Gay Men’s Body Image Issues

with Greg Johnson

Approximately 84 percent of gay men say they feel under intense pressure to have a good body. Only one percent stated they were “very happy” with their appearance, and as they grow older, the body image struggles seem to intensify.Why are gay men hyper-focused on body image?Objectification, mattering, minority stress and gay ageism are contributors to a gay man’s dissatisfaction with his body, studies have shown. In addition, Apps like Grindr only make it worse. Gay men are shamed, humiliated and discriminated against, and this can lead to mental health problems.During a Smart Sex, Smart Love podcast, Greg Johnson, therapist with The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Royal Oak, Michigan, talks about the issue of poor body image and low self-esteem that many gay men are living with. He offers advice on how to overcome these issues – which often are rooted in their childhood, and how to start valuing and validating yourself as a gay man. He also will discuss objectification, mattering, minority stress and gay ageism and their contributing role in body image perceptions.

Unknown Speaker  0:05
Welcome to smart sex smart love. We’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboos. And talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. I’m Dr. Joe Cort. Thanks for tuning in.

Unknown Speaker  0:21
My guest today is Greg Johnson, clinical therapist with the Center for relationship and sexual health in Royal Oak, Michigan. He works with a holistic perspective using various modalities including dialectical behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing. He is passionate about developing a targeted treatment plan to help clients embrace and take action toward a life worth living. He works with individuals, couples, families, teens, adolescents and older adults. He also has extensive experience working with the LGBTQIA community. Greg is completing his PhD in Educational Studies at Eastern Michigan University with a focus on understanding and unpacking the connection between adolescent LGBTQIA bullying, marginalization, and mental health and educational outcomes. Today on my podcast, he will be talking about gay men, body images, ish body image issues and aging. Welcome, Greg. Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to have you on the podcast and so glad to also have you as part of the Center for relationship and sexual health. So welcome to both Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you so much. So this is a really important topic that I’m glad we’re talking about, because it kind of still shocks me that I’m 58 years old. And you’re I think a much you I know you’re much younger than me almost half, half my age, but you’re close. And that this is still an issue in the gay male community in terms of body issues, aging, and all of that. What do you think about all that?

Unknown Speaker  1:53
You know, I, I’m on a personal level, I’m one of triplets and we’re all actually homosexual, we’re all gay. And I’ve just seen it in my personal life, as well as my professional life play out in so many different ways. And just having clients come through my door client after client talking about these issues, so I thought it was so vital and important to bring it up in today’s podcast.

Unknown Speaker  2:19
Yeah, no, thank you. Um, so let’s just talk about what theories have emerged that offer insights into why gay men are hyper focused on body image and looking and feeling young.

Unknown Speaker  2:30
Definitely. So there’s one main theory that I came across, and that I’ve known of, which is called the objectification theory. And this theory is about individuals becoming more hyper aware of how their body looks. So that could be like mirror jacking, excessive exercise, excessive grooming, and this type of body surveillance and turn results and person becoming dissatisfied with their own body. And when you combine that with social comparisons to unobtainable cultural standards of beauty, it can become a real problem.

Unknown Speaker  3:07
It makes total sense. And the whole thing about body surveillance, I never heard that those two words together, but I just know too as a gay male, myself, right. And in the community my entire life. I’ve just noticed, like the worst that I’ve probably noticed that is on a gay cruise. And I don’t want to turn anybody off from a gay cruise, because they’re really fun. And it’s really what you make of it. Everybody has their own gay guys have judgments about what all gay male cruises like. And it really is, whatever you make of it. But there are a lot of gorgeous bodies. And when you’re in line with them at the buffet, I’m getting, you know, a little bit of everything, because I’m on a vacation. And next to me, a guy is getting a broccoli piece and a baby carrot and walk into his table. And he’s in perfect shape, you know, and you’re like, damn it, you know, like, you’re it’s this you’re constantly bombarded with beautiful images, and then they’re even watching and the gyms on these cruises are packed, you have to get in line. Wow. That’s incredible. And I think it just it’s to the fact that it really, would you agree that or what do you think that were? Sometimes women will say the same thing. They’re always comparing each other and talking about each other’s bodies? Is it the same?

