Gay Male Body Image in Fashion

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Did you see Versace’s Autumn / Winter 2014-15 show? If you didn’t, you really ought to. It was, according to Donatella, “an expression of freedom… [about] civil rights and love.”

You can try and philosophise and analyse all you like, but at the end of the day, what came down the runway was ass-less leather chaps, tiny briefs and studded codpieces. It was gloriously erotic, but at the same time, slightly concerning (and no, that’s not because there were those infamous handkerchiefs in back pockets us gays love so much). It was concerning because the lasting image of this collection, an image that supposedly represents “the gay man in all his liberated glory,” is one of a 6ft 4 tanned adonis with thighs of steel and an arse that could smack you back.

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Naturally, I loved the collection, but it’s not surprising that on average, gay men are ten times more likely to develop an eating disorder than straight men and experience body issues. When images like this are what represent us in the wider public sphere and set the ideal, perhaps it’s no wonder.

This is by no means a new debate; male body image has been steadily gaining more coverage in the media of late, with The Huffington Post and The Guardian both running articles about male body issues in general, reporting that actually, more men are concerned about their body than women (80.7% of men compared to 75% of women according to The Guardian). What is not being spoken widely about is the impact this it is having on the gay community.

It isn’t surprising that images like those seen at Versace are contributing to an international culture of anxiety when it comes to getting our kit off. When all we see on the runways and in fashion magazines are Henry Cavill’s defined muscles and David Gandy’s unbelievable cheek bones, it’s almost impossible not to compare yourself, a comparison that, in my experience at least, mostly ends in a spoon, a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a bit too much Lana Del Rey.

Gay men, arguably have more hurdles to overcome when it comes to body image, as we are judging ourselves by the same standards that we hold our partners and our ideals to. It is this issue that requires further attention from the rest of society, particularly in terms of eating disorders. From conversations with close friends who suffer from eating disorders, and from having come uncomfortably close to having one myself, it is not just the big bad wolf of the media that is to blame.

Often, people who have eating disorders talk about a sense of control when explaining why they refuse to eat. When everything in their lives is out of their hands, regulating their food intake becomes the only way they can retain any form of control, and the problems faced by gay men are sadly only too conducive to a sense that you have no control.

Coming out can be one of the hardest things to do for a person, and the potential resulting trauma experienced by some, or the sustained difference from those around you, can in many cases be a trigger for an eating disorder. When you can’t control how your family and friends will react to your coming out, and can’t control how your relationship will change as a result, it is a sad truth that this can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Likewise, the moments of abuse that can come from being homosexual can also trigger this need for control, because as much as we might like, we cannot control the people around us or the people who will pass us on the street and shout “fag” or “bender”. No amount of Gok Wan can make up for the genuine fear and dread some LGBTQ people feel when stepping out of their house, which is why we desperately need more coverage of these issues, but equally for straight people as well.

This is not a new debate, but for women things have been getting slightly better in terms of representation in fashion. Vogue has pledged never to use underweight models in its shoots, Debenhams has unveiled its new range of size 16 mannequins to reflect the average size of the general population, and there are countless online movements to get women to love their bodies. I wish it was the same for men. Currently, there is almost no coverage of male body issues in general society, and even when there is, it seems to be limited solely to advertising images we see, with no reference to other possible causes of eating disorders. Surely, if we are going to be the all-inclusive, equal society we would like to think we are, shouldn’t there be a wider dialogue?

I genuinely appreciate what Donatella did with her show. As a community, to have the support of someone so influential is really encouraging, and I appreciate that she is limited in her medium for expressing this support, but it still twists the knife slightly when her support comes in the form of Greek gods clad in leather and (in my imagination anyway) smelling of a heady mix of pure testosterone and expensive aftershave.

For all of us mere mortals, where can we look in popular culture for realistic role models and achievable bodies, and equally, where do we turn if our issues are not caused by aspirational advertising? I won’t pretend to have all the answers. All I can hope for, and encourage you to do after you finish reading this, is that these extra facets can be included in the debate about body image, and that we as a community have our concerns heard alongside everyone else’s.