75: Why Gay Men Need A Body Positivity Movement, Too
“Too many of us have spent too much of our lives trapped in the closet. May we not spend the rest of them trapped in the gym.”
I recently came across an incredible article written by a therapist using his voice to proclaim that gay men deserve to move toward a kinder approach and relationship with their bodies. As soon as I read the article, I reached out and asked if he'd be willing to come on the podcast to talk about this important topic.
In this conversation, Zach Verwey and I discuss the barriers to body positivity in the gay community as well as understanding the cultural history around body image concerns that are still prevalent among gay men. This conversation is obviously a sensitive subject for many and Zach and I did our best to talk about this subject with sensitivity and respect.
Zach's website: http://www.zachverwey.com/
Zach's Huffington post article
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Paige Smathers: Hey everyone, welcome back to Nutrition Matters Podcast! My name is Paige, and I’m your host. Today, I’m talking with Zach Verwey, who is a mental health counselor, a progressive faith activist, a writer, and a speaker; and Zach recently wrote an article that really caught my attention and I asked him to come onto the podcast to talk about it. So today we’re talking about why gay men need a body positivity movement, too. Really fascinating conversation around body positivity in the gay community and I think you’re really going to enjoy it.
So before we get into that, I’d like to tell you about some resources available to you. So my online course is called Educate Embrace Empower: how to unlock your inner wisdom to become your own eating expert. This is an online course that’s ten weeks long, and the best part is you have lifetime access to the course and the online support group. This course is all about the information that we talk about in this podcast, only in more depth and really geared towards helping you make healthy, realistic, reasonable, non-obsessive eating and self-care happen in your life long term. The course members have really loved the course and have had so many great things to say about it. It’s been so much fun to do and if you find this podcast helpful to you, you really might want to check out this course because this can really help take your progress to the next level. Recently I had someone write in and say, “I can’t say enough good things about Paige. It has restored my confidence around food, [and] it helped me recognize that so many other factors such as body image, self-talk and emotional health affect my relationship with food. Paige has been so supportive and offered such practical advice that has helped me make significant, positive changes in my eating. I love the freedom that I can choose what works for me and I feel so much hope that I can continue to improve.” So, that’s just what one of my course members had to say, and I’d love for you to check it out if it sounds appealing to you and if you’d like to learn more about it. So, you can access the course and the course info page on my website which is paigesmathersrd.com/course.
And one more announcement, you’ll notice some things have changed with the podcast, and what I’m doing is I’m making all of the podcast episodes that I have under Nutrition Matters be really cohesive and in alignment with one another. So as a result, I am going to be re-publishing some of my early episodes, and retiring some of my earlier episodes. So, if you see some changes in those ways, just know that that’s what’s going on. And in the future you’ll be hearing some older episodes re-published. I noticed that as I look at the stats, you know, the newer episodes get downloaded far more than the earlier ones so I want to bring some of those earlier episodes back up into the forefront to allow more people access to some great information. So, I just wanted to make sure you knew about that coming up, and thanks again everyone for all of your support of the podcast and of my work, and all of your positive comments, reviews, and connections have meant the world to me. If you haven’t already left a review on iTunes yet, I would greatly appreciate it. The more reviews we get, the more listeners we’re able to get and the more I’m able to support this work. Thanks so much again for listening and let me just make sure that I’m introducing my guest today.
So I gave you a little teaser at the beginning about what Zach and I are going to be talking about, but let me help you understand who Zach is and how he is approaching this issue today. So Zach Verwey is a licenced professional counselor in the state of Colorado. He is a University-based advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, and racial justice in religious organizations. Zach has spent a large portion of his clinical career focusing on LGBTQ issues, faith and spirituality, and eating disorders, both in private practice, and in partial hospitalization settings. He has written and presented on body image concerns in both racial and sexual minority groups. Zach wrote this awesome article on Huff Post about “why gay men need a body positivity movement, too” [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-gay-men-need-a-body-positivity-movement-too_us_590cbc67e4b046ea176aeac4], and I reached out to him and said, “we need you to come on the podcast, this is such an important topic and I don’t see anyone talking about it.” Zach and I spend the next hour talking about this idea of body positivity in the gay community. Now I will say that these are very sensitive issues, both for people inside the gay community and outside of the gay community, and I recognize that these are some tricky waters to try to tread, and Zach recognizes that as well. We really do our best in this conversation to try to respect the different perspectives on these issues and also some of the potential objections some gay men might have to this conversation. Like I’ve said in previous episodes, the last thing I want to do is not engage in a conversation because I’m afraid of offending someone or I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. Zach and I are sort of modeling that here, where we’re really trying to do our best but we do recognize that these are tricky issues and very sensitive subjects. So, with that, I really hope you enjoy this. Zach is such an amazing guest and this was such a great conversation. So sit back, relax, and enjoy!
