Author: Drummond, Murray J N
Date published: January 1, 2010
This paper is based on the life histories of gay men and the issues that confront them with respect to body image and masculine identity. The men who offer to tell their 'stories' come from two distinct groups: younger gay men (18-25 years) and older gay men (within the baby boomer generation). Rich descriptive data from each of the groups of gay males were attained through extensive individual indepth interviews. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and then analysed to identify themes. While each of the men offered their own individual life histories, their stories have been collectively thematically analysed and compared and contrasted to one another. Indeed, one might call it a 'meta -thematic' analysis. The paper will highlight the aesthetically driven culture in which gay men exist and how each of these groups of men come to terms with the issues that confront them with respect to their bodies. While many people view gay men as a culturally marginalised and stigmatised group, this paper will highlight that age plays a role in the internal marginalisation and stigmatisation within gay cultures, particularly where bodies are concerned. The archetypal gay male body is muscular, athletic, devoid of fat and hairless. There is also an inherent perception in Western cultures that he is young. The men in this paper reflect upon having to live up to or challenge these expectations or simply come to terms with the fact that they will never attain this archetype.
Men's bodies and body image have been gaining attention in terms of academic scrutiny as well as curiosity from popular and tabloid press over the past 10-12 years (Drummond, 2002). It is now argued that contemporary men are susceptible to body image concerns and are not immune to conditions to such as eating disorders, exercise obsession and musde dysmorphia which has resulted in this inaeased level of inspection (Drummond, 1999; 2002; Pope, Phillips & Olivardia, 2000). The increased level of inspection has also been termed 'the gaze' and it is arguable that, particularly in contemporary Western culture, the gaze associated with men's bodies has never been stronger. An increase in the level of media attention, advertising and popular culture television programs has been identified as heightening this gaze (Drummond, 2005a). It is arguable that men's bodies are being portrayed in ways that commercialise and objectify the male body similar to ways in which the female body has been, and continues to be, commodified. According to researchers, this has played a significant role in the construction of male body image concern (Pope et al., 2000).
Discussion on men's body image has primarily focussed on heterosexual male bodies. I have argued in the past that this is largely due to the fact that men's body image concerns and eating disorders, which have taken some time to be acknowledged as masculinised conditions, have been positioned under the rubric of heterosexual men's health (Drummond, 2005a). Moreover, Western culture has constructed a taken-for-granted notion of men's health to mean 'heterosexual men's health' (see Adams, Braun 8? McCreanor, this issue). Therefore, and upon the identification of men's body image issues, these issues are taken as solely being a heterosexual male health phenomena. A further heterosexualised assumption around men's bodies has been created through the use of the male body in advertising. Often the semi nakedmale body is situated in close proximity to a female body, thus heightening the assumption of heterosexual ity. Alternatively the male is visually linked to the masculinised domain of sport (Drummond, 1996; 2001). Furthermore, and as a consequence of the low proportion of mainstream gay television programs being aired, the majority of semi-naked male bodies on display are nominally heterosexual. However, "a gay man's body is never far from the gaze" (Drummond, 2005a).
Gay Men's Bodies
Despite the fact that discussions on men and body image in popular culture and in the press often focus on heterosexual males, research literature is increasingly identifying gay men as more susceptible to body image concerns than are heterosexual men, including eating disorders (Boroughs & Thompson, 2002; Lakkis, Ricciardelli & Williams, 1999; Siever, 1994; Silberstein et al.. 1989, Williamson & Hartley, 1998). Dillon, Copeland and Peters (1999) further emphasise this claim in citing studies by Herzog et al. (1991), Beren et al. (1996) and French et al. (1996) as evidence of such a phenomena reporting gay men as displaying more body dissatisfaction than heterosexual men. Tate and George (2001) explain this phenomenon as "the toxic effects of the commercial gay scene" (p. 163). That is, according to Siever (1994), the mainstream gay male subculture exerts strong pressures on gay men to appear physically attractive and just as women have historically endured, contemporary gay males experience a degree of pressure to be slim and youthful looking. Giles (1997) further claims the normative preoccupation with looks and youthfulness within gay culture often excludes individuals who cannot conform. The consequence of this is the construction of a negative self-image based on an inability to live up to social and cultural body ideals.
