Psychology of Appearance: The Body Image and Satisfaction Level of Gay Male Communities

Body image is an area of complexity, if we were to look at one's body satisfaction as a continuum, we would see it like this. On the far left hand side would be body satisfaction, on the far right body dissatisfaction (where we could expect to see the accompaniment of eating disorders) and in the middle, where most people would fall, is normative discontent. The problems related with body dissatisfaction have long been considered to be problems for females, although not exclusively a feminine issue, many would suggest that females are more susceptible to feelings of body dissatisfaction. The media has been criticised heavily for its role in body dissatisfaction, people have claimed that it is purely the media's display of the thin ideal which has caused such high levels of dissatisfaction in the female population. However, more likely is the fact that those who already have pre-existing body image concerns are more likely to suffer from dissatisfaction (Want, 2009).

More attention in recent years has been paid to the idea that men also are victims of dissatisfaction with regard to their appearance. Although this seems lower than that of women in the majority of the male population (Feingold and Mazella, 1998). However, some researchers have suggested that there is a higher level of body dissatisfaction found in the gay male population than in the rest of the male population (Cash, 2012; Brennan et al, 2012; Kane, 2010). This research has proven to be quite conclusive in that they have found that many gay men experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction to some areas of their appearance than do heterosexual males.

Firstly, researchers have found that there seems to be an emphasis in the mainstream gay culture that men should be skinny, but muscular and they should ideally be young. (Cash & Smolak, 2012; Brennan et al, 2012). This the adds an emphasis to the desire for men to be a certain way, particularly in the gay culture. However, in his review of previous literature (meta-analysis) Kane (2010) found that the reasons for gay men presenting themselves as muscular, which according to Cash (2012) is something of an importance in the gay population, is likely due to the media given assumption that gay men are both effeminate and/or wasting away due to sexually transmitted infections predominantly associated with the gay culture (E.g. HIV). This would then be a logical explanation as they are likely wanting to outgrow and rebel against the idea that they are this thin and wasting effeminate male with poor health and low masculinity, as this is certainly not the case for most gay men.

Other things have been regarded as important in the male population, this is additional to the mesomorphic ideal which is wanted in both the gay and straight male communities and is certainly boosted by both the media ideal and the social conventions expected of men. Many men also seem to desire a smooth chest and belly, this would come from shaving and has previously been associated with being desired more so by the gay population and seen to be important and necessary. However, this has not proven to be conclusive. In a study by Filiault & Drummond (2013) this is certainly not important in many gay men and is instead seen to be unnatural and unnecessary.

Yet research has also shown that gay men seem far more invested in their appearance and would seem to want to be more muscular, as is the desired male body form, and would invest more time and effort in doing this. Some have suggested that this is due to gay men being subject to the 'male gaze' which is often blamed for the reasons why women invest more time in their appearance and thus feel more dissatisfaction over their bodies and their perceived flaws. (Cash, 2012)

According to Morrison & McCutcheon (as cited in Cash & Smolak, 2012) heterosexual men experience a higher level of body satisfaction than gay men. This could be a result of many factors, including the 'minority stress theory' which states that gay men may be under double the pressure which is experienced by straight men. This occurs because a certain appearance may be expected in gay communities which is not accepted in regular communities, thus the individual may experience forms of discrimination from both communities and may then feel heightened rates of dissatisfaction due to this phenomenon. This would then also explain why many gay men are indeed internally homophobic, meaning they may feel more body dissatisfaction due to uncertain feelings and an internalised discrimination against themselves, thus meaning they may be trying to fit in with the community whilst disliking such a position and viewing themselves negatively dut to themselves and their appearance.

Findings by Kimmel & Mahalik (cited in Cash & Smolak, 2012) those gay men whom have been victims of discriminative or gay related 'hate crime' are more likely to be dissatisfied with their sexuality and thus more likely to be dissatisfied with their appearance and feel lower levels of body satisfaction.

Morrison and McCutcheon talk of the double discrimination which is received in some of the gay communities. This mainly occurs in the 'bear' population of gay men, this would be the larger and hairier population of (often older) gay men, they report recieveing both homophobic and weight related discrimination and abuse from both the heterosexual population the 'mainstream' gay population, thus making them feel less accepted. However, some report higher levels of support and thus higher levels of satisfaction due to more immunity among themselves. It was suggested by Choate (2005) and Cash and Smolak (2012) the higher levels of social support and an improved and stronger self concept is a protection factor to body dissatisfaction against media and popular ideals, thus this could likely be applicable also to the idea that the bear community could be stronger due to stronger self conceptualisation and stronger social connections, thus they may be more immune to the body dissatisfaction brought on by such opinions.

Yager et al (1988), as cited in Kane (2010) pointed out that many gay men suffer from eating disorders – 20 – 33% of gay men suffer from a form of eating disorder. This is often bulimia or other 'undefined' eating disorders and studies have suggested that few gay men suffer from anorexia. However, eating disorders have often been associated with internalisation of media ideals – particularly in females due to the media's 'thin ideal' which encourages things such as self starvation and the use of cosmetic surgery to be thin. This then could potentially be used as an assessment for the level of body dissatisfaction which is felt by gay men, particularly in the mainstream gay community.

In conclusion, it seems we must look carefully at the gay culture and not simply class gay culture as an all including umbrella group, for many different and rather variant types of people fall under this category and each suffer different forms of ideals and want to appear differently. It would seem practical fro the above to assume that gay males are indeed more vulnerable to body dissatisfaction (due to both discrimination and internalised feelings and ideals) which will obviously play a part in their level of body dissatisfaction. If we were to discuss Fetzinger's social comparison theory of the self objectification theory, we would likely see further dissatisfaction in the gay community. Unfortunately, we cannot compare the level of dissatisfaction between gay men and women due to a surprising lack of literature on the area, although this would of course be very interesting to research.

Arguments against the heightened levels of dissatisfaction in gay men would include less exposure to the media ideals due to less representation of gay men in the media, as many pieces of research would suggest that the media is responsible – at least in part – for the high levels of dissatisfaction in women and girls. However, they are still subject to many forms of scrutiny both from themselves and their male counterparts in both the heterosexual and gay communities. And so, it would be safe to assume that in keeping with the research which suggests males are not immune – even though they are often less affected – to body dissatisfaction and so gay men would seem logically more affected by it due to extra pressure to abide by multiple standards of male ideal.

However we can confess, as stated by Brennan et al (2012) there is a lack of research into differences between ethnic groups within the gay community and the differences between those and so finding a generalisable answer to the level of body dissatisfaction in gay men could be hard proven on that basis alone.


Brannan, D. J., Asakura, K., George, C., Newman, P. A., Sulaiman, G., Hart, T. A., Soulaymanov, R., & Batoncourt, G. (2012). “Never reflected anywhere”: Body image among ethnoracialized gay and bisexual men. Body Image, 10 (3), 389 - 398

Cash, T. F. & Smolak, L. (2012) Body Image. (2nd Ed) New York: Guilford Press.

Feingold, A., & Mazella, R. (1998) Gender differences in body images are increasing. Psychological Science, 9(3), 190. Wiley, Blackwell.

Filiault, S. M. & Drummond, M. J. N. (2013). Gay Atheletes' Perceptions of Body Hair. The Journal of Men's Studies, 21(2), 206 – 213.

Kane, D. G. (2010). Revisiting Gay Men's Body Image Issues: Exposing the Fault Lines. Review of General Psychology. 14(4), 311 – 317

Want, S. C. (2009). Meta-Analytic moderators of experimental exposure to media of women on female appearance satisfaction: social comparisons as automatic processes. Body Image. 6, 257 – 269

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