Well Hi, Zach, thanks so much for joining me on Nutrition Matters podcast!
Zach Verwey: Ya, thank you for having me, Paige!
Paige: It’s so exciting to talk about a different angle on body positivity today, and I think that it’s really important. Just so that the listeners understand why I reached out to you: I came across your article called “why gay men need a body positivity movement, too” [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-gay-men-need-a-body-positivity-movement-too_us_590cbc67e4b046ea176aeac4], and it was thoughts that I’ve had very frequently. You put it so eloquently and I wanted to reach out because not only did I love your article, but also I think we get into this rut. When talking about intuitive eating and body kindness and taking good care of yourself and body positivity, we get into this idea that there’s one person or type of person who struggles with that or one way a person looks, one age, one skin color, one sexual orientation. I don’t think that that’s reality, I know that that’s not reality. Part of what I’m trying to do on the podcast is shed light on different people from various backgrounds and various ways of life who also have similar struggles to the typical thing you see in the media. I think that this is the opportunity I wanted to create here on the podcast is exploring that idea from this lens that you talk about in your article of the gay community. That’s what we’re doing here; what do you think? Do you want to add anything else, Zach?
Zach: I think that that’s a really good point. The eating disorder field as a whole in terms of treatment and nutrition is very much starting to shed light on the fact that this isn’t what has historically been thought of as a white woman’s disorder or what have you. We’re really finding that that’s really not the case and that there is a lot of diversity in terms of people who struggle with eating disorders. I really appreciate the fact that you’re working to shed light and bring awareness to that.
Paige: Well exactly. Another thing that we get wrong sometimes, is we assume it’s a female issue, but if you aren’t female then you must be gay. Like if you struggle with body image -
Zach: - Absolutely -
Paige: and you’re a guy then gosh, that means you’re gay. But that is not fair, that’s not true. Yes, there are gay men who struggle, but yes there are straight men who struggle. There are men from all walks of life who struggle with eating disorders and body image struggles as well. So that’s what we’re trying to do here is help shed light on this facet of body positivity that often gets swept under the rug. At least, that’s my experience, that it’s sort of not talked about. Is that how you feel?
Zach: Absolutely, absolutely. I do think that that is one of the factors that really go into play as to why some of this awareness is just beginning. There is a sense of normality in terms of this is just that it’s just, especially within the culture of gay men, there’s this expectation that these are what body image expectations and normalities are. We haven’t necessarily started looking at some of the negative impacts of that [norm] that are happening.
Paige: So as a therapist, do you see this in your practice as you’re working with your clients? Does this come up on a regular basis - body image struggles?
Zach: Yes. I work with a lot of gay men. A lot of times, it’s not necessarily that they’re seeking out counseling for this topic, but it does come up. I’ve had clients in the past who have delayed coming out because they didn’t think that their body was the appropriate size and shape to do so. [There is] a lot of fear and concern around finding a partner if you don’t have a very particular body shape. Some of these things come up in therapy quite often.
Paige: I want to hear a touch of your own story and hear why this resonates with you. I know for me, I have my own personal experience with body image struggles, and you know nothing too crazy or out of the ordinary, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s unfortunate that we normalise these struggles sometimes in our culture. But, my real interest in body positivity comes from my professional work, because I see how this pursuit of some ideal, out-there body shape completely ruins some people’s lives. Once you see it enough, you just want to fight against it; you want to show people there is another way. For me, there’s a little bit of both going on; some of it’s personal some of it’s professional, but what about you?