As maintained by Dillon et al. (1999), gay men are also more susceptible to eating disorders due largely to the emphasis placed on physical attractiveness within mainstream gay cultures. Herzog et al. (1991) add to this notion by claiming that gay men tend to be more dissatisfied with their bodies and have a greater desire to be thin in comparison to heterosexual men. The same researchers argues that this could provide a link between sexuality and prevalence of eating disorders in men. Similarly, Williamson and Hartley (1998) claim their research findings strongly confirm that gay men are particularly at risk where serious eating disturbances are concerned. Noteworthy are findings by Strong, Willliamson, Netemeyer and Geer (cited in Strong, Singh and Randall, 2000) that gay and heterosexual males have different correlates of eating disorders. Additionally, Kassel and Franko (2000) maintain that gay males appear to be more vulnerable to psychosocial factors, particularly concern for appearance and sociocultural pressure to be thin. I have agued in the past that this pressure to be thin has evolved over time and in contemporary Western culture it has come to mean a pressure to be devoid of fat (Drummond, 2002; 2005). We are certainly seeing the changing nature of the gay male bodies that are on display in high profile media events around the world particularly within the gay and lesbian 'circuif such as the Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras here in Australia. Increasingly these bodies are taking on the appearance of highly athletic muscular physiques that are devoid of both body fat and body hair, which is consistent with the psychosocial factors relating to appearance by Strong et al. (2000). The salient difference is that the physique to which these men aspire is muscular rather than thin.
The trend towards narratives as a legitimate research method is palpable. Many scholars are embracing the move towards individual experiences as legitimate forms of research. Significantly, Denzin (2003, p. xi) claims that:
We live in narrative's moment. The narrative turn in the social sciences has been taken... Everything we study is contained within a storied, or narrative representation. Indeed, as scholars we are storytellers, telling stories about other people's stories. We call our stories theories.
Chamberlayne, Bornât, and Wengraf (2000) talk about the 'biographical turn' in social sciences while Bochner (2001) refers to the narrative turn in qualitative inquiry. Sparkes (2005) claims that as a part of the narrative turn we have the capacity to understand peoples experiences through stories and that people are essentially storytelling animals. Just as narratives in general had been overlooked as a legitimate research methodology, so too have life histories according to Connell (1990). However, "during the past 15 years the concepts of narrative and life story have become increasingly visible in the social sciences" (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach 8i Zilber, 1998, p. 1). Life history narratives offer the potential for research participants to tell their stories, thereby providing the opportunity to assemble information to develop a complete picture that can clarify the issue under investigation. Narratives are deeply rooted in life histories. At the core of life history research is narrative analysis, which has focused specifically on how to interpret stories (Patton, 2002; Lieblich et al., 1998). As Denzin (1989a; 1989b; 1997) has identified, it is the nature of interpretation that is the basis of analytical focus in narrative studies.
The life stories of gay men in relation to their bodies, sexualities and masculinities offer important insights into their historical 'moments'. This is consistent with Sparkes' summation (2005) where he claims that life histories have the ability to "focus upon central moments, critical incidents or fateful moments that revolve around a greater sense of process of life and gives a more ambiguous, complex and chaotic view of reality" (p. 116). It is these moments in a gay male's life that this paper will focus on in order to illuminate issues that confront each of two relatively distinct groups of gay men with respect to body image, sexualities and masculinity.
The men involved in this research were each a part of the same methodological process, despite engaging in two separate research projects. The first project focused on younger gay men's constructions of body image and masculine identity, while the second investigated the same issues but with older gay men. The cohort of young gay men was aged between 18-25. It was not ethically possible to attain male's under the age of 18 given that parental or guardian consent would be required. Since most young gay males do not come out to parents during their adolescent years, it would be difficult in attaining access to these males. Regarding the older gay men, the participants came from 'babyboomer' era at the time of interviewing. That is, between 45 and 60 years. It is this generation of individuals in general who are perceived as 'ageing' and therefore provide a different and unique perspective.
