Q: Earlier this year I joined a gym to do something about my body. It made me feel more inferior than ever, and I quit after going just a few times. It was a mostly gay gym, and all the muscle boys were posing and cruising each other. No one even looked at me. Gay men want big blond body builders. Iâ€™m thin, half Asian, half Caucasian. It all just reminded me how I donâ€™t make it in the looks department. I had to adjust every weight machine down, because I canâ€™t pump as much iron as all those big guys. And when it was time to take a shower, I had to take off my clothes and show everyone my little dick. I went into the sauna, where more muscle guys were half jacking off at each other. No one even noticed that I had walked in. I want to feel better about my body, and I thought exercise would help, but what do I do if I canâ€™t even get myself to walk into a gym?
A: A practical first suggestion, given how anxious you feel around gay men, is to find a gym that isnâ€™t full of gay guys cruising. When you start out with the poor body image that you obviously have, a more low-key atmosphere would be a safer place to start. If you can find one that is less intimidating, you might also try having a few sessions with a personal trainer. Theyâ€™re often good at helping people feel more comfortable at the gym. And if you canâ€™t find a gym where you feel comfortable, that doesnâ€™t mean you canâ€™t get any exercise. There are all kinds of ways to exercise (jogging, for instance) that donâ€™t have to be done in a gym.
But while working out in a safer setting might help you feel more comfortable about getting regular exercise, it isnâ€™t going to help much with your body image, which could use some serious examination.
My biggest challenge in talking to guys about their body image problems is to get them to stop being so literal and start understanding that the way they think about themselves physically is often a metaphor for how they feel about themselves on the inside. In your case, for instance, it may reflect some idea that youâ€™re not really entitled to take up space in the world. I say that because it seems easy for you to conclude from cues in the environment that you donâ€™t belong and should go away. When people donâ€™t look at you, that can mean all kinds of things â€“just that they donâ€™t know you, for instance, or that theyâ€™re preoccupied with what theyâ€™re doing. Even if some are unfriendly, itâ€™s possible to see that as their problem and not yours. Why do you have to comply with some elseâ€™s presumed unfriendliness by leaving and never returning?
Your body image issues may have other roots as well. How do you think your experiences being half Asian and half Caucasian have affected your feelings about your body? What has been your experience with racism? Your body image might improve if you could explore these feelings, and if you could talk about them with other people with similar backgrounds.
Then there are your feelings about Mr. Happy. If you donâ€™t think youâ€™re hung big enough, youâ€™re hardly the Lone Ranger. Itâ€™s a fairly common male fear. Such feelings typically reflect inner perceptions of not being masculine enough. And that carries you into the whole area of what you think it means to be a man, what kind of man you want to be, and whether you unconsciously see yourself as less than a man, perhaps because youâ€™re gay. You seem to believe that youâ€™d have more self-esteem if you had a bigger bulge in your pants. Itâ€™s more likely that if your self-esteem improved you wouldnâ€™t worry so much about the size of your dick.
And it just isnâ€™t true, by the way, that all gay men only want â€śblond body builders.â€ť This may be the preferred male icon at your gym, but believe it or not, there are many gay men who are actually turned-off by big muscles. Look through the personal ads if you donâ€™t believe me, and notice the ads for hairy chested bears, smooth â€śswimmer buildsâ€ť, and on and on. The idea that there is one universal standard for what all gay men find attractive is a figment of your imagination, and most likely a projection of your own expectation of rejection.
In other words, when negative thoughts about your body arise, try to remember that they are just that, your ideas, not necessarily some objective reality â€śout there.â€ť The first step in confronting and overcoming your own self-hatred is to recognize how and why it originates in your own mind, and then to become alert to your tendency to project it onto your body or onto other gay men.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.