A Straight Woman and a Gay Man Talk Body Image

What Women Really Think
Oct. 14 2013 8:37 AM

A Straight Woman and a Gay Man Talk Body Image

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Not embracing the "bear escape hatch."

Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

After a BuzzFeed writer posted a story last week about his struggle to gain acceptance from the gay community as a chubby man, one straight, female Slate blogger and one gay, male Slate blogger compared notes on body image, physical attractiveness, and the pressures we all face to look a certain way. The below IM conversation has been condensed and edited. But just barely.

Mark Stern: Hello, fellow gender/sexuality and body image correspondent. I am ready to chat whenever you are!

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Katy Waldman: Give me a sec to eat some lunch?

Stern: No worries, late luncher. I do not judge.

Waldman: Good. The security guard downstairs always makes fun of me.

Stern: HE WOULD NEVER DO THAT TO A MAN.

Waldman: Wait, really? Why not?

Stern: Because, unlike women’s eating habits, men’s eating habits are NOT a matter of public interest and scrutiny. They are unimpeachable, untouchable.

Waldman: This week someone said to me in the elevator: Whoa, that’s a big salad. In my head I was like, it’s a salad. But thanks for your feedback?

Stern: Nobody would ever do that to me. Nobody would ever tell [redacted male colleague], bro, your salad is huge.

Waldman: So is this a subtle way of policing women’s bodies? 

Stern: I just think that women's eating habits fall under the general category of "things the public feels comfortable commenting on," like women's clothes, bodies, and faces. They would almost never do so for a man—not because they're shy, but because they don't care.

Waldman: Guys make those comments sort of carelessly. When women talk about food, because it can be sensitive, they are more deliberate. (“Do you want a cupcake? It’s OK if you don’t! I mean, you should totally have one if you want one—”). It’s actually kind of a minefield. We walk on eggshells. Anyway, let’s discuss this BuzzFeed essay: "It Gets Better, Unless You're Fat.”

Stern: A very good essay, I thought.

Waldman: Penned by Louis Peitzman, it talks about body consciousness in the gay community.

Stern: Though the problem is getting better (so to speak), hyper-weight-consciousness has long plagued this group. Peitzman captures the stresses pretty well—being gay is a challenge, but being fat and gay is a plight.

Waldman: What are you supposed to look like?

Stern: Ideally fit; at a minimum, thin. Muscular, without being horrifically overdeveloped—you never want to look steroidal, but you want to look like you're committed to working out. If you don't have time to build up all those muscle groups, you better at least cut enough calories to be slender. (But not bony and gangly!)

Waldman: So, not too different from the straight woman’s ideal male physique, right?

Stern: Right. Perhaps a bit more muscular.

Waldman: If you don’t meet those standards, is there a sense that you are, like, shaming the community somehow? With your cellulite? Because that’s one difference I can imagine between gay men and straight women: There are simply more of us! And as a group we’ve had more time to hit back against the idea that we are a monolith. I just got the impression from his essay that Peitzman felt he was “disappointing” other gay men by not looking perfect.

Stern: I don't think a fat gay man is seen as shaming the entire community, necessarily; he's just not representing his sexuality very well and won't be seen as particularly attractive. Of course, I'm speaking in broad stereotypes here. These norms are changing, and they aren't universal.

There's an idea that if you're fat, you don't take care of yourself, you aren't being responsible, you aren't presenting your best self, your sexiest self. Your healthiest self. And you'll probably flounder in the dating world, because, you know, who could ever be sexually attracted to a fat guy?

Dan Savage, by the way, has had a hand in perpetuating this notion, though he's backed off a bit. But in some of his early podcasts, I remember a lot of his advice to gay guys was capped off with, "And go to the gym!"