Zach: I would say very similar. There’s definitely a personal element in here for me in terms of body image struggles in my own story and the process of coming out and what that looks like. I think that how this has really impressed upon me is that there is this element that if you’re a man you shouldn’t struggle with body image at all. There’s already that piece that feels pretty shameful for a lot of people, and I’ve experienced that myself as well. But particularly, being in the gay community, it really accentuates the issue in the fact that now there’s all of this attention to physicality and the body. I see both in personal relationships and in my professional work the ways that this does really consume people and really brings a lot of hardship and pain.
Paige: For sure. There’s nothing more motivating to try to help people when as when you see them struggling/suffering, especially unnecessarily and especially because of people trying to sell stuff. Right? I would boil all of our body shame and feeling inadequate with our bodies down to this whole, - I mean it’s very complex it’s hard to say it’s this one thing, but - part of what’s going on is people are trying to sell us things and it’s pretty easy to sell someone something when they’re afraid or when the thing that they’re trying to sell s connected to what’s most important for someone, which is connection, love, worthiness, being close to people. When we’re told we need to look a certain way in order to achieve those things, that may sell us on quite a few products and supplements and diet plans and things like that. It’s just, - ugh - so exhausting and so sad. But that’s why I’m glad that we’re here, doing this. Zach, I want to hear, for anyone, - you know, I have very diverse listeners from all across the world: some right here in Utah, some all over, and, - just in case someone listening is unfamiliar with what gay culture is like or what the gay community is like, just paint the picture of what it’s like to be in that community and what the pressures are like - to help people understand where we’re coming from as we’re talking about this today.
Zach: Absolutely. I obviously want to start in saying that we can’t over-generalize and say that all of these things are truth for all gay men. But if we look at the culture as a whole, especially where it stands right now, what we’re seeing is really the emphasis and this focus on the “trinity” I’ve called it in the past of youth, physique, and sex. As the culture is developing we have all of these little adages that come out. In terms of what I talked about in my article was this specific story of when I worked in a restaurant and one of my coworkers more or less said something while I was eating to the effect of, “straight skinny is gay fat”, meaning that what may be skinny and acceptable for a straight man is considered fat within gay culture. There are a few different things kind of like that: we have the saying of “25 is the new 45”, it’s been said that “30 is the point where everything goes downhill for a gay man”, “no fat no fem” came up recently in terms of seeking partners. What we find is that there is becoming this focus on physicality. I want to be balanced here and say that that comes from a very understandable place in terms of the fact that a lot of men in the gay community grew up hiding their sexual orientation, really attempting to repress or fight against their desires, or being told that they weren’t okay. In sense, we have a very understandable backswing to a focus on like I said physique and sexual expression and those sorts of things. But what we’re really seeing that develop into is this culture where there’s kind of a joke, the different satire about where we have these apps where you can seek out sex and the pictures that people put on there are just their torsos and trying to show off their abs or bodies or what have you. There’s all these different subcultures within the gay community as well, that a lot of ways that gay men identify themselves and each other are through their body type and sexual position. In terms of body type, there are all these terms like “twink, bear, otter” that all in a sense represent different body types of gay men. It very much becomes a hyper focus on what you’re body looks like and whether that is attractive to somebody or not. In a sense there’s almost this expectation that gay men are fitter or more attractive or what have you kind of in the potential where women say “he’s too cute to be straight” or something to that effect. Then the idea of eating disorder behavior is normalized and almost celebrated. I think about the comedian Kathy Griffin, who is a big ally in the gay community; I was watching one of her standups once and she made this joke about how if she were a gay man she would want to be a “bear” because “bears” are the ones who have a bit more body to them, they’re a little hairier, and she makes the joke that they’re the only type of gay man who’s allowed to eat.
Zach: And so there’s kind of this expectation that that’s how things are in the gay community.
Paige: When you’re saying that disordered eating is normalized and celebrated in the gay community, I think that’s fascinating. It’s sort of true on a mainstream culture - if that’s fair to say - our American and international culture in general has very normalized eating disorder behaviors too. It seems like the gay community might just have a notch or two up from that in terms of the normalization of eating disorder behaviors. What’s also fascinating about that is there might be a touch of sexism going on. If there’s a way to imagine the female version of that I think there’s a way for people to be alerted to those behaviors a bit more than men. Because of this - I don’t know if “prejudice” is the right word? - but of this idea in our head of the typical person who struggles with disordered eating and eating disorders is this thin, white, privileged, emaciated female. Gosh, all these gay men are doing the same exact behaviors, “who cares because they’re men” type of thing.