Unknown Speaker  4:17
You know, the research that I’ve done, and what I’ve seen is it’s very much the same. It really is.

Unknown Speaker  4:25
And I think the pressure is just horrendous, like you can’t even have like, I mean, I know there are people in the community that have certain types, like they’ll like a dad bod, some guys like a belly up, but in the mainstream, what you see is it’s visible is being shaped be muscular, we’re tight. Sure. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Do you find that gay men have more issues than heterosexual men when it comes to body image?

Unknown Speaker  4:50
Yes, for sure. And the research supports that it found a recent survey found that 84% this hold on before I say that the research was from The advocate magazine, and they said that 84% of gay men said they felt under intense pressure to have quote unquote, a good body. And only 1% of gay men stated they’re very happy with their appearance. So definitely some big numbers.

Unknown Speaker  5:14
Oh my god. Yeah, yeah. Now, I know that I don’t feel great about my body. And I it’s not because I’m not in in ripped shape. You know, I work out. I do. Like, the last 10 years, I’ve been, you know, getting in shape with my upper body. But my stomach is always my hardest part. And so I’m hard on myself, and I’m even harder and less hard on myself until I’m around other gay guys. Um, do you struggle with body issues yourself?

Unknown Speaker  5:41
Absolutely, definitely. Especially as I get older, you know, things change. I’m 35. But I’ve definitely noticed over the years, people treat you differently The Way You Look, you know, and it’s not just gay men, but people in general, but definitely with the gay men. You know, when you go to a bar, you’re out or you’re on, you know, Grindr, or you just feel the need to put your best foot forward. And if you can, you find yourself isolating, and you know, that can be a very lonely experience.

Unknown Speaker  6:16
It’s very lonely, I wonder if you would be willing to share because I know a little bit about your history that you’re one of three triplets, and you’re all gay, and you were models. So maybe you could talk about how that impacted you doing this work even?

Unknown Speaker  6:28
Yeah, that was many years ago. In my teen years, actually, we signed with Elite Model Management in Chicago. And I was 16, I believe, 15 or 16. And I just remember being bombarded with these older gay men telling me to this was actually when I was like 19, telling me to tell Booker’s and other agents that I was actually younger than 19 years old. And I just found that so shocking, that they would ask me to lie about my age when I was already so young. And I just that’s always stuck with me that, and these were gay men telling me that these were not straight men. And I just felt like, at that age, I was still a kid, basically. And I just thought, this is wrong, this doesn’t feel right. And I actually didn’t do it, my brother Jeff did. And, you know, he was always much more focused to an extreme on his appearance. And I feel like, you know, it was never good enough. You’re just never good enough in a lot of those people’s eyes. And I think the real work needs to be done to where you find yourself good enough and what other people think is what other people think. But if you’re happy with yourself, I think that that’s the most important thing.

Unknown Speaker  7:52
Now you did you feel good about being treated like a model and being put in that and then did things change over time,

Unknown Speaker  7:57
it was definitely a huge confidence boost, because I got pretty bullied in high school and middle school for being gay. And it was a big confidence boost, but it was very temporary. And it was very fleeting. And looking back on it, if I could do things differently, I would have, you know, as an adult right now, I would have said no to a lot of a lot of things that were that came my way.

Unknown Speaker  8:25
Yeah, you would make different decisions definitely. Does any of that impact, like the advice you would give to help provide gay men to overcome these issues about

Unknown Speaker  8:34
their body image?

Unknown Speaker  8:36
No, I mean, I I separate my personal views from my professional views. Luckily, they’re pretty much in line. But you know, I would, I would try to help any client, you know, that was going through that. And I’ve had these clients before, I’m not just speaking. You know, from research, I’m speaking from these professional experiences that I’ve had and reoccurring over and over again, it’s just like, What is going on? This is a problem with every gay man that I’ve ever met, really.

Unknown Speaker  9:07
It’s really sad, it really sad what they do to each other what they do to themselves. Absolutely. So as a therapist, what do you do to treat the symptoms of low self esteem and depression as it relates to gay men and maybe even eating disorders? We haven’t even talked about that.

