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Saturday 12 November 2016


The body image issue: A therapist responds

Posted in: Health & HIV, Features
By Paul Letham - 14th December 2013

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Paul Letham
A month ago, PhD student Paul Kramer wrote an open letter to the current Mr Gay World, Auckland’s Chris Olwage, constructively criticising what he saw as the banality and needlessness of the Mr Gay World competition.

The main thrust of Paul’s arguments were that this body-focused pageant, with its emphasis on shirtlessness and swimming trunks, does nothing but perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Chris responded the next day, defending his self-styled stance as a representative of the gay community, and revealing that despite his struggles, he has succeeded due to hard work and dedication to the gay cause.

As a therapist who deals primarily with the LGBT community, I wanted to respond in kind to both Paul and Chris. I felt that there may be value in revealing the general themes that emerge in my counselling room, and also in adding my voice to the debate. The subjects of self-esteem, body image, and privilege are close to my heart, having both struggled with them myself, and frequently observed them in my clients.

Let me begin by stating that I’m not going to pull any punches here. As a therapist, I’ve been trained to recognise and examine any personal responses that may arise in response to material in the room. I do have opinions here, and despite counselling’s often “cardigan-wearing touchy-feely”” reputation, I’m rarely fearful of voicing my opinions outside of a therapeutic context (as my beleaguered Facebook friends will attest). I would also like to preface my views by stating that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who negotiates their way out of personal hardship. As Paul states in his letter, the journey to LGBT adulthood is painful for all of us, in one way or another. We need to acknowledge this.

I grew up in a conservative rural setting. I was extremely skinny, more than a little girlish, and not at all sporty. I came to adulthood, well-loved, encouraged, privileged, but holding a deep belief that I was somehow not beautiful nor manly enough to be loved by those I was attracted to. However, like Paul and Chris, I was comparatively lucky. My family didn’t reject me when I came out. My friends accepted me. I eventually started dating boys. Options were available to me. But I still struggled with my self-image. I looked at the pictures of smooth, tanned models in “Attitude” and “DNA” and felt infinitely inferior. But, more than that, I came to feel angry, and it was in this anger that I found my confidence, and my eventual vocation.

I’m not a fan of beauty pageants. To put it bluntly, I find them to be elitist, objectifying, and distancing. The Mr Gay World contest ostensibly promotes itself as some sort of self-esteem-raising exercise. I find it difficult to clearly discern this, and, when I examine the pictures contained on their website, including some of Chris in various states of undress, I’m further troubled. To my mind, the content and aesthetic of the website and the competition in general simply adds more Foucauldian noise to a community already saturated by Dionysiac imagery.

Paul Kramer cogently argues that these images, and what they represent, do nothing more than promote shame in those of us who do not conform to the gym-focused, hard-bodied ideal promoted by Chris Olwage. Chris responds by stating that he merely represents an “example of how I was able to transform myself into something else”. The immediate question that springs to my mind is this: just what did Chris transform himself into? Yes, it’s clearly beneficial to maintain fitness and good health, but sadly all I see is a facile stereotype being perpetuated, lauded, and promoted: an attainment ideal that is clearly out of reach for most of us, particularly those less privileged. Chris’ Mr Gay World title is a startlingly-lucid example of conformity to a media-led ideal of gay success. Chris sought his self-esteem through the “fitness world”. Sadly, not everyone has that choice.

Chris mentions in his letter that he is more than just a body, but then uses a phrase that almost seems like a Freudian slip: we receive “social rewards” for looking good, apparently. What could these rewards be? Again, the aesthetic of the Muscle Mary archetype would seem to suggest one thing: desirability. No intellect involved. Is this what we want for our young people, their sole aspiration being to appear sexually attractive? It is argued, again by Chris, that “learning to love yourself is the first step to achieving greatness in life”. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but can’t we learn to love ourselves with more body fat? Whose ideal is Chris living up to? It almost seems as if the bullies won: in my therapeutic experience, increasing muscle mass is often a response to the homophobia we feel around us, a kind of tangible physical shield. Chris goes on to state that “for any change to occur one needs to accept oneself first” – again, agreed. But, as Paul mentions, why not just be happy with the overweight kid you once were?

All of my aforementioned points probably sound like some sort of personal attack. They are certainly not meant to be construed in this way. Any figurehead, self-styled or not, must prepare themselves for criticism. I am always happy to receive it myself.

So, why do I see things from this perspective? What do I see and hear in my counselling room? In all honesty, I observe a lot of what American psychologist Alan Downs refers to as “inauthentic validation”. This refers to the tendency of those gay men who received adverse treatment as children to respond to this trauma by developing certain behaviours: an obsession with a gym-perfect body, buying the right car, obtaining a suitably-beautiful boyfriend, mingling with socially-acceptable people (dropping their names frequently), furnishing their homes with beautiful objets d'art and so on. Is any of this looking familiar?

Inauthentic validation is designed to inure the gay man to any expected pain. It is the fear of judgement, the fear of not measuring up to some spurious gay ideal. The sad irony of this is that, one day, this individual will inevitably face the dawning realisation that it has been all a sham. He has been conned. He achieved the body, he got the car, he married the man with the perfect abs…but he still feels empty. Why? Simply put: he never dealt with the pain he felt in his younger years. The rejection, the abandonment, the bullying was never confronted or explored. Often this will lead the man to my couch, and the work towards authentic self-love and self-expression truly begins.

To my mind, a contest such as Mr Gay World is based on the most specious of reasoning. Its brazen celebration of inauthentic validation is simply not required. More authentic representatives of LGBT diversity can be found in everyday life: actors, community workers, musicians, and sportspeople. I have met and worked with Chris personally in the past in a theatrical venture, and I sincerely admire his determination to change his circumstances. No-one can doubt that his heart is in the right place, but when his image is so firmly-rooted in this vacuous ideal of gay beauty, can we truly take his role seriously? Just whom is he representing? Whilst it’s undeniably satisfying to be established as a community figurehead, people, especially the young, will usually aspire to emulate this image, in all its “perfection”. They will compare themselves to the archetype it illustrates, almost to the point of overkill. Is this truly what our community needs?

Paul Letham is a counsellor and therapist at Auckland’s Mind Your Head Counselling.

He specialises in depression, anxiety, identity issues, sex/sexuality, relationship problems, GLBT issues, self-esteem, and existential concerns.

You can find him on Facebook here and on Twitter here. 
Paul Letham - 14th December 2013

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