Zach: Yes. I’m really glad that you said that because that brings up another point that I find really important to speak to when I talk about this issue. Honestly, it’s still very new to talk about the prevalence of this in the gay community, and honestly, it’s often met with a lot of criticism. Often what I hear people say especially with gay men is “what’s wrong with having fitness goals? What’s wrong with working out? What’s wrong with wanting a healthy body?”. Exactly what you’re speaking to it, I think part of it does stem from this concept of who actually struggles with these things and if you are a man that that can’t be a problem. There’s an element in that of what I tell people is that there isn’t anything wrong with having an active lifestyle or desiring that. What we’re really talking about here is when it does become obsessive and rigid and cause a lot of distress when you either are or are not engaging in certain behaviors. I think at this point, because of what the iea is of what struggling looks like, that hasn’t necessarily been differentiated out.
Paige: I think that’s a really important point, and something that we each have to check our own biases each and every time we’re having these conversations or even just thinking in our own minds about the people around us and the struggles that we all go through. We do tend to put things in boxes and say “that type of person struggles this way and this type of person struggles that way”. It doesn’t compute that different people can have similar kinds of struggles. We really do ourselves a big disservice when we think that way because we have so much in common, and we can really learn from each other and help each other. We need each other. That’s why I think it’s so great to have this conversation with you today.
One of the things you mentioned in your article that I thought was fascinating was helping the reader understand some of the cultural history around physique and appearance in the gay community. Do you want to take a minute to talk about that?
Zach: Absolutely. This is the place where I think it really comes through just how complex this issue is and how many factors are at play here. If we look at the culture of gay men historically, appearance has always been a way of finding like-others. Obviously, this isn’t necessarily related to body per-se, but - even back to the days where - there used to be this whole handkerchief system where depending on the color of handkerchief you had in a certain pocket of your jeans identified you as a gay man and a certain type of gay man and what you were looking for in a sexual partner in a sense. Obviously, that has varied over the course of the last few years in terms of hairstyle or physique or various things, but appearance has always been in a sense a way of identifying each other.
If we also look at this from a sociological perspective, it’s important to note that as a culture, we’re also not very far removed from the AIDS epidemic. HIV is still a major concern amongst gay men. There’s a sense that coming from that time period, there is a desire to look strong and healthy, and not look sick - in a sense. On the heels of that as well, gay men are in a very - in a sense - unique position that speaking of this desire to look fit and healthy, gay men have also all been raised in the muscle ideology of masculinity as - obviously this is changing at this point, but - we have all been socialized in a very gendered way. Gay men enter the world and grow up under this very masculine-muscle ideology and then enter the subculture where there’s an emphasis on thinness. As we look on the spectrum of what it means to be masculine, what our understanding of what it means to be feminine, there’s very much this tension between having muscle and thinness, the masculine and the feminine, in a way that potentially other groups don’t always feel in the same way necessarily.
Paige: That’s interesting. I love the history and the idea that before it was the culture we’re in now - where it’s more acceptable and people are “out” and living their lives and not in the closet, there’s less of a need for these subtle signals of appearance or of - what’s the word? Like the immaculate sort of -
Paige: - everything put together, there might be less of that stress needed because we live in a different world now than even a decade ago or two decades ago. But, it still lives on in the psyche of gay men - I would imagine - in terms of the culture we’ve built around that community.
Zach: Yes. This is one of the other factors that I think really comes into play with this. There is the piece that as a culture, we are still very young in terms of acceptance around the LGBTQ community. It’s been - what? - two years now since gay marriage has been legalized on a national level. I think there is something to be said to the fact that as we look at the adults and the current generation [of people] in their 20s and 30s, this generation of gay men is really the first to as adults experienced more acceptance and more celebration. But, that’s coming on a long history of growing up without that acceptance or celebration. If we look at what we know about eating disorders in general, we know that it’s usually not about the food - right? - that there’s always this sense of needing to feel in control after your environment has been out of control; or feeling unloved, unworthy, or not good enough.