Fourteen young gay men and 3 older gay men were interviewed. The ease at which I was able to attain the young gay men to be interviewed was contrasted with the difficulty in attaining the older gay men. Difficulties in attracting particular cohorts of gay men are not uncommon, as has been identified in other research on gay men (see Filiault et al., 2008). However, while only 3 men were interviewed they each provided descriptive qualitative data that are extremely rich in context. All of the men lived in metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia, which is where both research projects took place.
Life histories were used in both research projects to develop a sense of understanding of the way in which their lives as gay men has impacted the way in which they view themselves, their bodies and their masculine identity. The men were each individually interviewed at a convenient and non-intrusive location of their choice. These interviews were then transcribed verbatim and coded and thematically analysed. The interviews were phenomenological in nature allowing the participant to guide the interview process and 'tell their story.
The following analysis presents extracts from individuals within the two cohorts of gay men that reflect the main themes to emerge from each of these groups. Younger gay men and older gay men each have their own set of issues and concerns around body image and masculine identity. They each provide a unique lens through which to view these concerns.
I originally conceived this paper to be based around common themes that ran through all of the research data with these distinct cohorts of men. However, given that they are distinct groups each with their own specific set of circumstances, there were no dominant overlapping themes. Therefore, this says much about the mainstream gay community and issues around body image and body identity with respect to masculinity. Too often we 'lump' gay men and body image in the same 'baskef thereby homogenising the ideological concerns we believe are prevalent. When we take specific groups of gay men and further tease out the issues confronting them we have the opportunity to understand their unique concerns. Younger gay men and older gay men each have their own body based concerns underpinned by factors such as age, culture, self-esteem and masculine identity to name a few. The dominant theme(s) from each of the groups of men will be presented to identify the main body based issue confronting each group of men. The findings highlight that similarities do exist while illuminating differences.
Younger Gay Men
Clearly there were two dominant themes to emerge from the interviews with the men aged between 18-25 years. The first was that of: Living multiple lives within the context of the body and masculinities. As I have noted elsewhere (Drummond, 2005a), and having interviewed in excess of 200 males over the past 12 years in various 'men's bodies' research projects, one of the first questions that I pose to the participants after the initial 'ice breakers' and upon developing a rapport is "can you define the meaning of masculinity for me'? Not surprisingly, most participants struggle with trying to explain the term 'masculinity'. Noteworthy is the fact that the majority of participants often identify what masculinity 'is nof. That is, it is not being feminine, not being petite and not being a girl. Further, and for some of the heterosexual participants I have interviewed for other projects, it was also not being gay. While the majority of research participants in my projects have been heterosexual, having the opportunity to listen to the stories of younger gay men provided me with the capacity to reflect upon the differences that exist between younger gay men's responses and those of younger heterosexual men around the same age. While it is not the intention of this paper to compare the ways in which gay and heterosexual men address issues of masculine and body identity, I would argue that by virtue of their early and continual bodily and masculine introspection, younger gay men have a greater capacity to reflect and understand their body in Western culture (Drummond, 2005a). It appears that younger gay men have a firm grasp of the meaning of the term 'masculinity' given that these men have had to consciously analyse their own masculine identity from a very early age. Whilst most younger heterosexual males that I have interviewed claimed to be thinking about the likes of sports, girls, careers and so forth, the younger gay men identified they were thinking about how they could get through the day without being identified as gay and why they seemed to be attracted to other boys and not girls. As a consequence, these men's levels of introspection were heightened at a young age and therefore they appeared to have constructed a wellconsidered meaning of masculinity. In the following comment, one of the younger gay male participants discussed masculinity in a very thoughtful manner, similar to most of the men in this group. However, noteworthy within this quote is the perceived common masculinised need to compare and contrast with women. He claimed:
Masculinity is act that society expects from you. A man regardless of his sexuality is supposed to act a certain way and behave a certain way. He has to be different to a woman. He has to be tough, macho and always give command. They show emotion but they have to mask that emotion side so they don't extract any emotion as well.
