Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Body Image

Body Image is often the focus of the Tuesday Evening Peer Support Group at GLYS.

FYI: In 1920 women attained the right to vote. That same year witnessed the inaugural of the Annual Miss America Beauty Pageant. Around that period of time the physically “perfect” woman was five foot four inches and weighed 137 pounds. Now the average model is about 5’10” and weighs about 23% below normal or average. Our fascination with what the culture ( or is it corporate advertizing and the media?) has determined to be “perfection” has proliferated. A large scale study by Garner (1997) found body dissatisfaction to be “increasing at a faster rate than ever before” among both men and women. Interestingly, the rate of smoking has been increasing for girls overtaking the rate for boys and 40 – 50 % of those girls cite weight control as a primary motivation for smoking. In a 1986 study of almost 500 school age girls, 81% of ten-year-olds reported they had dieted at least once.

As the standard moves farther out of reach, women (and men) feel inadequate and there is a great deal of shame, guilt and stress involved in our relationship with our bodies. This contributes to eating disorders, risky cosmetic surgery, anxiety, depression and feelings of helplessness. Last year Janet Jackson became the poster child for “perfect abs” (liposuction?), as the fashion industry pushed midriff baring cloths for young women and encourage focus on the belly area with navel jewelry. Further complicating all this for teens is that their bodies are in the process of growth, development and change and this contributes to feeling out of control.

Many individuals have an inaccurate body image often overestimating or underestimating their size and over-idealizing unrealistic images put forth as the “standard” by the culture. Some studies indicate that gay men dislike their physical appearance more that any other group. Why would this occur? Gay men often spend time in places that place a premium on physical appearance like bars, gyms, the Internet (Do you have a Pic?). At the extreme end of body dissatisfaction is a condition called body dysmorphia where the person is preoccupied with an imagined defect in appearance. Compared with women who generally worry that they are too fat many gay men worry that they are too fat or too thin. Preoccupation with muscle becomes a way of relieving fears about masculinity, proving that we don’t fit some thin, limp wristed (weak) stereotype.

A few years ago I went on my first gay cruise. Though in good shape relative to my age, I had a lot of anxiety and even considered backing out. I imagined that the boat of 2000 would be full of beautiful, tanned, buff boys with six pack abs and 4% body fat and then me. Fortunately the reality was more like Noah’s Ark with a little of everything. That’s what I get for believing all those ads for White Parties, an unrealistic view.

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