Unknown Speaker  9:25
Definitely. So you know, as a therapist, I would first try to identify kind of the root causes of their low self esteem and poor body image. Oftentimes, you know, this, there’s experiences in a client’s childhood that plants the seed to many mental health disorders. So you know, for me, if I looked at my own life and asked these questions, I would look at Oh, I was bullied when I was 12 years old. And I have, you know, you know, validation issues or I like to be validated or things like that. So I would ask those clients to kind of step back and look back into the past, you know, and examine what was going on in their childhood that may be impacting their life today, I would also try to collaborate with them to explore and develop new sources of self esteem, outside of their physical appearance. And also look at validating themselves. Because oftentimes, we don’t know that we’re seeking validation from other people, maybe we’re not aware of it. So to heighten their awareness to it, and to find more meaningful connections. Right,

Unknown Speaker  10:34
I like to all of that. And I like what you’re saying, to remind ourselves, we’re more than just how we look, while that may be a priority and high value in the gay male community, it’s not the only value.

Unknown Speaker  10:46
Absolutely not. And I think as I age, I, I embrace it, I try to embrace it, because I know myself better. And I know what my worth is. And I think it’s sad to see other gay men who are older than me still, you know, doing that type of grind, and doing that type of, you know, like, trying to please other people. And, you know, I just want to grab him by the hand and say, you don’t have to do this anymore, you know, you’re already good enough.

Unknown Speaker  11:21
And it is harder, it’s so much harder as you’re getting older, keeping your body in any kind of shape that you want to keep it in what you know, and it starts happening at 30. And your metabolism changes and weight starts being harder to get off. And I just know that it’s a struggle, and then the struggle becomes when they get they go out into the community not being able to be seen or seen in in, in a positive way. Yeah, absolutely. I think I talk a lot too, about internalized homophobia, you know, the gay shame of the messages growing up trying to suppress themselves and oppress ourselves. And then you talk about minority stress. You talk about what that is, and what effect it has on the mental health and well being of gay men as it relates to their body and aging.

Unknown Speaker  12:06
Sure, sure. So minority stress within the gay community is a term to describe the stigma, prejudice and discrimination that LGBT people often face. This type of stress also encompasses experiences of discrimination, harassment, and victimization. So like you were saying this can produce more internalized feelings like shame, which is a contributing factor to overall mental health. And it’s found that minority stress is also linked to poor body image. A recent study found that internalized negative attitudes towards homosexuality and sexual orientation also predicted overall body dissatisfaction. Hmm. Wow. So it’s a big issue. You know, it’s it’s interesting to to look at it from that framework, you know, say more what, what interests you as a therapist about it, just looking at, you know, you, you would think that as gay men, we would be natural allies with one another, and that we would want to lift each other up, and I do see that that happens. But unfortunately, I’ve seen the opposite of that. And it’s just, you know, as a minority group, we have to do better. You know, we have to, we have to change, I think,

Unknown Speaker  13:35
Yeah, I agree with you. And it’s been that way, it’s so sad, right? Because you’re 34 you said, right. 3535. I mean, and I just had better hope for our community about bullying each other up in your generation, even in the generation after you and is that is is exactly the same. And I do I have read the same kind of studies that minority stress does that to people. It’s like lateral discrimination. They call it

Unknown Speaker  13:58
Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it has all sorts of effects on someone’s mental health. So it can be really detrimental, for sure.

Unknown Speaker  14:09
And I think we kind of lose our sense of belonging to you know, I talked about that and your you talk about mattering, you know, like, when I say belonging, I mean, like, you know, heterosexual boys and girls, they get a group together. They’re all heterosexual, they’re mirroring each other. They feel like, I’m a part of the solid group, whatever group they’re in, but as gay boys, we don’t get that.

Unknown Speaker  14:31
No, we don’t we, you know, with mattering, it’s it’s kind of referring to the degree to which people feel their important part of the world around them. And people with a high sense of mattering, feel others think about them, and seek their advice and care about what happens to them. And, you know, I’ve I’ve met so many older gay men who feel invisible, they feel like they’re, they’re no longer valued like their currency is is gone. And I’m not saying that every gay older man feels like that, but a lot of them are single and just feel like they don’t have a place in gay culture. Mm hmm. And it’s just, it makes me angry, to be honest.