Paige: Needing to numb.
Zach: Needing to numb, to disappear, needing to protect. These are all factors that play into disordered eating behavior. If we look at a lot of the root of that it comes down to experiencing a lot of shame. For a lot of gay men, LGBT youth in general really, this is a generation that still has grown up with a lot of discrimination, victimization, being bullied as children. We’re still seeing a lot of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness, isolation from their families or their peers, and, there are still the elements of heteronormativity that are at play or the experience of reparative therapy as well. All of this increases the idea that “there is something internally flawed or wrong about who I am as a person.” We know that that shamed experience leads to a variety of mental health issues and eating disorders being one of those.
Paige: Very well said. All of those things you described of bullying, of feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong about who you are, feeling unworthy of love; it’s just such trauma. And yes, when we experience trauma we do what we have to do to survive. Sometimes you learn things at a young age or in a moment of vulnerability and weakness that maybe help you in the moment but maybe aren’t functional or healthy long term, but it can become something that you do just to make it through. Like you said -
Zach: The survival part particularly!
Paige: - Yes! Exactly. When you have a cohort of individuals with all of this trauma and all of these years of feeling unworthy and feeling unloveable, it makes perfect sense to me that that would manifest itself very often in a struggle with body image and in a struggle with food. When you feel like there’s something wrong with you inside, the natural tendency is to say “what can I change on the outside of me so people will love me?”
Paige: I think that’s what we’re really talking about with body positivity or developing a healthier relationship with your body. Maybe it’s body neutrality or body respect. There’s lots of ways to have a relationship with your body; it doesn’t need to be rainbows and butterflies the whole time. What it comes down to is - we’re talking about love and worthiness and connection. That’s why I love talking about these things - I know it seems like a stretch when we’re talking about nutrition - to go to this idea of worthiness and connection and belonging and all of that. That really is - I think - the core of so many struggles with body image.
Zach: Absolutely. It maybe seems like a stretch at first glance but I do think that talking about nutrition and body positivity - we really are talking about connection and the need to belong and the need to feel worthy - they’re married and they’re related. With gay men specifically at least - so maybe we have a group of adults where in their adult selves are able to experience acceptance and some form of connection and affirmation of who they are - but coming off of a lot of years of being very used to the fact where connection has been cut off, belonging has been cut off, and love in a sense has been conditioned on who you were in your identity.
Paige: Exactly. I’m thinking right now about how let’s say a gay man is listening and says “they’re right, I should start from coming this place of wanting to take care of my body and love it and honor it and trusting it”. Let’s pretend we’re being persuasive here.
Zach: *laughs* Okay.
Paige: I can just imagine that the very next thought would be “wait a minute, what will that mean in terms of my ability to thrive in my community? Will I be a social outcast? Will I be a weirdo? Will everyone wonder why I’m not rigidly meal prepping and obsessively going to the gym and skipping meals and doing these other behaviors I was doing before? Will I be able to thrive where I am?” I would imagine that would be a concern. What do you think?
Zach: I would agree. Pretending that we’re being persuasive here, because I’m sure I’ve said a lot of things that would offend so many people… *laughs*
Paige: *laughs* That’s brave.
Zach: I think that that’s a concern. Again, if we look at this from a sociological perspective and from a developmental perspective, the development of the culture is still pretty young. Please by no means hear me say that gay men haven’t been around for a lot of years because that’s not the case at all. But, if we look at really what the movement has been towards advocacy and equality and acceptance and pride and celebration, that has all been in the last couple of decades. In terms of this group of people coming together as a culture, the culture is still very young. The focus thus far has been on equality and acceptance, and there hasn’t been necessarily a ton of room for looking at anything else at this point. It was just after gay marriage was legalized that there was this really wonderful article on Huffington Post that called attention to the fact that “okay we achieved gay marriage but that didn’t fix everything”. There’s still mental health issues, there’s still isolation and so on. If we look at it from that perspective, there’s an element of the culture is still really banding together and looking for sameness and a place to belong and a place to fit and a place to identify - which as we just talked about, really sadly has been robbed of so many LGBTQ people in general. But, if we’re talking about gay men specifically, we’re still looking for a place to belong and a place to fit in and now that that is coming together, how scary it must be to, in attempts, start a critique on some of these potentially maladaptive or problematic things that come out in this.