Issues relating to masculinity being centred on physicality and functionality of the body were abundant in the data, which is consistent with literature on men's understandings of masculinity (Messner, 1992; Drummond, 1996; 2003). Additionally, it provides evidence that the younger gay men in this research made a dear association between the body and masculinity. Significantly, these were made on the basis of not only what the body 'looked like' but what the body could 'do'. The men often talked about strength and muscularity being important signifiers of masculinity in contemporary Western culture and there was, therefore, a certain pressure on men to prove their strength. One of the men represented this notion by stating:
When you think of masculinity you think of being strong. When you think of strong you think of security and maybe for a gay guy they might be like, Oh I want a big man that could put his big arms around me and keep me safe and that sort of thing. It becomes a very physical thing.
Another man claimed:
Muscles and strength are symbols of masculinity. Like, let's say before I went to the gym, before I even started working out, when I walked down the Mall I would feel like Oh shit', you know? I would feel scared. Like, they would know that I'm gay, you know? But now it's not the same. U'ke, I'm built and defined and I can wear a singlet and ifs fine you know. People might just think that I've finished a sport, finished gym. I look muscley. I look strong.
Therefore, the body became a central point around which these men displayed their masculinity to others as well as develop a personal sense of masculine identity. It would appear from this research that younger gay men have at their disposal the opportunity to be reflexive with respect to masculine identity as well as be responsive to a range of masculinities. It is this understanding of the dynamic, and somewhat fluid, nature of masculinities, which ultimately plays an important role in maintaining a positive sense of self where masculinity is concerned.
Reflexivity allows these young men to 'adapt in situations where they sense a feeling of marginalisation, which I have termed elsewhere as a form of 'masculine fluidity' (Drummond, 2005). With respect to this notion, the young gay men talk about having to maintain a certain masculine presence in the heterosexual world whilst constructing and maintaining another in their gay culture. One of the men made a poignant claim about having to be aware of his sexuality and the public form of masculinity he displays when he stated that:
I'm ok with my sexuality. But, like in different areas, in certain parts of my life I have to act a certain way, just to fit in. You know, to fit into certain communities.
Therefore, while these men claim to be open about their sexuality and have in fact come out, the homophobia that pervades contemporary Australian culture does not truly allow them to be 'ouf. For example, one of the men further added to this discussion by citing examples of where he allowed himself to be out and where he found it prudent to 'act' in a heterosexual manner. More specifically, this young man talked about the clothing he wears that is not "conspicuously gay" and will allow him to "blend in" with heterosexual male peers. Alternatively, when at home and amongst his gay and lesbian peers he claimed to be far more comfortable in being expressive with respect to the clothes he wears, the verbal and bodily discourse he uses and the image that he displays. This is in stark contrast to the image he displays at university:
Q: Well when you go to Uni what sort of things do you wear?
A: I don't like to expose a lot, you know, sort of thing. Like wear normal Uni clothes. I use my glasses as a disguise when I want to look studious.
Q: Ok and you would wear vastly different clothes going out to nightclubs and places like that?
A: Yeah, a tremendous change. Even act differently. All of my friends are like that. Like they go to Uni and they go to the Venus bar and to other different places, and they are very different.
He then went on to talk about straight men and the difficulties he faces on a daily basis with respect to passing in a heterosexual 'world'.
A: A typical straight guy is, maybe tanned, you know, and built big. And the way they talk has to be very like, butch, you know. Use a lot like swearing and those things. I guess he has to be tough, you know. Not a delicate man. A straight man can dress up a bit more now and get away with it.
Q: Yeah, it's interesting that you use the term 'get away'.
Q: Is that how you feel sometimes? Like that you need to like blend in to 'get away' with your sexuality?
A: Yeah, basically I read the situation. Like everyday I have to play a certain role to blend in, basically as a part of my life. And so when I'm at home or in a gay club I can be truly what I am.
A: To an extent I need to think before I act like, 'is this too offensive what I'm doing? or, 'ami out or something'?, you know.
Q: Does that make you sad?
A: Yeah, a bit not like really sad but ifs just, I mean, like I could play a different role.
Q: Does it affect the way you live, or have you just sort of, come to terms with that?
A: Yeah, I am kind of used to it but I would prefer not to. I mean I have to have multi personalities because I have been playing so many roles for many years.
Q: Do you find that confusing for you?