Waldman: Maybe women have just been at the body-positivity thing longer than gay men. While fat women do encounter tremendous prejudice, there’s also a widespread understanding that sometimes body weight correlates with lifestyle, and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, I think people are sufficiently aware of eating disorders and other struggles women have with body image that they are more cautious about, say, recommending exercise regimens to their female friends.

Stern: Right. It's an issue many people are aware of and one many people are fighting back against. I hope that fight can move to the gay world, because Peitzman is right—in urban metropolises (Washington, New York)—if you're a chubby gay man, you're likely to be ostracized. This is especially ironic given the nature of the gay rights movement and gay culture in general. It's premised on self-acceptance and celebration of ourselves. Gay culture is supposed to be all about eradicating shallow differences and reveling in the shared characteristics that make us human. Whatever differences we have are minor and quirky and equally deserving of celebration.

Except that if you're fat, you're not invited to the party.

Waldman: Do you think that physical appearance factors more heavily into male same-sex relationships than into heterosexual ones?

Stern: Yes. Straight women have, out of necessity, lowered their standards.

Waldman: Har har.

Stern: Really! I see extremely fit and/or thin straight women dating chubby or schlubby men all the time. It's a feedback loop. The more straight women accept unfit men, the less fit men will feel compelled to be.

Waldman: So heterosexual guys are just phoning it in.

Stern: Exactly. But gay guys have firmly resisted allowing this loop to begin. Fitness and sexiness continue to be of great import in the gay dating world.

Waldman: But why do women tolerate what gay guys won’t? Or, conversely, why won’t gay men relax their standards? Is it some hoary old notion of gender imbalance—like, I’m a dude and therefore smart, good, and worthy; you’re a girl and therefore inferior to me? The woman must look hot to compensate for her second-class status? Whereas, with two guys …

Stern: There is a song by a band I love called the Slow Club about this very phenomenon. Includes the line, "I can see you looking at me/ You've got the brains, I've got the body." That dynamic doesn't quite exist in the gay world.

Waldman: So for gays, it’s unrelenting pressure on both parties to look great. For straights, it’s beauty as recompense for one party’s perceived intellectual/moral failings. YAY DATING.

Stern: Here’s another key distinction. Gay men always have what I call the "bear escape hatch." There's a well-known gay subculture (bears) that celebrates fatness and hairiness. Most bears are 30-plus, but a younger gay guy who is sufficiently chubby and hairy can qualify as a "cub."

Waldman: Do you have to be both chubby and hairy? Or can you be just one?

Stern: I think there's room for a not-super-hairy bear. Now, women do technically have a "curvy escape hatch," as I guess you could call it. But that just leads to new pressures: the pressure to have big boobs and a sexy butt.

Waldman: I think those are separate ideas. Women don’t get a pass for having great breasts or butts: They must have those things while remaining slender. HOWEVER, there is also a niche group of men who seem to appreciate more full-figured ladies.

But back to you guys. Is it a problem that sexual attractiveness and physical appearance matters so much in the gay community? It seems bad, but maybe if expectations are equally high for everyone …

Stern: Yes. It is a problem. Gay men have an alarmingly high rate of anorexia. Gay men are actually more likely than heterosexual women to have a subclinical eating disorder. Of course, the usual factors that drive eating disorders for women also drive eating disorders for gay men. Trauma, anxiety, lack of control, stress. PTSD, etc. But I do think the obsession with fitness contributes to the problem.

Waldman: Good point. We shouldn't forget that eating disorders are rarely actually about food and weight. But cultural/community standards do shape how our anxieties express themselves.

Stern: That’s why I think we need to eliminate this idea that only being attracted to hyperfit or hyperthin guys is totally OK. It's akin to people saying, "Oh, I'm just not into black guys." Yes, it is your sexual taste, but it's also racist. Similarly, we need to get into our heads that it is weird and shallow to be exclusively attracted to ridiculously fit guys.

I want to say, to everyone, stop caring about weight. But that's obviously too broad.

Waldman: Too broad, but a good way to end. Have hope.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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