The truth is staring me in the face. Serving reflexive duck lips. The truth looks me up and down, turning when I turn, pinching the stubborn roll of fat directly above my waistband that causes me endless consternation. The truth flexes, sucks in its stomach, bounces its pecs, takes a half-dozen selfies, then sighs as in defeat, turning back once more to the mirror. The truth observes the shape of my eyes and my lips, the crookedness of my nose that only the truth can see. The truth looks back at me and imparts its wisdom.
I’m too insecure to date.
I have muscle dysmorphia. It’s not something I’ve been diagnosed with, but it’s something I’m 99.9% sure I have. As defined by the Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) Foundation, muscle dysmorphia disorder (MDD) is a type of body dysmorphia marked by feeling insufficiently muscular or lean, when that is often far from the case. It’s more than simply narcissism run rampant. Sometimes referred to as “bigorexia,” “Adonis complex,” or “reverse anorexia,” MDD is characterized by “excessive time and over-exertion in weightlifting to increase muscle mass”; “disordered eating, using special diets or excessive protein supplements”; “compulsive comparing and checking of one’s physique”; and “significant distress or mood swings.” According to the nonprofit, Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED), almost everyone with MDD also suffers from depression.
Check, check, and check.
Gay men are particularly susceptible to MDD because, secret’s out, we tend to be more sensitive about our body image. Compared to straight men (5%), men who identify as gay (15%) are three times more likely to have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. A recent study found that 45% of gay men are dissatisfied with their muscularity, and are also more likely to have experienced “objectification,” “surveillance,” “appearance-based social comparison,” and “pressure from the media to be attractive” than our straight counterparts.
If you peruse most mainstream gay media, Out included, you’ll find copious amounts of shirtless—usually muscular, usually white—cisgender males reinforcing the old adage that “sex sells.” This media pressure is exacerbated by apps like Grindr, Scruff, et al, that feature copious amounts of shirtless—usually muscular, usually white—cisgender males reinforcing the negativity so often associated with hookup apps and culture. Instagram serves to further complicate matters, your feeds ultimately feeding your insecurity with images filtered through the always accurate lens of social media.
I follow over 1,200 people on Instagram, the bulk of whom are professionally muscular thirst-traps that serve as both my inspiration and the glistening, pumped up manifestation of my insecurities. For someone who’s overweight, being bombarded by these messages is painful enough; for me, someone who hasn’t been overweight in over a decade and who has 12% body fat, it’s painful, but I don’t expect to elicit pity from anyone. This is less about pity and more about understanding; the grass is never greener on the other side, it’s all just the same shitty lawn.
As national treasure Leslie Uggams once belted (to the tune of a Tony, no less), “I’ll be the best or nothing at all!” From the musical Hallelujah, Baby!, chronicling the struggle for African-American equality in the early-20th century, the song “Being Good” speaks volumes to me. In order to compete in society, black people are often told they have to be twice as good just to get half as far. This is especially true in the gay community. So working out became a way of proving my exceptionalism—not only to myself but to everyone else. Yet, my fixation on the male physique dates back to before I even realized I was gay. As a kid, I was captivated, obsessed, by bodybuilding and bodybuilders. Over the years, my obsession only grew to encompass all things muscular, extending beyond the gym into my sexual tastes and proclivities. Some people are into piss play or role playing, I’m into muscle fetishism and muscle worship. It’s always something I’ve been embarrassed about, but now I see it as an extension of my insecurities.
The desire to be with someone with a body I consider perfect is simply wish fulfillment, but it also requires the denigration of my own body—I wished I looked like you; my body’s not as good as yours! My obsession has thus become something greater. I can’t walk past a mirror without catching a glimpse of myself, my eyes zeroing in on my “problem areas.” Scrolling through my Grindr or Instagram, I find myself constantly comparing myself to men that I’m both attracted to and envious of. And then the resentment inevitably starts.
What’s the point of working out, of lifting these heavy weights, of being in pain all the time, of killing myself with cardio every morning, with religiously monitoring everything I eat because I’ll never look like that? From there, my thoughts continue to spiral downward and out of control. What’s the point of working hard at all? What’s the point of sacrificing? What is the point of anything? What am I even worth?
While I’m aware I have far more to offer men than my body, men don’t seem interested beyond what I have to physically offer. By using my body as currency—to garner attention and acceptability—my body becomes the focus and everything else inconsequential. So if I’m not getting responses from guys on the apps, I immediately think it’s a direct result of my level of attractiveness, or lack thereof. Of course, there are other factors at play—gay dating apps are predicated on a system that unfairly maligns and fetishizes non-white men, that exalts “masculinity” over originality, and forces one to dull and blur one’s complexities to fit into a convenient box for perusal thus rewarding homogeneity and punishing individuality.
With all these factors considered, I’m too insecure to date. And after constantly putting myself through this emotional ringer, I don’t want to date. I don’t want to be with anyone, I don’t want to have sex with anyone, I don’t want to so much as look at anyone because the process of seeking love/affection/compassion has broken me. Absolutely and unequivocally. Being on Grindr and Instagram and seeking the hollow validation they offer only serve to destroy what precious self-esteem I’ve built up in spite of my issues with body image. Quitting hookup apps or social media is a temporary solution, but in order to fix myself, I have to—as terribly cliché as it sounds—learn to love myself and to believe I am worthy of love. Because, while it’s easy to know something, it’s completely another to believe it.