“Why do all the hot guys have to be gay?” We’ve probably all heard the stereotype and these types of conversations. Some experts believe the answer to this question partially has to do with heightened awareness about body image among gay men.
Trey Watkins, a graduate assistant who deals with men’s issues at Student Health Services, said the pressures on gay males are different than other social groups.
“Men generally are more focused on attractiveness than women are, so when you have two men involved, looks are very important,” he said.
Watkins added that men usually aspire to look like two distinct “types” that are portrayed in entertainment culture: the well-built “muscle-men” – think American actor Vin Diesel – and the “flag-pole pretty boys,” like English actor Jude Law.
But Watkins said that these aspirations can lead men – particularly homosexuals who are trying to impress other men – into the dangerous area of eating disorders. Watkins said some statistics cite as many as one in three gay men struggle with body image and eating disorders.
But what often triggers an eating disorder in gay college students is the pressures they face at this time in their life, Watkins said. A lot of them are dealing with self-exploration – maybe even coming out for the first time. In this case, they might feel that the body is one of the only areas in their lives that they have control over.
For this reason, restrictive eating and binge eating or purging – common symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia – are alarmingly common in the gay population, Watkins said.
Susan Haney, Student Health Services’ clinical program coordinator, said the physical effects of eating disorders are numerous – including rapid weight loss, dehydration, slow heart rate and low blood pressure, low glucose levels, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, bowel problems and reduced concentration.
Though the physical effects can be deadly, the psychological effects are just as bad, Haney added. People with eating disorders suffer from isolation, social withdrawal, depression and suicidal thoughts, moodiness, anxiety, guilt and self-hate.
Eating disorders are as dangerous to males as they are to females, Haney said, but female eating disorders are sometimes profiled more because they are more likely to be fatal.
“Sometimes females have more acute life-threatening situations because they start at lower weights,” she said.
Despite all of this, Haney said very few males seek help from Student Health or other professionals.
“There is always a lot of talk, but I don’t think we are seeing a lot of people that we should be seeing,” she said.
However, Haney said there are a few things non-professionals can do. Some warning signs include spending a lot of time talking about what they eat, calculating calories, or just being exceedingly unsatisfied with their body.
One mistake friends usually make when trying to help another battle an eating disorder is to be overbearing instead of supportive. The most important thing is to be caring and concerned and by no means become the “food police,” Haney said.
Many believe the Generation Y culture can be blamed for this excessive fixation on looks – among gay men and women alike. The fine art of dating has been transformed into buying a stranger a drink and paying for the cab back to an apartment.
“It’s hard to get to know people these days, so looks play a huge part in narrowing down the options, because Lord knows we can’t see personalities, and if you don’t want to be lying in bed alone at night, you need some kind of process of elimination,” said sophomore Lyle Sidell, a gay male who said he is familiar with the hookup culture on campus.
The real question is: can we change the harmful focus on body image in the gay population? Watkins thinks it’ll be difficult.
“How do you move past that? It’s almost like changing an entire culture.”
“Weekly check up” is a regular feature in the Life section. If you have a health topic you want to know more about, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.