney identifies himself as a Bear, he doesn’t agree with everything he believes they stand for. “They believe that you have to be a really big, solid guy and being very hairy. Typically that’s a physical feature that white men have”, he said. “I have some hair but I don’t have a lot and typically most black men don’t.” He continued to say that “It’s a fetish of a certain body-type that I can’t fulfill.”
He talked about a subset of the Bear community he calls “Gainers” and said that Gainers are guys who are interested in gaining more weight. According to McKinney Gainers are sometimes accompanied by what he calls “Encouragers.”
McKinney said that he thinks that gay men are obsessed with their physical appearance has a lot to do with not being accepted by mass society as a whole and being self-absorbed. This has taken on a life of its own, he said. He also said that he thinks that mass media has perpetuated the stereo type that gay men are very interested in their selves. According to McKinney magazines, like GQ, push this with all these expensive gadgets, hair products and designer clothes that gay men need to have. “It’s society’s way of telling that we need to be certain way,” he said.
McKinney continued to say that it’s the same with women. “The media tells women that they have to look a certain way in order to be considered beautiful,” he said. ”I think this is the root of where body image issues in the gay community come from.”
“It goes beyond Washington, D.C.” he said. “It’s expected for a gay man to be concerned about how they look, be in shape and care about their appearance.”