All the Right Labels: Gay Male Athletes and Their Perceptions of Clothing

By Filiault, Shaun M.; Drummond, Murray J. N. | Culture, Society and Masculinities, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

All the Right Labels: Gay Male Athletes and Their Perceptions of Clothing


Filiault, Shaun M., Drummond, Murray J. N., Culture, Society and Masculinities


ABSTRACT

This qualitative study investigated the relationship between body image and clothing, as expressed by 16 elite level gay male athletes from the United States, Canada, and Australia. The athletes suggested that within gay social settings, clothes serve as a means to gauge other men's personalities and relative wealth, and as a means to display one's body. Clothes were viewed as being a functional accessory to assist sporting performance, regardless of the appearance of that attire. However, within aesthetic sports, the function of clothing may be to look good, so as to earn high marks from judges. Finally, the athletes suggested that cultural expectations of masculinity may negate the need for stylish clothing, and that masculinity often requires men to wear muted clothing styles. These findings indicate that clothing should be considered as a factor that influences body image, and that not all sub-groups of gay men may consider clothing or body image in an identical manner. Future implications for body image and sexualities research are discussed.

KEYWORDS BODY IMAGE, CLOTHING, GAY MEN, ATHLETES, MASCULINITY

Do clothes really make the man? What about the gay man? Or the gay athlete? Stemming from questions such as these, this qualitative study examines the perceptions toward clothing among elite level gay male athletes from the United States, Australia, and Canada. In particular, we focus upon the relation between clothing, body image, and these men's social identities as gay, male, and athletic.

BODY IMAGE AND THE HEGEMONIC AESTHETIC

Body image is conceptualised as one's internal representation of one's own body and a person's perception of his or her physique (Grogan, 2007). A person may be contented with his or her body image, a state known as "body image satisfaction." Likewise, one can be unhappy with one's body image, which is clinically termed "body image dissatisfaction" (Grogan). Body image dissatisfaction has been linked with a host of medical, psychological, and social negatives, including eating disorders (Gordon, 2000), low self esteem (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999), and even suicidal ideation (Brausch & Muehlenkamp, 2007).

Although one may be happy or unhappy with one's total physique, a person's body image can also be considered by separate body domains. For example, a man may be satisfied with his body image as regards his level of abdominal definition, but unhappy with his level of body hair. Numerous studies have been conducted regarding body image of individual body parts or domains, including studies of penis size (Filiault & Drummond, 2007), women's breast size (Koff & Benavage, 1998), and men's body hair (Boroughs, Cafri, & Thompson, 2005). Thus, consideration of individual body domains is well established in the psychological literature as a method of examining body image.

Social norms and archetypes often contribute to people's sense of body image satisfaction or dissatisfaction. That is to say that people may compare themselves to a body that is socially deemed "ideal" for a person of that gender, age, nationality, and ethnicity. Within contemporary Western culture, men are typically expected to be toned and muscular (Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000; Thompson & Cafri, 2007). Filiault and Drummond (2007) have coined this toned, muscular ideal as being the "hegemonic aesthetic" within contemporary culture. This extension of Gramsci' s (1993) hegemony theory and Connell's (2005) notion of hegemonic masculinity suggests that within any historical moment, a particular body type is accorded hegemonic power and dominance. Consistent with hegemony theory, Filiault and Drummond argue that the hegemonic dominance afforded to the toned, muscular male has been facilitated by references to nature. That is, a muscular, toned male body is viewed culturally as being "naturally" superior to all other physiques, and is therefore placed in a position of prestige and dominance. …

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