Unknown Speaker  15:16
It’s nice having somebody younger have these feelings and and the passion around it because I was like you when I was your age, I wanted to keep up, bring us together, keep us together and find a way to do that without, again, like we’ve been talking about attacking each other, and being so critical of each other.

Unknown Speaker  15:34
Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s an epidemic. I mean, it’s, you know, I’m wondering to that, you know, have you seen it evolve over time to where it is now, like, with apps? Like, I’m just curious, like, with apps, like with Grindr? Is that making it worse in your eyes? Because I think it is, but I’m just curious what you think.

Unknown Speaker  15:55
I don’t feel like it made it worse. It worse in the way that people are more forthcoming. But I don’t know if it made it worse. It seems like it’s the same. Okay. Now, maybe worse, more forthcoming because it’s online. So you can’t see each other. But I don’t know, my generation gay guys would go up to each other and say whatever they wanted, and they would be really mean. And I remember that when I first came out, I you know, you get with the wrong crowd, because you don’t really know where the guys are, that are like you and I was with these guys, as friends. And they were just, they were just awful. And they were woman. They were sexist and misogynist. And so I but I’d still see a lot of that in our in the younger generations, just maybe less sexism. I don’t know. But but still attacking each other.

Unknown Speaker  16:39
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen on Grindr, you know, those statements of, you know, no fat, no fans are in shape only and, you know, different types of statements that I just kind of my eyes bugged out of my head. It’s like, how can you even talk like that, or something or put that out there like that?

Unknown Speaker  17:03
I know. And they’ve been taking care of it on Grindr to take that out. It’s one thing to say my, my preferences don’t include. But to put that out there and to say, it’s like, and I remember thinking when I was younger, and so we didn’t have the apps, but we had dating. Like the metro times here in Detroit had like a section where you could, you know, write letters to each other. And I remember them saying nobody over 35 nobody over, I don’t know, 25, whatever they said. And I remember thinking, I never even been upset about that and thinking, and I was young, I was 2526. I’m like, well, that’s his preferences. Why can’t he have that? Well, now I’m over 25 I’m even over 35. Right? I’m 58. So when I see somebody and their ad says, you know, known over 40 You know, it does hurt? How can it not hurt? Like, what’s wrong with me at 58? Maybe if you saw me at 58 you wouldn’t be so bad. It wouldn’t be so bad cuz I don’t look bad for 58. But also he should have his preferences, too. What do you think about that? No, I

Unknown Speaker  17:57
mean, I think that there’s a fine line between preferences and being discriminatory. It’s, it’s, there’s a fine line, I think between it’s hard to, you know, it’s hard to see. See them as separate from me, at least, you know, I don’t know. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s definitely something, you know, I certainly have preferences when it comes to, you know, people that I’m attracted to, or you know, whatever. But when it starts to include somebodies age, or their race or their body types, I just find that that can be like you said, hurtful?

Unknown Speaker  18:40
Do you have like any nut? Talk about your clients? confidentiality, but like a story around that or somebody to illustrate what you’re trying to tell us?

Unknown Speaker  18:49
Yeah, I’m sure I have a few. I’m trying to think of one off the top of my head. Yeah, there was a client when I worked in Detroit, at a community mental health agency who was a very successful, older, gay man that had a meth addiction, actually, and lost everything and was homeless when he came in to see me. And he was HIV positive. And he was talking to me about when he was high on math. How younger guys would hit on him a lot like on these dating apps like Grindr, or scruff or what’s the other one, Adam for Adam? And he said, like, I know, you’d mentioned earlier in the podcast that some guys are into daddies, but you know, he had such a problem with growing older and I just kept telling him because he had no nothing he had nobody at the end of the day and he had lost everything. And I said, you know, you have to start investing in yourself and you know, finding meaning in value in yourself because he would look forward so externally. And I just found that heartbreaking to see, you know, a man in his late 60s, struggling with those issues. Now, I will say that I see this a lot more with gay men that come out later in life. And they haven’t had those experiences, you know, coming out and being out in their teen years or their 20s. He was married to a woman for many years. He had kids. So I think that he was having that, you know, adolescent puberty type thing going on at that age?