Paige: I can totally relate to that idea. I’m a part of some groups of people who do similar things that I do. You can think of some of our work as activist work, too, in terms of trying to shift the culture from our disordered way to approach food to a healthier way to approach food. I’ve actually seen in that community, somewhat of a fear of critiquing our movement - and “what do we need to do differently? What are we doing right? What are we not doing very well at?” - that will make our movement “weak” or it will be perceived that we are not united. But, the truth is that there’s as many approaches to these things as there are people. No two people do things the exact same way. We need to get comfortable with that. It’s a sign of love and affection for your community when you do speak out and say, “hey guys, we need to do better at this; this is not working for us.” I don’t think that that means that we’re failing or we’re showing weakness. That is my opinion, though.
Paige: You said earlier that you were thinking that something you said was going to offend people. I’m really curious about what you mean because I’m not super tuned into the gay community like you are. Is this a really radical thing we’re talking about here? Maybe I’m naively saying “Oh, great! We’re having this nice conversation.” Meanwhile - you know - maybe it’s really kind of radical, the things that we’re talking about here. Is that what you meant? Tell me more.
Zach: … I don’t know, to kind of straight shoot here, there’s also the sense of - you know everything I just said in terms of - having it be a new culture and everyone looking for a place to belong and fit in and be accepted, I absolutely feel it, too. There is a sense of - it does feel pretty radical to say “this is going on and this is not working for people and perhaps we’re doing something that needs to be changed.” I think that the balance within that is that there is a lot of sensitivity around the idea that perhaps you are doing something that is maladaptive or harmful or any of those things. So many gay men are coming from a place of having heard that their entire lives growing up: there was something that wasn’t good enough, there was something that was flawed… in a sense to approach this conversation and in statements that maybe come across as [unintelligible] of masculinity and femininity all with the intention of there’s something that isn’t working or what maybe heard as flawed or wrong or any of those same things. I think that that can be a real point of pain. That’s completely understandable, that’s why in a sense that this conversation needs to be happening so we can really come at it from a place of sensitivity and empathy. Also at the same time it can be a really scary conversation - to say “we just got to the space of acceptance and celebration, why would we begin to pick apart the pieces of that?” If that makes sense.
Paige: That does make sense, definitely. I wanted to hit on that because I want to make sure that we’re showing the different sides to this and trying to explore how some of the things that we’ve been talking about today might be somewhat difficult for some people to hear, and that’s okay and that doesn’t make the person listening wrong or us wrong. It is scary to be one of the first people to raise their voice and say “hey, maybe we need to make a change.” Because I don’t see this conversation happening. You may really be one of the few voices talking about these issues in this particular way. I do recognize that that can be nerve-wracking, and I feel that same way a lot of times on my podcast, too. I feel for you, obviously not in the same exact way, but I understand that feeling.
Zach, you talked about this earlier a little bit where the typical objections you get when someone hears about your perspective on body positivity of being like “well what’s wrong with such and such behavior? What’s wrong with taking care of myself and being healthy?” Let’s explore that a tiny bit. Do you want to together? I think that’s a really common objection to body positivity that’s maybe something worth shedding light on because I think we actually agree on a lot more that we think there.
Paige: So you take a stab at it and then I’m going to comment on it too.
Zach: Oh. How do you want me to take a stab at this? The reasoning for that? Or..
Paige: No, what can we say? To someone who who says “what’s wrong with me trying to be healthy?” Just the typical objections to your perspective on body positivity. I think we need to flesh that out a little bit.
Zach: Sure, ya. There are a couple pieces that I would answer to this. This conversation is still pretty new and there aren’t a ton of voices that are talking about this quite yet. I do have a few colleagues and I know a few people who are working specifically with gay men and body image and eating disorders. Between my experience and what I’ve seen from my peers and some of the backlash that they’ve gotten, there is a sense of “what’s wrong with wanting to be active and healthy and fit?” - which in a sense is a fair statement. But, that’s where I feel like it is necessary to really start to tease out what we are talking about here.
