Occupy Your Body

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One man’s journey to physical well-being and self-acceptance.

“You actually have to look good to be gay. You don’t make the cut.”

That’s what Brock, a bisexual boy at my high school, mockingly said to me the morning after I came out of the closet. His words were my first introduction to the LGBT community. I was 15, 5’11”, and overweight at 220 pounds. I knew that I didn’t look good, but I also
knew that I was gay and that there was nothing I could do to change that fact about myself.

We can’t have a conversation about LGBT health without confronting a silent epidemic within the community. A 2007 study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that gay and bisexual men are three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to develop eating disorders. An alarming 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have at some point had serious issues with disordered eating.

When we come out of the closet, we immediately yearn to be embraced by the LGBT community we come into. There’s an awkward element of body fascism among many gay and bisexual men that can make this a rocky transition. Many of us have been bullied by our heterosexual peers in school. We internalize their rejection of who we are, and we hope that the people who are like us—other gays—will be accepting. The truth is, however, that we’re often harder on each other. When the bullies go away, we often step in to take their place. Enforcing a strict code of sexual attraction is one way we perpetuate the bully narrative.

Brock was a proxy for a larger truth: Bodies are a big deal in the gay community. A study released earlier this year from England stated that nearly half gay and bisexual men said they’d trade a year of their life for the perfect body. It’s a hypothetical situation that sounds hyperbolic, but it speaks to a larger insight into the pursuit of perfection.

My own quest indirectly validates that study’s findings. Though I came out at 15, I was always single. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I went to every gay club in town, but few guys ever glanced in my direction. When someone I was really into told me that he only dated “really thin guys,” I knew I had to make a change. So I called my friend Blade, who had managed to go from XXL to S in less than a year. He promised to help me “fit in.”

The elliptical machine became my best friend. A lot of the weight I needed to lose; obesity limits a person in more ways than dating. My motivation was anything but healthy, though, and that enabled what started out as a vigorous lifestyle change to develop into an eating disorder. Soon, I was limiting myself to 800 to 1,000 calories a day and spending two hours or more per day at the gym. My life revolved around the scale; the lower the number, the better I felt about myself.

Within 12 months, I weighed 160 lbs. As former fat kids, Blade and I were quite proud of being anorexic. We were getting a ton of attention from guys at clubs and constant accolades by our friends. Finally, I felt I had made the cut.

Eating disorders are a cheater’s way to being thin, however, and the rules eventually catch up. Halfway through a starvation marathon to get to 150 pounds, Blade’s heart gave out and he died. In the pursuit of perfection, he traded not a single year, but his entire life.

Starvation diets and overexercising are avoidance tactics for dealing with the issue of body image. We’ve done a great job of normalizing physical obsession, but we, as gay and bisexual men, need to come to terms with our corporal selves. Many issues that plague our community, like alcoholism, smoking, and eating disorders, have their roots in early encounters with homophobia. We have to deal with our past and how we see ourselves mentally before we can truly get a handle on our bodies. We also need to stop beating each other up and start embracing everyone. No one should ever feel like they have to starve themselves to be a “good” gay.

We must start nourishing our bodies. Instead of an hour and a half of cardio everyday, maybe we’d be better off integrating a weekly yoga routine into our lives so that we’re in tune with our bodies and our souls. Rather than painfully avoiding food or eating miniscule Lean Cuisines, perhaps we can embrace more sustainable, healthy habits like adopting a whole foods, more plant-based diet.

Losing my friend was enough to change my destructive behavior. I wasn’t truly at peace with my own body, though, until I made peace with what I was putting inside it, by becoming vegan. That was my journey. Everyone’s path will be different. We must all make our own cut, not because you have to look good to be gay, but because being gay should feel good for you!

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