Unknown Speaker  20:38
Yes. Right. Because he didn’t have it was like a delayed adolescence. I call it a gay adolescence, right? Yeah, yeah. But then he’s gonna hit the whole overvaluing youth, I always know this, when I’m working with them, you probably do too, with these clients that they’re going to go out and I can get I just know they’re going to get hit with ages and what’s going to be very hurtful for them. But they have to experience it. It’s part of the culture. Yeah. Yeah. So what what do we do about this? Like, how do we handle the ageism that goes on in our culture?

Unknown Speaker  21:10
You know, it’s the old term that you can’t change the world, but you can change yourself. Yeah, I think the idea that, we first have to acknowledge that this is going on Still, we have to look at it, you know, I look at it almost from like a science science experiment, or like a scientific study. And I just look at it very objectively, and just ask myself certain questions like, why is this phenomenon going on? Why Why is this occurring? And then ask myself, what am I doing to contribute to this? What am I doing to perpetuate this? these issues? Because we live in a very ages society, I was reading some research about how our westernized culture is so caught up in this this ageism, and discrimination towards people’s age, and then it’s compounded in the gay community. And you know, we have to do better. But I think that it starts with you. I know, you no good. I think it starts with the individual. I think that, you know, you have to unplug from a lot of those things, and start to really value yourself in ways that are meaningful. And then I think in turn, naturally, you’ll value other people in those ways.

Unknown Speaker  22:30
I feel really good about the fact that I’m not people tell me, I look younger for my age. And that’s nice to hear. I’m not gonna lie. But I don’t. I’m not that interested in looking younger. I’m interested in looking good for my age, looking better for my age. So you know, I’ve been out I’ve come out on this podcast, I wear hairpiece for wearing one since I was 27 years old. It doesn’t make me look younger. But my interest in wearing the hairpiece was to look better. To me. I didn’t care if it made me look younger. Recently, on my debt, I went to a new dentist, and we were looking at my teeth, and we decided to put brenners veneers on my teeth. And I love them. And people have said to me while you look so much younger. And that’s great. But really, that’s not what I’m looking for my model these days is I just don’t want to grow old naturally. Right? Because I don’t like how I look. I don’t like how I look. And it’s not because of the gay male culture. It’s not because of you. It’s because of how I want to look. And that’s what every gay guy and every person should strive for, I think

Unknown Speaker  23:27
Yeah, and there’s, there’s that’s a good thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pleasing yourself. But I think when you begin to put yourself worth and to soil, your appearance, and then do it to other people, I think it can become very dangerous. Very much so. Well, last final things would you want to say before we wrap up the podcast that we didn’t get to people who are listening, if you are gay, and you’re a gay male, and you’re struggling with these issues, is to be honest about them and explore it with a therapist or somebody that you trust. And also, what I really would propose to read to our listeners is that, you know, challenge these conventional norms within the gay community with yourself and with other people, and really try to become friends with older gay men, because I’ve I’ve had friends that are older that have enriched my life so much. There was a friend of mine in New York City, who was a fashion designer, who was 85 or 90 years old, and his name was Richard. And he was one of the most interesting and exciting people that I’ve ever met and his stories and my goodness, were so you know, interesting, and it’s just, I would have never known so many things that he told me about, unless I would have met him so I just really encourage people to get to know their old are gay, older gay people?

Unknown Speaker  25:02
Thank you. I love it. I agree. I agree with so much of what you said. And it’s great research you’ve done and hopefully you’ll continue to do that. Where can people find you Greg if they want to connect with you,

Unknown Speaker  25:12
so they can find me at your website, Dr. Cortes website for the Center for relationship and sexual health at CRS h comm forward slash meet our therapists, or you can call the center at 248-399-7447.

Unknown Speaker  25:31
Great and I hope people do contact you and work with you. You’re You’re doing good work and especially with the focus on working with gay men. And it’s great having you in the, in the center. So thank you so much. And for those of you that like this podcast, I hope you might want to think about going online and reading it and letting people know that you enjoyed it. And that you’ll come and listen to more. And my future podcasts are at Joe Smart sex smart love. And you can follow me on Twitter, tik tok, Instagram and Facebook at Dr. Joe CT, Dr. JOEK or G. Thanks for listening. Until next time. Thanks for listening to this episode of smart sex smart love. I’m Dr. Joe Cort. You can find me on Joe court. com. That’s See you next time.