Body-image issues are not just a problem for women.
More men ( especially those who are gay ) have been negatively influenced by images of six-pack abs, bulging chests and biceps, and thin torsos. Slate recently cited an International Journal of Eating Disorders article that suggests that 15 percent of gay or bisexual men have struggled with disordered eating habits throughout their lives, including binge eating, anorexia and bulimia. Then there's bigorexia, when men are preoccupied with muscle development
California-based licensed professional clinical counselor Matthew J. Dempsey talked with Windy City Times about body image and how they can affect gay men ( like himself ), as well as criticism he's endured about his own advice.
Windy City Times: Would you say body-image issues affect gay men more than their straight counterparts?
Matthew J. Dempsey: Absolutely. It's that type of thing when you grow up gay and you're marginalized; it's going to have an impact. You can be negatively impacted and, as gay men, we often default to superficial things, less authentic thingsand our body is one of those things. We can get caught up in how we view ourselves in ways that don't reflect reality.
WCT: Then there's that whole stereotype where if people see a well-built man, they assume he's gay.
Matthew J. Dempsey: Yesit's true [that people assume that]. [Laughs]
WCT: But isn't it sometimes hard to see the problem in ourselves?
Matthew J. Dempsey: Yes; generally, it's harder for us to see our own issues. It becomes a more challenging thing.
WCT: So give me one or two key warning signs of body-image [obsession].
Matthew J. Dempsey: If you find yourself just thinking about how you look a lot, that's a sign. I know this sounds like of obvious, but there's looking in your mirror a lot. We tend to be our own worst critics, but if you're constantly pinching yourself and nothing seems to be good enough, that could be a pretty good sign.
If so much of your happiness is dependent on how your look, you might want to check in on that. If your mood is so dependent on what's in the mirror, that's an issue.
WCT: But then there are groups such as the bear community, who seem to be content with their looks.
Matthew J. Dempsey: But even with subgroups, there are different standards set regarding what their ideal body type is. Even in the bear community, there's a certain idealand some people may not even be able to achieve that. They may not want super-rock-hard abs and being hairless, there are different standardsand if you're fixated on those standards, that's an issue.
I was just reading about hair-transplant surgeries, and how you can get those for your beard. These are some of the lengths people are going to in order to get a certain look.
WCT: Well, you won't have to worry about me getting a thick beard. [Dempsey laughs.] And it seems like more men are undergoing plastic surgery.
Matthew J. Dempsey: Yesespecially gay men. There's this heightened need to achieve some sort of physical ideal, and people are willing to pay to enhance or look youngeranything to get that Adonis-like body. People sometimes rely on plastic surgery to feel good enough or to be acceptable; it doesn't help to achieve that peacepeople [with body-image disorder] always want one more injection, one more lift.
WCT: You know something about body image, personally. In a video, you talk about how brother drew a picture of you as a round person when you both were younger.
Matthew J. Dempsey: [Laughs] My brother's a fantastic person, and was being nothing more than a typical older brother. With that said, my brother was a really smart kidhe'd come up with pretty clever ways to make me feel bad. He drew me as a big, fat "O" and drew himself as a perfect person with six-pack abs.
I was a little chubby at the time so I thought, "Oh, this is how people see my body." There were so many ways I went about to fix that problem: running, dieting, weight-training. But nothing was getting at the deeper issue. It wasn't until later that I put the dots together, and realized it was an emotional issue. Also, I'm seeing myself as a gay person, so it became easy for me to project THOSE issues onto my body as well.
WCT: It seems like you've dealt with those issuesbut do those same issues come up when you're dating, for example?
Matthew J. Dempsey: Yeah, totally. It's still something I grapple with, at times, and I'm aware of it. But it's not going to keep me from putting myself out there or going to that pool party. If I'm feeling a little self-conscious, I can change the narrative in my own head.
WCT: Referring back to your video, you've gotten some criticism. One person wrote, "A really hot dude is telling us not to have body issues." How do you respond to that?
Matthew J. Dempsey: I have so many thoughts about that. I'd be remiss if I didn't throw out there that, yes, I have a certain set of attributes that happens to be in line with what society deems attractive. I understand that a lot of people don't have that same experience; I didn't work hard to become 6'3," to have a full head of hair ( although I'm actually not a fan of my own hair ) or to be able-bodied.
The other thing is that I do know what it's like to not appreciate what I see in the mirror or what it's like to not feel I'm good enough, in several different ways. Believe me, I get it.
I also understand that a lot of the issues that I address are really challenging topics to identify. I know that when I talk about these things that I'm going to get some backlash.
WCT: Regarding solutions, is it helpful if people have some sort of support network?
Matthew J. Dempsey: Yes, definitely. We want to have people we trust around usand we want to access support from them when it's necessary. We want to create that discoursehave an actual conversationabout these issues. So many of these issues are tied to shame, but the more we can talk about it the more it normalizes it. ( People might say, "Oh, I hate my hips, too." ) Also, you're breaking down shame when you talk about it; you're psychologically reinforcing to yourself that it isn't something you need to keep top-secret.
Dempsey's website is www.matthewjdempsey.com .