The colonial politics of desirability, fitness and gay manhood
Colonial scripts of desirability have seeped into every community, often uplifting eurocentric beauty standards and expectations.
by Avery Ware
The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live. I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.- James Baldwin
Earlier this year, BBC News released a segment that attempted to delineate gay men’s obsession with fit, well-sculpted, “acceptable” bodies. During the segment, the host spoke with different men about the pressure to have the “perfect” [read: muscular] body in order to be “accepted” [read: fuckable] in gay male communities.
While well-intended, the segment fell flat because it was a one-dimensional representation of how desire and attraction are formed and developed among gay men. In order to have a serious discussion concerning desirability, we must first identify the external influences (race, gender, class) that are foundational in shaping which bodies are “acceptable” and which aren’t.
Colonial scripts of desirability have seeped into every community, often uplifting eurocentric beauty standards and expectations. Gay men in particular have been impacted by these expectations which often lead to body/muscle dysmorphia, eating disorders, over-exercising, low self-esteem, and depression.
If you are active on the internet, a participant on gay dating apps such as Grindr or Jack’d, go out to gay bars or nightclubs, or even have an Instagram, you are well acquainted with how much value is placed on the body amongst gay men. Scholars Russell K. Robinson and David M. Frost suggest that mainstream gay male culture [media, nightlife venues, pornography, etc.] may be to blame. While I whole-heartedly agree with Robinson and Frost, we must also analyze the influence of white supremacist patriarchy within the mainstream gay male culture for a more accurate censure.
Under the thumb of patriarchy, masculinity reigns supreme and maintains a system that values masculinity over femininity in every respect. The most salient display of masculinity is physical appearance. A body ripped with muscles presents as strong, successful, and dominant – all gender-specific traits that are direct results of traditional masculine ideals. World War II propaganda is a model example for ways maleness, masculinity, muscularity (and whiteness) are communicated as powerful and desirable.
Moreover, under patriarchy, where gayness is deemed inherently un-masculine, even a threat to idealized masculinity, gay men have the opportunity to subvert traditional masculine ideologies. While some have and continue to do so, largely, many gay men are beholden to traditional modes of masculinity that is fundamental to our understanding of [self] worth, attraction, desirability.
There was one element of the BBC News segment that I’m glad was discussed: gay media. In this instance, it was gay print media that looked a lot like physique magazines. Physique magazines are emblematic of how traditional masculine ideologies are imbedded into gay male culture concerning desirability. The host pulled seven magazines from the shelf that all showcased white, muscular or lean bodies. Both America and the UK have a rich history of producing physique magazines and contributing to desirability in gay male culture.
Physique magazines were the very first print media to market to gay men that arose after the Second World War. In post-war America, America experienced a sexual awakening. Historian and scholar John D’Emilio dubbed it a “nationwide coming out experience.” Men, most of which serving in WWll, were no longer content with heteronormative expectations. Many fled to larger cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angles, and San Francisco and created “gay ghettos”. Gay bars were becoming more popular, with drag balls functioning as prominent parts of nightlife, and media beginning to recognize and report on Queerness.
These magazines played a significant role in providing a sort of collective consciousness in post-war America for gay men. For many living outside of large cities, it was their only form of participation in the larger community. However, much like the gay male communities today, physique magazines were largely marginalizing in that they followed colonial scripts of desirability: white and muscular.
The magazines were not only entertainment and informative, they were didactic and instructive themes on white masculinity.
The adherence to traditional masculinity in physique magazines was a requirement. Magazine editors deliberately delineated effeminate gay men (drag and ballroom queens) from plebeian gay men (seemingly cisgender and heterosexual). Tom of Finland was a popular artist that draw explicit pictures of men that emphasized masculinity through muscular frames and white-collar sensibilities. His drawings were often featured in a popular physique magazine, Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial.
When asked about his inspiration for his drawing, Tom states, “Soon I began to exaggerate their maleness on purpose to point out that all gays don’t necessarily need to be just “those damn queers”, they could be handsome, strong, and masculine as any other men.” Essentially, Tom’s chief artistic motivator was complete assimilation and adherence to patriarchal understandings of manhood.
In an attempt to feel less cheated, white gay men attempted to assimilate into colonial scripts of masculinity through muscular body types via avenues such as physique magazines. As a result, gay male culture and our understandings of desirability are a direct reflection of traditional masculine ideologies that have plagued the media we consume and our interpersonal relationships. When discussing body image issues among gay men, which is what the BBC segment attempts, we must first understand the adherence to white supremacist patriarchy, and explore methods to combat it.
Avery is a recent graduate with a masters in American Studies and a focus in Black queer history. He is currently a Higher Education professional with a focus on inclusion and social justice. He’s also a freelance writer.