Paige: Yes! Like: What’s your definition of healthy? What does “fit” mean to you? Yes, exactly.
Zach: And I really think starting to get honest about: What are the motivations? What are your goals? I’m not talking about having an active lifestyle and eating foods that make your body feel good, I actually feel very in support of those things. But, again, looking at: Is this something that’s becoming obsessive? Is it getting in the way of the rest of your life? If you don’t get to go to the gym for a day, does it cause mental and emotional stress? When you’re at the gym, it it from a sense of “I love my body and this feels really good to me” or is it from a sense of “I need to change my body and something’s not good enough; how can I make myself better and less flawed somehow?”
I think it’s important to differentiate what we’re talking about here.
Paige: What I’m hearing here - and I say this all the time, Zach, and I think you’re so on it - is this idea of intentions behind behaviors as being the real indicator of whether or not you’re on the right track or whether you’re dipping into some problematic behaviors. Two people could perform the same exact behavior, but for one person it could be completely disordered, wanting-to-manipulate-their-body type of reason, and for the other it could mean “I like going to the gym because it feels good for my body, I like celebrating what my body can do, I have gratitude for it..” I think we get really caught up in behaviors as the indicator of you know whether or not we’re on the right track with our health. We really lose sight of what’s most important is the intentions behind those. We’re not in the habit of looking at our heart or other people’s hearts. We’re in the habit of “life is busy, so many things are going on, let’s simplify this messy world and just look around at people and make all kinds of assumptions, let’s look at myself and make all kinds of assumptions.” But really, life gets so much better when you can just take a minute to say “why am I doing these behaviors? Does that feel functional to me? Does that feel in balance and in harmony with who I am on a deeper level?” Very often, you might still do the same behaviors like exercise and like meal plan and eating fruits and veggies - stuff like that - but in a totally different mindset that’s more functional and healthy for you.
Zach: Of course. Another piece that you touched on that’s also really important to talk about is the piece of not necessarily being used to seeing the hearts of others as well. It’s one thing to really assess “what are my motivations? How do I be really honest with what’s really going on for me internally?” It’s another thing - when looking at other people and what’s going on for them - really coming from a place of empathy and curiosity for what their story might be. I would say some of the other critique I’ve received in talking about this is where individuals have made comments about my body. In that [example], my thought process was “so these people don’t necessarily know the struggles that I’ve had or that I’ve been through or what my story is. In that same way, I don’t know that about anybody else either until I really know about them as a person.” Even as we talk about this on a meta-level, we’re looking at what maybe is a pervasive issue in the community; also understanding that everybody’s story is unique and different, and that there’s very understandable reasons for why this is the case. Instead of holding ourselves and each other hostage to these expectations and carrying around critiques and becoming defensive and all of these ways that don’t necessarily facilitate open communication that’s helpful, it’s really important to look at these things and say “this is the reality, how do I understand you better? What might be helpful for you? How can we move forward as a community and really support each other in this?” instead of lashing out at each other.
Paige: Right. And I hope this conversation hasn’t come off as a critique so much as an exploration of this issue. Everyone should have permission to land wherever they want with this. It’s okay if you’re not in the place where you want to love your body, or that’s not your thing. No one is trying to force you. What I’m trying to say is maybe no one has outright told you this: No matter who you are, it’s okay to love yourself as you are, and it’s also okay to continue to grow and improve and change and become, but, that doesn’t mean that you can’t love yourself as you are today. When talking about body positivity, that’s the big thing I wanted to get across. In regards to the gay community, I just had a realization that that’s maybe something that people haven’t heard much. It makes perfect sense that this whole idea of “oh you can just love your body” might be very foreign because it’s not something that they’ve been told or have practiced much.
Paige: I’ve loved this conversation. Thank you so much.
Zach: I have as well.
Paige: I want to hear what you wish people listening did differently with their gay friends and family in regards to body image, dieting, weight concerns, and other related concerns. What mistakes do you see that people who love gay people do sometimes in regards to these issues?
