Every morning, Jamal Jones rolls out of bed, shuffles over to his bathroom, and flips on the light switch. The 29-year-old Washington, DC, resident is slim-framed, by all accounts handsome. On those mornings, he can see the sleep in his eyes, the stubble growing on his chin—but that’s not what he’s looking for. Without helping it, he immediately starts scanning for that one aspect of his appearance he never seems to be satisfied with, no matter how much he goes to the gym or how many diets he tries. It’s body fat—any body fat he can see—that perturbs him.
Jamal suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD. It’s classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder in the DSM-V; sufferers become obsessed with particular aspects of their appearance they deem unworthy, no matter how unrealistic those thoughts may be. Jamal is also gay, making him one of many queer men who suffer from BDD and distorted body image.
It’s no secret that certain segments of the gay community hold high, near-oppressive standards of what counts as sexually attractive. Countless gay menhave struggled to see themselves within it as a result. Studies show that gay men disproportionately suffer from eating disorders and negative body image, and BDD may affect gay men at a higher rate than straight men as well. Whether suffering from a diagnosable disorder like BDD, or just inundated with negative attitudes about one’s looks, it’s clear that when it comes to body image issues, gay men are hurting—and the root causes are likely endemic to the way the gay community functions itself.
Ken Howard, an LA-based therapist who focuses on helping gay clients, attributes a variety of causes to the proliferation of body dysmorphia in the community. There’s the idea, for one, that gay men know themselves to be somehow “different” from a young age, and are “continuously judged by a broader, generally homophobic global society,” as he put it. Feeling that difference could cause one to internalize higher standards of beauty as a coping mechanism. Other possibilities include anxiety about one’s “role” in the gay community, or even something as simple as the “increasingly muscular action figures” kids are raised with, with “impossibly muscular physiques that don’t really exist in adult reality.”