Gay Men, Body Identity and the Politics of Visibility

Article excerpt

Abstract

In much psychological literature, gay men are reported as experiencing body image dissatisfaction as a result of participating in an appearance-focused subculture. Based on interviews with gay men, this paper uses discourse analysis to explore the wider media and consumer images informing gay identity in relation to contemporary political discourses underpinning gay and lesbian movements. Personal and political questions around masculinity, visibility, and the status of gay men in society more broadly informed these mens body -identity relationships, with implications for how gay men might embody their identities and be understood by the dominant psychological research on body image.

Keywords: body image, embodiment, gay men, media imagery, political visibility

Introduction

According to a large volume of positivist psychological and health research, a perceived emphasis upon a difficult-to-achieve standard of physical conditioning in gay culture and community has led many gay men to develop a profound anxiety with appearance, principally around achieving a lean and muscular, athletic body ideal (Boisvert & Harrell, 2009; Chaney, 2008; Conner, Johnson & Grogan, 2004; Duggan & McCreary, 2004; Gil, 2007; Levesque & Vichesky, 2006; Martins, Tiggemann, & Kirkbride, 2007; Morrison, Morrison & Sager, 2004; Thompson & Cafri, 2007; Yelland & Tiggman, 2003). Many of these studies rely on an unexplored notion of 'the gay subculture' and the emphasis it places on sex and appearance as an explanatory 'social force' for understanding the incidence of greater body dissatisfaction among gay men. Sexual gaze theory (Siever, 1994) has been particularly influential in framing the body image experiences of gay men in gay social settings, explaining the vulnerability of gay men to body image dissatisfaction as a function of sexual objectification. Some authors have also suggested a parallel between individual anxiety with appearance, and a communal anxiety or preoccupation with appearing masculine in gay subculture more generally (Signorile, 1997; Wood, 2004; Higgins, 2006).

However, there is debate about the significance of gay men's body image dissatisfaction across diverse samples and methodologies (Hausman et al., 2004; Kane, 2009), and questions about whether such a phenomenon is simply more announced than pronounced among gay men (Pope, Phillips & Olivardia, 2000). Another critique is that psychological studies of gay men and body image also draw on a model of the subject in which individuals are understood to be vulnerable to social forces unless they demonstrate rational selfcontrol and exercise autonomous resistance to them (Elliot, 2001; Burr, 2003; Vaninni & Waskul, 2006). In this case, gay men's body image dissatisfaction is frequently compared to levels of body dissatisfaction found among samples of heterosexual men, and women. Thus, hegemonic masculine standards of bodily concern, sexual behaviours and values constitute the social norms against which gay men's embodied dissatisfaction is frequently understood.

The relatively few qualitative research studies that have been conducted on gay men's body image have drawn attention to the normative aspects of gay male communities and cultures; in particular, the experiences of men subject to exclusive and hard to achieve body ideals (Drummond, 2005a, 2005b; Bergling, 2007; Duncan, 2007, 2008). Drummond (2005a) has argued that body image among gay men is an inadequate tool for understanding gay men's embodied experiences, and has suggested that this notion should be widened to be understood as body identity. In understanding gay men's psychological health, we might do more than reinforce familiar stereotypes regarding gay men's greater self-interest in appearance, but rather, develop critical ways for thinking about the broader social, cultural and political contextual forces that condition and shape the embodied subjectivities gay men inhabit. …

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