New research in the UK has shown that half of British gay men would sacrifice a year or more of their lives in exchange for the perfect body. Would you? Torsten Højer considers his stomach at a bar in London.
It’s lunchtime, and the gay bars in London’s Soho are opening for the day. In one of the city’s most popular bars, a statuesque barman looks weary (probably from the night before) as he unlocks the double doors and declares that the bar is open for business. Two Chinese ladies enter first, pulling those old-woman personal shopping trolleys, and go to the toilet, then promptly leave without buying a drink and without noticing the man mountain that let them in.
I’ve noticed him, though. He’s in his early 20s and has tight black jeans on. Tighter still is his white vest, which hugs his pecs and, moreover, ripples down over his bulging abs. He smirks as he pulls me a pint of beer. I smile back, before sitting down to check out what this bar can offer a lunchtime visitor. As the barman stretches, I realize why he’s smug—he’s noticed my lack of abs as he serves up a calorific lager, and he knows he’ll never touch the stuff, as alcohol isn’t conducive to owning an eye-wateringly buff six-pack.
Suddenly the beer tastes rank. With each sip, I know I’m moving further away from that magical washboard stomach. But who cares? Well, almost half of us gay men, apparently. But it’s not just that we desire a six-pack—for ourselves and in our partners—but that we’d rather give up a year of our own life span to attain one.
A new UK study has found that 48 percent of gay men would sacrifice a year or more of their lives in exchange for a perfect body. The research (which was part of a study commissioned by Central YMCA, the Succeed Foundation and the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE Bristol into how men talk about their bodies) also said 10 percent of gay men would agree to die more than 11 years earlier if they could have their ideal body now. Eleven years!
What does this mean?
As I look around, the bar is wallpapered with images of A&F-style models, all with six-packs. The TV screens are showing a music video by British boyband JLS, with the camera angles sweeping up their naked torsos as they sing on a beach. And yes, the sunlight is carving a perfect six-pack into their well-toned tummies. The magazines on the tables in front of me are littered with photos from club nights and every man who has his top off has a six-pack. The adverts all show guys with lean, trim tums and protruding muscles.
Am I a social leper without those six small pieces of muscle on show if I take off my shirt? Everybody seems to have them, so what’s wrong with me? According to every male image in this bar, six-packs are the norm. De rigueur!
Rosi Prescott, CEO of Central YMCA, commented on the six-pack study to the British website PinkNews.co.uk. “This research shows that body image anxiety is sadly much more of an issue for gay men. Today gay men are under enormous pressure about their bodies, and we believe that a lack of body diversity in the media, including the gay press, and a relentless focus which values people based on appearance, may in part explain why gay men are particularly susceptible to this issue. “This is of concern when we know that record numbers of men are taking steroids or having unnecessary cosmetic surgery to achieve what is often an unattainable or unrealistic body image ideal.”
The beer now tastes disgusting. What a waste of £4!
But another point has arisen from the study—do we really want to live to a ripe old age? A gay male friend of mine died recently, aged 66. He had lived a life of booze, cheese and chocolate. He didn’t have a six-pack and never had. But he still didn’t want to live to the age where he’d be shitting himself and unable to clean it up. He didn’t want to be bed-ridden and stinky. He wanted to live life to the fullest, and fuck dieting, booze control and exercise.
Is this part of our gay culture? Do we want to live fast and die young? Are we sucked in by the glamour of the girls who never grew old and remain fabulous in image even today, like Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana? Does the fact that the majority of gay men don’t have kids mean we’re really all so selfish that we can choose to shorten our lives without care for ourselves or any dependents? Is it really true that no one loves a fairy when she’s 40, and therefore we should all brandish six-packs during our 20s and 30s and then give up the will to live?
Who knows? On paper, though, research such as this really does make us gay men sound like a bunch of prissy princesses more eager to worship youth and leanness than value life itself. So the question remained as I left the beer to warm up and the calories to slip down the bar’s sink. Would I trade one year of my life to have the perfect body?
It hurts to say it, but probably, yes. What have we become?
For more information about the research and campaign, visit ymca.co.uk/bodyconfidence/campaign.