At a party recently, one friend posed this question to the group: ‘If you could wake up tomorrow and have one of the following, which would it be? Be able to speak another language; be able to play a musical instrument very well; have a masters degree; have £20,000; or change one physical feature about yourself’. While we all pondered the potential new talents we could have or how useful that lump sum of money would be to us recent graduates, I was astounded to hear none of my friends rank changing a physical feature highly. Obviously the reason for this is that my friends and I are all exceedingly good looking. But seriously, either my friends were not being entirely truthful, or they are the lucky few not to be affected by the media bombardment about how we should all look.

I’ve never had to watch what I eat, in fact I eat more than most, and I’m lucky enough to be slim still (at the age of 23). Yet while most people would probably look at my body and say I have nothing to worry about in the ‘body image’ department, I’m still very conscious of what I look like. I won’t pretend that it keeps me up at night, or that it means I’m in the gym every day, but I’m definitely very aware of how I compare to others.

The ‘trend-setters’ and image conscious media of the modern day have definitely succeeded with many men on the muscle front. Clearly I’m not the only one to have noticed that there is an increasingly overwhelming suggestion from the media that you are not attractive unless you’re made of solid, bulging muscle. Some would even go as far as to say that the pressure on men is even greater than on women. Now, I’m sure most of you will agree that this issue is even more prominent amongst the gay community. How many of us actually go to the gym because it’s healthy? How many of us are doing it just for fitness? Or are most of us trying to build muscle or lose weight purely for aesthetic reasons?

There are some more prominent explanations for this if we are to accept the homosexual male stereotype: we’re typically more concerned with our appearance; we’re more fashion conscious and, therefore, more susceptible to media promotion; we’re vainer.

Or is it, in fact, a rebuttal against this very stereotype? In an attempt to rid ourselves of the feminine label stuck upon us by society, it seems many gay men try to assimilate themselves with the more masculine man*. Whether for professional, social or personal reasons, it is still a social norm that the more masculine we are, the more likely we are to be respected – (but I shall refrain from taking a feminist, ’gendered society’ tangent and try and stick to the point). Also, it can be frustrating how others assume that all gay men are “camp”, or are attracted to “camp” men, and thus many feel the need to affirm their ability and desire to be “straight acting” (an issue I will come on to in a later post).

The amusing irony of all this, is that by succumbing to these fashionable images of sex and masculinity, we’re fulfilling the stereotype of the vain gay man, just in a different way. After all, most of us enjoy being looked at sometimes, or knowing that others admire our bodies. Which makes you then wonder if the muscled man is actually more attractive or not – and if he is, what is it that makes him so? Leading on from my earlier point, you could certainly argue that as gay men we are attracted to MEN – manly men, men with muscles – therefore, the more masculine a man is, the more attractive he is. However, any of you that frequent a gym will have noticed how long these muscle-pumped males spend looking in the mirror, adjusting their appearance, puffing (no pun intended) up their chests – if this is the raw, masculine image that we’re all aspiring to then the word masculine needs a new, vainer, more self-conscious definition.

Furthermore, if this is the case, it would stand that most heterosexual females find really muscular men the most attractive. Referring back to the party, not one of the female friends present found a muscular man particularly attractive. Clearly it’s no secret anymore that ‘sex sells’, but with all this imagery of the perfect body, the next generation are being taught, in less and less subtle ways, that muscular = beauty. Are the media really reflecting our preferences, or creating them? And by following this image of muscular masculinity are we improving the gay stereotype or actually further damaging it?

All comments are very welcome – I’d be interested to hear your opinions. (Or write to me/follow on Twitter @Pete_Thom)

*I use the terms “feminine” and “masculine” in their generic and general meaning for the purpose of this article. I recognise that these terms, in themselves, are highly contentious.


  1. First, well written piece. Thanks!

    I have never found the buff or overly masculine type attractive. Just the opposite if anything. The natural, trim/slim look gets me going—and always has.

