Body image issues and eating disorders affect some gay men

By Tanni Deb

Angel Saez, a personal trainer and gay male entertainer at Baton Show Lounge, maintains his body by working out seven days a week. Saez is healthy and fit but many gay men, unlike Saez, take it too far by over-exercising and going through unhealthy diets.
Angel Saez, a personal trainer and gay male entertainer at Baton Show Lounge, maintains his body by working out seven days a week. Saez is healthy and fit but many gay men, unlike Saez, take it too far by over-exercising and having unhealthy diets. (Photo courtesy of Angel Saez)

 

Angel Saez is a personal trainer, as well as a gay male entertainer at Baton Show Lounge, a nightclub that also hosts drag shows. He said advertisements geared towards the homosexual community influenced him to begin working out when he was 16. To this day, he continues to maintain his body because that is what pays his bills. The 38-year-old not only watches what he eats but also exercises seven days a week.

“I do an hour and a half of cardio and after that, 45 minutes of workout,” he said. “I avoid sweets, sodas and I don’t drink alcohol.”

While Saez stays healthy by eating three meals a day, several of his gay friends “do not eat at all” to stay fit.

“They think that by not eating is how they’ll get a good body,” he said. “[But I know] that’s not the correct way to do it.”

Eating disorders that result from unhealthy diets and over-exercise is commonly seen as a women’s disorder. However, research shows that this illness is frequently found in gay men, too. Forty-two percent of men who have eating disorders identify as gay, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Fifteen percent of gay men at one point in life suffered from one of these health issues, said a study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Mass media has an impact on physical appearance ideals among gay men, said Dina Glaser, director of applied professional practice at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Her research found that gay males experience the world similarly to straight women. This is based on the pressures that media places on them “to experience their body as an object rather than something they have control over,” Glaser said.

“I think distorted ideas of body image and having these high expectations can put that internal pressure on a person, who then resorts to eating disorder behaviors as a way of coping,” she said.

Many gay men strive to reach an ideal weight that does not make them look anorexic, according to Daniel Brewer, a psychologist at Psychological Consultations in Chicago. The message to reach a certain body image and maintain the weight can result in disorders, he said.

“To be muscular and lean,” Brewer said, “[gay men] may not be eating, or they might be using other methods to try to get that look.”

Many gay males experience such illnesses not only because of media influence, but also because it gives them a sense of control over their environment and emotions, Glaser said. Most young gay men are predisposed to health and body image issues at the time of coming out because they worry about how others will view them, Brewer said.

“If you grow up in a community where you hear negative messages about a certain group like the gay community, you might internalize some of those negative messages,” said Brewer. “And you’ll think about yourself as not good enough and how that comes to the interplay of your sexual orientation, the coming out process, and this need to in some way to be perfect.”

Brewer said these issues contribute to the overall level of stress that many gay adolescents experience, which sometimes lead to eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

“If you can’t control how others perceive you and you feel judged by the community … your body is one thing you can have a great deal of control over,” he said. “If you can’t control your environment, one thing you can control is your relationship to food.”

Brewer said that this health issue is a result of various challenges that the gay community faces.

“[As a] result of being gay in our society, there’s increased stress, there’s increased incidence of homelessness, there’s increased risk of discrimination, of being bullied, of being marginalized,” he explained. “[Consequently], those factors contribute to the disproportionate rates of illness. That’s why we see increased rates of substance abuse … depression or suicide [and] body image issues.”

However, body image issues and eating disorders do not necessarily mean that patients are underweight.

Elliot Tiber, the author of “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life,” gained weight as he resorted to emotional eating throughout his childhood and early adulthood as a gay young man. His habit of binge eating followed him into adulthood as he stressed about possibly getting AIDS and dealt with relationship conflicts with a former significant other.

“I hated being fat, but I had no choice. I was relying on it. What else could I do?” he said during a phone interview.

Tiber said that he was drawn to food because it was a way for him to deal with issues in life and work.

“I hated the food that I was eating because I knew it was making me fat,” he said. “But it gave me some kind of comfort.”

Tiber recovered from binge eating as he solved more of his problems. He ate smaller portions and began walking a lot. The now 79-year-old went from being 240 pounds to 175.

Ellison Barnes, 31, a Chicago native who now lives in Indianapolis and won the title Mr. Gay Indiana, said he always found a need to be skinny.

“I think it comes from the idea of being just almost perfect,” he said. “Ninety percent of my friends have gym membership and they’re kind of obsessed about being thin.”

Similar to Saez, Barnes said he also became concerned with his body image during his mid-teen years when he began noticing different body types. He started maintaining his body by exercising, as well as taking diet pills during the past year. He is not alone in doing the latter. Barnes said he knows many gay men who exercise or take supplements to either lose weight or become muscular.

Although eating disorders are an ongoing epidemic in the gay male community, there is limited research on this topic. Barnes noted that he is unaware of anyone in the community who has mentioned or experienced this illness.

“People don’t really talk about it,” he said. “No one wants to admit that they are not perfect so it’s kept very hush-hush.”

Brewer said the reason might be because there is a stigma on eating disorders.

“I think that people aren’t sure how to help or what to do, so I think there’s a lot of fear-based silence,” he said.

There are a wide range of treatment options, which depends on a person’s situation, the severity of the issue, and the length of how long the problem has existed, experts said.

Individuals who have a disordered relationship with food, and therefore a restricted style of eating, may overcome their illness through self-education and assistance from online resources, said Brewer. There are also nutritional counseling and individual talk therapy sessions, as well as group therapies.

Glaser, a licensed clinical psychologist, highly recommends the latter.

“I think group therapy is powerful because you get to sit with other people who are experiencing similar struggles as you,” she said.

Experts agreed that an effective treatment program for eating disorders should address the initial causes of the illness, as well as the symptoms and eating habits the individual experiences.