Body image, self-esteem remain issues for men in LGBT community

While thumbing through an LGBT magazine, Josh Pagan, senior in LAS and vice president of the RSO Pride, doesn’t see one image that matches his reflection. He sees an “idealized version” — one unlike the diverse LGBT community at the University, in his life and in reality.

But realizing that the skinny, predominately white males featured in the magazine are only one aspect of gay culture doesn’t change the fact that Pagan, along with others in the community, does not feel represented.

“I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why gay men who don’t fit these images tend to have such horrible body image issues or just horrible perceptions of themselves,” Pagan said. “They’re finding that they’re not fitting into these templates of gay life and they feel out of place and ashamed of themselves.”

According to Michael Rogers, staff psychologist and visiting clinical counselor at the Counseling Center, gay men represent about 5 percent of the total male population.

Among men who have eating disorders, however, 42 percent identify as gay. This disparity is not as striking when comparing lesbian and bisexual women to heterosexual women, based on a 2007 study from Columbia University. 

One reason for the imbalance could be that men tend to be more visually stimulated than women, Rogers said.

“Since men in the ’70s and ’80s started working out strongly — partially because of the AIDS epidemic — people wanted to have bodies that looked very healthy in order to counteract the idea that they may have contracted HIV,” Rogers said. “It almost created this cliche that gay men look a certain way.”

Though Pagan maintains a more positive self-image now, he believed this cliche when he was younger and struggled to appreciate his body as it was.

“My entire life, I’ve always been a bigger kid. That’s always been the case, even before I knew I was gay,” he said. “When I came out, I didn’t really have a community or any resources to go to, so I looked at magazines and movies.”

The transition came when Pagan arrived at the University in 2009. His confidence, self-image and identity all began to align when the gay people he met strayed from his preconceived notions.

He worried that he wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the students at the LGBT Resource Center, but he found this was not the case.

Pagan became comfortable in his own skin, but he wishes that others in the LGBT community would find the same inner peace.  

“I have met gay men, even on this campus, who have explicitly said, ‘I work out every day because I don’t want to get fat because if I do, people will stop sleeping with me,’” Pagan said.

While the majority of people who are LGBT do not have eating disorders — according to the Austin Foundation for Eating Disorders — among gay men, nearly 14 percent appear to suffer from bulimia and over 20 percent appear to be anorexic. 

When faced with difficulties such as coming out or hiding their sexual orientation, gay men can be more prone to developing an eating disorder to feel a sense of control, Rogers said.

Some of the strategies Rogers uses to help LGBT students fighting body image issues include focusing on the functionality of the body and becoming exposed to the wide range of people in the LGBT community.

He also thinks body image concerns should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Experiencing different types of people in the LGBT community proves to be imperative, as Pagan said the image of the LGBT community represented in the media is only one aspect of gay culture, and body image is not the only aspect of gay identity.

“Not everyone has the time, or even the desire, to go to the gym every day for three hours and sculpt this perfect body. ... There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but there are other people out there who are not doing those things,” Pagan said. “And that’s where the problem lies. The people who are not doing those things are perceived to be not real gays.”

Alice can be reached at smelyan2@dailyillini.com.