    But I think that’s just DNA. We may attach too much importance to “society” and “media” when trying to explain what drives us. I know so many gay men who do find the huge buff types attractive but I doubt this attraction is driven by music video or commercial watching.

    After all, I’m in my 40s and have had precisely the same type for these 4 decades—-from well before the enormous media saturation we currently live in.

  2. Masculinity has always been tied with the notion of vanity and doesn’t require a change, and that is exactly why gay men are more vain. It is man’s pride and worry about the perception of himself by other men that is at the core of women’s suppression through the concept of honour. How does the woman’s actions reflect upon me?

    Now that increasingly man’s vanity and desire to control through social norms has been ousted through political activism the locus is on personal appearance, and is reflected in the metrosexual movement among straights. Maybe.

  3. I would pick the money so I could pay for a masters and lessons to learn welsh and a massive black man to get me fit. X

  4. I think there is nothing wrong with trying to look good for the sake of looking good. It does not matter whether hetro females find muscular men attractive or not, the human race will continue on. Life is a series of experiments some increase the ability of humans to thrive & grow some do not. It will all sort itself out in time, those which work the species usually adopts.

    For 2000 years the greeks workshipped health, beauty & philosophy we have lasted 1/10th that time. If the current trend of encouraging healthy bodies continues, even for what some see as the wrong reasons, I am for it. Eventually people may learn beauty & health are not the same but until then the impulse to better health seems positive.

  5. Extremely well stated! I can definitely relate to this article. I have constantly struggled with body image because of constantly being teased as a kid and even as an adult because of my small frame. To me, working out at the gym has become the identity of masculinity and I never made this realization until you put it out there.

    It’s always irritated me when people use the phrase “straight-acting”. It’s just ridiculous. I don’t want to be “straight-acting”, I want to be “Zak-acting” and if that’s not good enough, move on.

    Our community can be very vain and that is another article entirely. Briefly, are we vain because of what the media puts out there and that’s what we see as a gay man so we feel we won’t be successful gay men unless we fit that stereotype?

    Many thought provoking sentences in this article!

  6. Is it an oversimplification to call it vanity?

    As I struggled with self-acceptance, I directed all my anger and hatred at myself in self harm. It took a while to figure out what I was doing, how to love myself, how to accept myself and break free of the self destruction.

    Actually, running and cycling is what freed me from my emo-battle. Challenging myself through exercise became the best thing for me. I put a lot of my energy into only doing good things to my body.

    While I don’t pump iron, I am not about to criticize those that do. Maybe some of us are overcoming demons, and we’ve traded addictions? Maybe it’s not purely for aesthetic reasons, but someone’s way to cope? Maybe it’s something some of us have stumbled upon that we cling to rather than drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, self-harm or suicide?

    It’s important that the media bring the diversity of the gay community out a bit more. As a kid, I wish I’d seen the religious gay or the athletic gay role model. Believe me, it would have helped. Peace.

  7. In my case yes i do go to the gym v often and try to keep in shape but i’m not sure this is to do with the stereotype that wants you to be muscly in order to be happy. Im more of a health freak and enjoy the adrenalin rush in exercise.
    Whilst on the other hand being fat isn’t good for your health and self esteem. Which is probably where sterotypes come into consideration: you feel bad about your self apearance.. Joining a gym might seem like the easiest way to change that.
    Then i think there’s also a big part of it that’s lead by one’s own taste when your gay: you’re bound to have some sort of narcissistic behaviour as you’re attracted by what you are (or something similar) which you might want to see in that significant other as/or in yourself..
    I know that in my case i don’t necessarily go for the leanest guys no matter how (very) much appreciative i may be of their physical appearance.. And i think most people still remain faithful to their own taste, acquired from whatever experience through the years.
    There is definitely an influence from the media, but I can’t see it being able to reach that far into people’s intimacy (just yet..?)

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