Zach: Sure…. As you ask that question, I think about it. There are some things that I see being more cultural shifts that we need to make. We need to have people who are willing to make them and are willing to do something that may be as radical/different/new. In answering this question, I want address the people who are both outside and inside the community of gay men. We need to focus on our young people. If we look at what we talked earlier in terms of some of the difficulties and some of the tragedies that LGBTQ youth face, that’s where a lot of these issues really take root. We need to start advocating for that group. How can we lessen bullying in schools? How can we decrease some of the minority stress and victimization and discrimination that these young kids are having to deal with? Within families specifically, there’s an element of - I want to be really respectful with how I put this, too. The idea of acceptance and celebration of gay sexual orientation is pretty young. I think that there does need to be an element of with family, trying to really see the person before the sexual identity. Don’t hear me say that those my any means are separate or different things or anything of that manner. But, I have so many people that I really love and respect who really are uncertain on how they feel on gay relationships or gay marriage or the wider movement of gay pride, and I’m okay with that since there’s a lot of integrity to sticking to what your convictions and beliefs are. Within that, there’s certainly is a point of shifting the perspective of “how can we really communicate to our youth that ‘you are loved and accepted and perfect just as you are regardless of wherever you may fall’?” on the activist and advocacy side - if that makes sense.
For gay men within the community, there is such an importance that we stop holding ourselves and each other hostage to these body image expectations and pressures and maladaptive behaviors that are starting to take their toll on us. If we look at this in terms of shame being a major rut in a lot of these issues, I think of there being two antidotes to shame that I have heard of. .. I was at a conference recently where they were really speaking to the idea of self-compassion and self-acceptance being an antidote to shame. Anybody who is familiar with Brene Brown knows that she speaks to speaking your shame to safe people which leads to empathy; empathy is the pitfall and weapon against shame. That’s where I was coming from in terms of writing the article. I used to work at an eating disorder clinic, and a coworker and I were giving a presentation on some of the research and different factors that perpetuate eating disorder behavior within the LGBTQ community. One of my coworkers was the one who was an inspiration for all of this; she said “we’ve started to see some push back against this, say for women or the wider culture, is there any push back around some of these things in gay culture?” My coworker and I looked at each other and said “no.” There are very few people who are talking about this. My biggest encouragement - and even as I say that that this can extend outside of just gay men, but for both the gay men and the people who love them, this is something that needs to be talked about. We need a lot of sensitivity and empathy of exploring what the experiences are and how we can be supportive and appreciative of both ourselves and one another.
Paige: I can’t even say anything else besides that. That was beautifully put, and I loved it. Thank you for those thoughts. That was really powerful as so important for anyone. This extends beyond just gay men and it’s important stuff for everybody. I’m really glad that we took the time to have this conversation.
Zach: Me too.
Paige: I’m really glad that me as an outsider can perhaps shed a little bit of light and show people a different way. I think it will happen; I think in a couple years we’ll see more buzz around this particular issue.
Paige: For now, we put this out there and hope it’s helpful to some, you know?
Paige: So Zach, I am going to link the article [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-gay-men-need-a-body-positivity-movement-too_us_590cbc67e4b046ea176aeac4] that you wrote so that people can check out what you wrote; it’s on Huffington Post. Also, take a minute and let people know how they can keep up with you and perhaps contact you if you don’t mind.
Zach: Absolutely. I would love to hear from anybody who wants to reach out. On Huffington Post, where my “Author Bio” and “Contributor Section” is, if you click on that link it gives a tidbit about me and also has my website on there. If you don’t get that far, my website is www.zachverwey.com and there is a way to email me from there, and I’d love to hear from anybody who wants to reach out.
Paige: Okay. Great. I’m so excited about putting this out into the world. I’m grateful to you for taking a risk in talking about it, because there’s always a potential to offend or hurt feelings. But, you put it so well where the intention is not to point fingers but to encourage more love and more embracing of one another, and less fighting.
Zach: Absolutely. More connection, and less division. That’s where we’re going to see this issue start to disappear.
Paige: We need that in this world.
Paige: Well thanks for all you do Zach, and thanks so much for being here. I will look forward to publishing it soon and hearing from listeners.
Zach: Yes. Paige, thank you so much for having me, and this has been wonderful.