A: Yeah. Sort of, sometimes. Like, let's say in a lecture or something, sometimes the things I do as a gay person, like come out suddenly, accidentally.
Q: Can you explain?
A: Like in a lecture. Like sometimes I become more feminine like in the way I talk maybe. I swing my hand or something and I say Oops', you know. I just have to hold back.
It is the constant assessment and reassessment of one's body in society that has played an important role in the construction of a well defined masculine identity for these younger gay men. Despite being marginalised and stigmatised there are positive aspects that can be drawn from such a continual appraisal of one's masculine identity throughout the changing nature of a man's life.
The second dominant theme to emerge from the young gay men's research data was that of muscularity. There is a good deal of literature identifying muscularity as a key definer of masculinity (Pope et al., 2000; Drummond, 2002; 2003). It is argued that muscularity is dosely linked to perceptions of strength as well as power and dominance. It is these notions that are closely aligned to Western constructions of masculinity (Shelton & Liljequist, 2002) and have been maintained and reinforced for generations.
The meaning of muscles for gay men is somewhat complex given the importance of muscularity to body image, and then the significance of body image to gay men's individual and masculine identity (Drummond, 2005a). Power, domination, and aggression do not appear to be the major factors associated with the aspiration of muscular body for gay men. However, given the aesthetic nature of mainstream gay culture, bodies play a significant role in the determination of positional status within its cultural masculine hierarchy. Body aesthetics are also influential in assisting, and deterring, men from 'picking up' (meeting and having sex with another man). As one of the men in this research claimed, the majority of gay guys looking to pick up are looking for a guy who is: "Blonde, blue eyes, a bit taller, bit muscular than your average guy. Thafs the apex of what gay men are looking for".
However, most of the men identified that men who were aesthetically pleasing to them did not ultimately make appropriate long-term partners. Certainly, there was a strong sense that aesthetics, despite producing sexual desire and envy, created a physical lust rather than an appreciation of the individual as a whole. Therefore, physicality was placed much higher on the sexual hierarchy above anything else. One of the men made a statement that is representative of such a notion by claiming:
I think that, when you see a guy who looks like he could be on the cover of a magazine and he's hot as, you don't think, how nice it would be to have a nice conversation sort of thing. You just think how nice it would be to have this ultimate sex session with him.
Finally, muscles have come to mean something quite specific and unique to mainstream gay culture. Given the heightened association between HIV/AIDS and gay men, the maintenance of a muscular, athletic looking physique has resulted as, what I have termed 'protest muscularity' (Drummond, 2005a). Such a physique provides the perception of health, vigour and vitality. Therefore the common social and cultural misconception of the assodation between HIV/AIDS, thinness and gay men is reduced. However, it is arguable that the desire to attain a muscular, athletic, physique has more to do with changing archetypal masculine ideals associated with male bodies and the success and privileges afforded to those bodies. The privileges in this case are closely aligned with perceived sexual gratification. Conversations with the men in this research around areas such as exercise would generally evolve into simplistic notions that included comments like "if you look muscular and healthy, then you feel healthy". One of the participants summed up the majority of comments when he stated:
Ahh, being muscular means health and whether a guy's taking care of himself. Probably general well being because if you tend to have a guy that goes to the gym, and I'm not talking about the gym just to build muscles, more just health in general, he tends to have probably a more well balanced lifestyle.
Older Gay Men
Older gay men confronted a number of different concerns with respect to their bodies compared with the younger gay men. Despite being relatively content with themselves in terms of their body shape, size and muscularity, they admitted that this was becoming inaeasingly more difficult in what they believed was an ageist society, where ageism was even more heightened in mainstream gay culture. One of the men simply identified the gay community as "being judgemental". He further claimed that being "over 40" was a clear delineation of ageing in gay community. Therefore when he reached this age he stated that "initially, I felt worthless". Therefore ageing and the body was a significant theme for these men.
