Liam Arne explores the ways the gay male community categorise beauty standards, and how constructed concepts of masculinity infiltrate queer spaces. Learning to love yourself and find your niche in such a space can be an incredibly difficult process. As one of our extraordinary past models, Kara Gooding, summed it up: Self love is a radical act, and this is a revolution.
Being a gay man can mean a variety of things before and after you come out, including rejection from family or friends, bullying, homophobic violence, guilt, inclusion in (or exclusion from) a community, and conflicts with social constructions of hegemonic masculinity. For many gay men, we are instructed by friend and foe alike about how to look and behave like the acceptable image of what it means to be a man in our society: emotionless, lumbering avid sports player and watcher, hard-drinking, intelligent, violent protector, and wooer of women with Adonis-like musculature. These notions of masculinity are mass-marketed to us through venues ranging from cologne ads to Disney princes. Such limited portrayals of men and masculinity in media continue to plague our understandings of ourselves and others.
Various feminist and queer voices have collectively challenged preconceived beliefs on men's roles in families and society and whether masculinity or femininity are attached to one specific gender for millennia. Despite overwhelming alterations to these oppressive structures, sexism thrives in the modern day and enforcement of gendered stereotypes remains comprehensive. It is within this context that a complicated narrative arises within the gay male community.
The gay male community does not exist in a vacuum, and thus, sexist and racist conceptions infiltrate the community and its ideals. A group which implores acceptance from straight people, often reinforces popular notions of masculinity as the primary ideal of beauty and acceptability and openly excludes men of color from attractiveness or even humanity. Any gaycation to West Hollywood or Fire Island will immediately reveal that peacocking presentations of sculpted bodies demonstrate a prizing of protein shakes and masturbatory gym sessions within the community. This vision reigns supreme in gay clubs and publications, regardless of the veracity of the masculinity purported under a tanned, hardened chest. Yet, the politics of masculinity in the gay male community fails to stop there.
Body ideals in gay male spaces often do explore other varieties of masculine beauty. Twinks are men that appear svelte, hairless, and boyish, frequently complemented by feminine features or behavior. Twinks are often touted as the most attractive or valuable members of gay male society, thus challenging popular conceptions of beautiful forms of masculinity. The gay "bear" subculture also differs from the mainstream by long valuing a body shape which is hairier, broader, and thicker than WeHo models or twinks while mostly remaining confined to hypermasculinity. Despite deviating from beauty norms, these subgroups do not manage to be any more accepting than other more commonly understood visions of male attractiveness.
Entrance into any of these three categories- jocks, twinks, and bears- is a highly selective process. If all of your measurement don't add up exactly as desired, you cannot exist as beautiful in these exclusive spaces. Objectification runs wild as queer men turn the critical "male gaze" upon others in their small community as well as upon themselves as members of that community. The animal classification system, arising from bear culture that matches certain traits to a corresponding creature like otters or wolves, further extrapolates a social experience in which gay men dehumanize and categorize each other. This complicated taxonomy affirms research which concludes that gay and bisexual men experience exceptionally high rates of eating disorders and unhealthy habits as they starve, overindulge, or inject themselves to fit the community's interpretations of what makes a man beautiful.
So what happens to boys like me that fail to tick all the boxes of these monolithic groupings? Are we still beautiful even if no one tells us we are? Where do you belong in a community that excludes when you're too hairy to be a twink, too fat to be a jock, and too small to be a bear? How should you react when men tell you that they're surprised they're attracted to you or that you should thank them for unwanted sexual attention? How do you survive in a world which tells you that you'll never be good enough?
For me, I've had to find love and acceptance for myself, within this community or not. Despite all the negativity, I have to discover ways in which I can validate myself and be comfortable in my relationship with my body outside of these grueling definitions. I hope that the gay male community will soon be able to think beyond trite designations that exclude most body forms in the pursuit of constructed ideals. We are all beautiful in our unique ways, and until we accept and bridge our divides, we cannot be free as a collective group.