The Adonis Factor in the Gay Community

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The clip above is from a documentary called “The Adonis Factor” by Christopher Hines I recently watched, and it got me thinking about the typical gay male quest for physical perfection. Why do we as gay men put such an emphasis on body image and how healthy is this pursuit on the individual as well as the community at large?

To find the answers, I started by looking at myself. I’m just as guilty at propagating this quest, and most who know me well are at this moment nodding their heads vigorously in response. It’s not like I can deny it. I watch my caloric intake–no more than 1,600 calories per day. For breakfast, I eat a protein shake with a banana and flax seed. I have a whole wheat chicken sandwich, another banana, and a protein bar for lunch, and for dinner a nice meal lovingly prepared by my husband, who knows my caloric and dietary restrictions. I drink water all day. No carbonated drinks cross these lips unless I’m having a vodka and sprite on those rare nights out. I go to the gym six days a week religiously, and I can be quite the bear if my workout schedule is interrupted.

Why do I do this?

Well, I do it to stay healthy. As the fat kid for most of my life, I have no desire to once again weigh 195 pounds, which is what I weighed at my heaviest, and since I stand only 5’6″, we all have to admit I was quite chunky.

But is health the only reason I do this? Of course not!

Looking good means being appreciated by others, and who doesn’t enjoy that? I certainly do, and I’m married with children! So to say that the quest for physical perfection is merely what we do to snag a mate is not true. The strive for physical perfection doesn’t stop once we’ve reached the happily ever after. And it’s not just me. I know many gay men who continue to hit the gym and watch their calories way after they are in a fully committed relationship.

“The Adonis Factor” claims that gay men are “visually programmed” and that “attractiveness is key to a man’s self esteem.” I can’t argue with those points. Like women, gay men are inundated with models of physical perfection in the media daily. The hunky models and the shirtless actors affect us as much as supermodels sometimes spur women to reach for physical perfection. We want to be desired like those hard bodies we see on the screen or in the magazines too. Also, to catch someone’s eye or cause that shirtless muscle man across the bar to stop mid sentence and stare at you with his mouth open just feels damn good.

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But I think the gay male’s quest for physical perfection goes beyond being visually programmed or self esteem. I think it appeals to a more base instinct–competition. Men are competitive by nature, and most don’t like to lose. I know I don’t. So while the promise of sex and the boost to our self-esteem are definitely contributing factors, I think so is competition.

Think about it. We work harder, so we can be the best, or as close to it as we are going to get. When gay men see someone with a hot body, do they want to be with that person sexually? Well, yeah. That’s usually a no-brainer. But most also secretly want to have that body longer than just for the night. They want their pecs to be as sculpted, their biceps to be as bulging, and their abs to be just as flat.

You can see it happening at any gym or gay bar. Gay men dress to impress, but their eyes are constantly scanning the crowd in search of a body they not only want sexually but one they wish they could have. The guys with the best bodies are usually either shirtless or wearing the tightest shirts possible, and they typically get the most guys coming on to them. They put what they have on display, and it motivates gay men who fall just shy of them to increase their reps at the gym or the number of sit ups the next day. When the inevitable craving for a chocolate bar or a pizza hits, those striving for physical perfection think about the hot guys at the club or on television, and they pass on the empty calories for the delayed gratification of a flatter stomach and more muscle mass.

And while this makes for a more healthy conscious community, what effect does the pursuit for physical perfection have on the individual and on the community?

There are certainly positive effects. Gay men maintain their bodies for far longer than straight men do, and as a result, typically suffer from less health problems. A study conducted by American Journal of Public Health and reported on in South Florida Gay News states that “… gay men are 50 percent less likely to be obese compared to their heterosexual counterparts.” Since we watch our weight, we suffer less from diabetes, heart disease, or other illnesses related to lack of physical fitness. The study also quotes Dr. Greg Pizzi, a psychologist, who states that “men or women, who are in relationships with men would generally take better care of their bodies, since men tend to be more visual in their attractions and make it pretty clear that they are looking for a partner who looks good.” So while gay men take care of themselves better than their straight brothers, there is no true altruism behind the gesture. They do it to remain sexually attractive and competitive with other gay men.

But this craving to remain as sexually attractive and competitive for as long as possible also comes with a price. I found an article titled “Men are Dying for Sex: Mating Competition Explains Excess Male Mortality” on Phys.org, a popular science, technology, and research news website that focuses on biology, among other subjects. The article states that “men compete with other men for mating partners and trying to make themselves attractive…. This competition leads to strategies that are riskier for men both behaviorally and physiologically, and these result in higher levels of mortality.” While the article focuses on male/female relationships, the information found within it can definitely be applied to gay men.

In the gay community, where gay man battles gay man for physical perfection and mating rights, the results can be dire, as stated in the Phys.org article. A recent survey reported on in PinkNews, a large European gay news site, states that:

48% of gay men would sacrifice a year or more of their lives in exchange for a perfect body.

The research also said 10% of gay men would agree to die more than 11 years earlier if they could have their ideal body now.

Nine in ten gay men admit they enforce ‘unrealistic’ images of lean and muscular men in conversation.

In comparison, only a third of straight men said they would give a year or more for an ideal body shape, and 77% admitted buying into the body image ideal.”

As you can see from the survey, the quest for physical perfection is problematic, when half of our community would die early just to have the perfect body. And if they are willing to die early, then logically this means that many gay men are falling into unhealthy body image issues, such as bulimia/anorexia, steroid usage, and cosmetic surgery. According to the survey, “record numbers” of men are seeking these alternatives. Another study conducted by psychiatrist D. Blake Woodside, a faculty member with the University of Toronto, states that gay men make up a significant portion of the 1 million men suffering from eating disorders.

So not only are gay men willing to die for physical perfection, but many are also killing themselves to accomplish it. Apparently, many gay men will do whatever it takes to be as competitive as possible in the meat market.

This has to stop. Perfection isn’t possible. We are human–gay or straight. As such, we are inherently flawed. The pursuit of perfection is unattainable and if we measure ourselves by our BMI, we may find ourselves alone but with a flat stomach. In our drive to reach perfection and the competitive sexual games played as a result, we focus on the exterior instead of what is on the inside. This is why dating sites like Manhunt or apps like Grindr and Scruff can be problematic. They reduce gay men to profile pictures that other gay men window shop through in order to find the picture that is most appealing, the perfect man with the perfect body. They also add fuel to the fire of left wing rhetoric that gay men are superficial and incapable of maintaining long term relationships.

We need to remember that what’s on the outside doesn’t reveal anything that is lasting. Our bodies will grow old, and they will get flabby and saggy. That’s simple biology.

Instead of striving for physical perfection and being competitive about that, let’s get competitive about being compassionate, loving, caring, industrious, intelligent human beings. If we commit to that with the same verve we pursue physical perfection, there are no limits to what the gay community can do. We could call this the Franklin Factor, after Benjamin Franklin. He was a flawed man, who tried his best to become the best man and citizen he could be. He even kept a journal on his progress toward becoming a better man.

If we as a community strove for the Franklin Factor, something far more lasting than physical perfection, we could bring about societal change that would not only benefit us but future generations, and if we eat healthy and exercise instead of strive for physical perfection, we will also look damn good while we do it.

So instead of trying to be an Adonis, as a community we should grab the occasional slice of pizza, see others for more than just their bodies, and enjoy the lives and bodies we have.

That certainly sounds like a better deal than killing ourselves for the perfect body. What about you?