“Self-reflection workout: stress & ab-spectations”

By Rahim Thawer

There used to be a campaign that said ‘the only way to fight homophobia is to outlive it’ and that meant as gay men we should take better care of ourselves. While taking care of oneself can mean so many things, it’s often read as going to the gym. And it makes sense. Exercising makes us feel better, healthier, sexier, in charge of our lives, in control, motivated to eat better, and let's be honest, the gym is also a cruising ground, so why not take care of a few things at once?

I wonder sometimes, though, about how things can shift from being healthy to unhealthy? It’s hard to sort through because people generally associate going to the gym with being healthy but that probably depends on your goals and your source of motivation (read: pressure).

If you’ve been on any online cruising apps, circuit parties, or flipped through gay mags you’ve probably learned that having a particular body type increases your social and sexual capital; that is, you have more currency to meet other guys and confidence that you’ll be seen as desirable. It’s through these mediums that we also know that we’re not going to gyms just out of a mere choice to be healthy but out of social pressure too. This might be seen as internalized fatphobia.

Why is it important to talk about this? Well, our expectations for our own bodies can often translate into judgement of others’ bodies and self-shaming. That’s right, self-shaming. We can be really hard on ourselves about (not) exercising and eating (e.g. Pride diets!). As gay men so many of us have had to deal with the shame that kept us in the closet, do we really need another thing to hate ourselves for? I mean, c’mon, that can’t be good for our mental health!

Ladies, I’m not saying stop working out; please, keep doing your thing 'cause you need that stamina to dance all night and flip your hair when your favorite house track comes on. But we’ve created a gym and body culture in our community and we need to be careful that the "taking care of ourselves" talk doesn’t become a barrier for other conversations about what else might be going on for so many of us like experiencing sadness, self-consciousness, eating difficulties, questioning our desirability, or using biceps to cover up other insecurities we have. Also, without some awareness of the unhealthy effects of the gym culture, we're more likely to continue fueling the trap of holding ourselves to an unattainable standard of beauty and then inadvertently making other people self-conscious about themselves, which fuels the pressure of the gym culture without addressing why we’re unhappy to begin with—there’s no winning!

I’m not sure that we’ll sort through the stress of the gym and body culture in our community just by outliving it. Instead, I think we need to reflect on when our own participation in the gym and body culture is healthy versus unhealthy and ask if part of “Our Agenda” as gay men is to fight fatphobia and homophobia given that both affect how we feel about ourselves.

If you're interested in thinking about 'socially acceptable body size' in the way we think about social advantage and disadvantage with regard to gender, race, and sexual orientation, then check out: http://privilege101.tumblr.com/post/5988512297/list-of-privileges-permanently-in-progress

Rahim Thawer, MSW, RSW is Bathhouse Counsellor with the Towel Talk program at the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and practices with an anti-oppressive, social justice, sex-positive, trauma-informed and queer-affirming approach. He has worked for multiple HIV/AIDS service organizations along with being a tester/counsellor at Hassle Free Clinic and an LGBT Community Counsellor at the 519. He’s also an active community organizer on the Board of Salaam: Queer Muslim Community and with Ismaili Queers: Advocates for Pluralism. 


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