HealthOpen LetterSex & Gender

gym or no gym: feeling whole is the goal

January 4, 2019

On New Year’s Day, a twitter user made the claim that gay men, specifically, needed to be honest with themselves regarding their “fitness journey,” and the truth that can be found in said statement. In the post, they position the idea that a gay man’s fitness journey is never really about health or personal growth, but a way to gain access to societal privilege, specifically sexual access to other fit men.

Needless to say, many following the thread were upset.

Some noted that the commentary was a bitter blanket statement about the gay community, leading the twitter user to clarify their statement in a follow-up post. In the tweet, they shared that they were referring to fitness obsessed gay cis-men who do steroids and “are always talking about how they need to get bigger”. This led many to question why so many gay cis men seem to be obsessed with the “fitness journey” and what broader statement it has for the gay community at large.

There have been multiple takes as to why queer cis-men seem to be tormented by the idea of not having the perfect body. For some, it’s the constant notion of being “different,” developed at a young age, and the judgement that lingers around owning one’s queer identity. For others, it’s the normalized ideation of what the gay community holds as body image standards (often racialized and sexualized) that some consider not only near-oppressive, but impossible to attain.

A truth that very few acknowledge is that the world’s obsession with gym culture, which often reads as an obsession with masculinity, reminds us that the fitness journey is more about presentation than wellness. Often, many who are on said fitness journey, might have been a person of size at one time in their lives. The experiences of being fat-shamed, coupled with complexities that come with navigating elements of toxic masculinity, often reminds gay cis men that embracing your queer identity means being weak, or feminine.  All things that are connected to the internalized misogyny many cis gay men — despite their marginalized identity — can’t escape.

Size and weight’s connection to how one views themselves in their gender role, often leads queer men to use their fitness journey as a code, one that often means a negative body perceptionand a negative perception on what it means to identify as queer.

For many queer individuals, the gym and body image are ways to overcome the mental and emotional scars that often linger from being categorized as “other” throughout one’s life. A much needed discussion that rarely seems to occur is how, in the gay community, having the “perfect body” affords you the privilege of being desired or accepted, something many long for during their coming-out process — and after.  

In conversations like these, folks often fail to elaborate on what it means to have the ideal body. For many gay men, the idea of being on a fitness journey means achieving as close to the concept of perfection as possible; this is often antiquated as thin, white, cis and able-bodied. Oddly enough, all things that can be attributed to making someone more sexually attractive in the gay community.

But, what we must recognize in following this conversation is that there are multiple truths about the topic that can exist at the same time.  For some queer men being seen as sexually attractive is enough. For others, going to the gym can mean vanity and self-indulgence. And then there are those who go simply to maintain their health.

The complexity in conversations like these is that we can never fully know why someone might be on a fitness journey. Just as coming out is hard, so is pinpointing the truth behind why one might frequent the gym. For some it might be narcissism,  but for someone like myself who was once obsessed with the gym to maintain my looks, I now frequent the gym as a way honor the transformation and changes in my life. Being more vocal about body image issues (and being in therapy to do work around them), reminded me that my “fitness journey” is a personal one — one that is coupled with multiple realities I must face.

One of my great realities is coming to terms with the fact that weight loss does make me feel more desirable. And if going to the gym is the only way to make that happen, then who am I to yuck your yum?

But, in acknowledging the truth that lives at this topic’s core, we must address that we are ALL doing something to be desired, or to attain the privileges that comes with it. With every photo you post or every thought you tweet out, there is something to be desired behind said action. We all want to be validated, so when pointing out that a gay cis man might being using their “fitness journey” as a way to garner privilege and sexual access, we have to wonder if this is accurate to someone’s truth or just an act of projection.

If we are really going challenge the status quo as to how we talk about fitness and objectivity in the gay community, we must first acknowledge that the conversation begins with how quick members of the community are to judge one another. We must also be willing to unpack desirability politics that live at the border of gay cis men’s experience, and how whiteness and toxic masculinity reinforces the way we view ourselves inside and outside of the gym.

The conversation about gay cis men and the way they see themselves in relation to their “fitness journey” is only a drop in the bucket in relation to the problems that the community has. The benefits that whiteness, masculinity and muscularity brings, wrapped in the sexual objectification of Black and Latino men, is one great place to begin the dialogue.

Like everything else, the conversation is nuanced and delicate. No, there is nothing wrong with loving yourself for the journey you have survived as a gay cis man. There is also nothing wrong with loving the way you look if you are a person of size. And there should be space for every journey and every relationship with the body.

Any journey is difficult, and different people define victory in different ways. It’s time that we stop worrying about taking on other perceptions of our journey, and focus on what truly makes us feel complete. By spending too much time worrying about someone else’s journey, we will never reach a true destination of feeling complete in the process. That’s the true end-goal, to be happy and whole.