Midlife is an important milestone in a man's life (Wethington et al., 2004). Where heterosexual men are concerned it often represents a time in life when heterosexual men reflect upon their younger years while establishing themselves in a career to financially secure themselves and where relevant their family for the future. This can be different for gay men and may take on an alternative meaning. As Jones and Pugh (2005) aptly point out, care needs to be taken not to over-generalise individual gay men's circumstances and lifestyles because many are involved as a parent with children through choice or via past relationships. However, most gay men's lives will differ significantly from that of heterosexual men in terms of family committments. The culture in which gay men live also differs as it one that is heavily aesthetically-oriented where the need to 'look' sexually attractive to potential partners is significant. As one of the older men claimed:
The culture has unfortunately, from an early inception and idolised youth and the masculine form in that sense of the figure and all that sort of stuff, so there are a lot of gym queens and all that sort of stuff who are basically body orientated. I mean when you come from Adelaide and you go to live in Sydney body image is about 90% of the gay scene and you know, if you don't have a man at 3 in the morning then there's something wrong with you.
It was constantly cited throughout the research data with older gay men that the changing nature of contemporary Western society is playing a major role in the way in which men's bodies are being viewed or 'gazed' upon. They argued that this is not specific to gay men. However, once again reference to the aesthetic nature of mainstream gay culture plays into the hands of such phenomena. The men not only talk about the physical body with respect to gay men and masculinity, but they also talk about the look'. That is they took into consideration clothing, hairstyles, body piercings and tattoos. The following claim typifies what each of the men identified:
In the gay community at least is there's always been that idolising the classic body and looking at masculinity in all its different forms from what we wear to what we don't wear, you know, and that sort of thing too so in there's a lot of differentiation in that.
One of the noteworthy concerns raised in this comment is that of the 'idolisation' of the classic male body that is supposed to 'look' a particular, masculinised, way. The question then needs to be raised as to who is presenting the images that enhance and perpetuate such an idolisation? In the eyes of the older gay men it is the media:
Well I think the ideal type is the type that you see on all the billboards and all those sorts of things. I think they are the ideal types but I don't think that's actually produced by young guys at school or middle age guys or all that sort of stuff, its done by a group of metrosexual's in a tall office building that wouldnt be near any gym equipment anyway. And I don't think you'd find a six pack amongst them but they are the one's creating this stuff. The ideal is to have a chiselled body and you know, be extremely athletic and be able to lift the car and change the type at the same time you know, and all that sort of caper, I mean its completely illogical crap and that's the perfect body.
Similarly another man identified the relationship between penis size, culture and expectations with age:
There are guys think that if it's under 7 inches then they're not interested. Well you know, there's a lot more to people besides that, so yeah it doesn't play in my mind but I know that it does play in others and there's a big part of that but its a lot to do with the way a culture is marketed and all that sort of stuff too. Young virile lads with hard ons and you know well everybody's saying well once you get over 45, 50, 60 well then the age limit impacts you. So you know, its fabulous when you're 17, 18, 25 but after that it starts to reduce. You see, because its harder to actually just maintain erections and the change of stamina and doing all those sorts of things plus living life you know and maintaining relationships and all those sorts of rubbish.
As this last quote highlights, age is undoubtedly an issue for the gay men in this particular research. Reaching 40 years of age had been a significant factor for these men in coming to terms with their bodies as they begin to experience the gradual and more obvious aspects of the ageing process.
This paper was designed to illuminate issues that confront younger and older gay men regarding their bodies, body image and masculine identity. Each group provided a range of perspectives that were unique to their groups. While it is difficult to find common ground with respect to the types of issues they do confront, this in itself says much about having to know and understand specific age groups of gay men when working with them. Gay men, as a cohort, are often categorised as one. However, and just as in broader society, there are numerous age, cultural, racial and ethnic groups as well as created groups based on socio-economic status, appearance, aesthetics and even values. Noteworthy, mainstream gay culture is laced with racism, marginalisation and stigmatisation of individuals and groups (Ayres, 1999; Chuang, 1999; Drummond, 2005b). This was an important factor to recognise in the analysis of the 'gay men's bodies' data. How these men perceive themselves within the context of gay and heterosexual communities is an important factor in the construction of individual body and masculine identity. Arguably, it is within gay communities that these men place most emphasis in terms of developing these identities.
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Murray Drummond is an Associate Professor in Education at Flinders University. Email: email@example.com