documentary queer lgbtqia gay community body image dysmorphia capitalism influence of appearance jock Roger Ungers shape inclusivity exclusion
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March 13, 2024
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The struggle for beauty standard in the gay community has its documentary

Following the release of Roger Ungers’s documentary "Shape" which delves into the struggles within the gay community from racism to physical appearance, we’ve decided to explore the dynamics through which these stereotypes intertwine and the effects on the community itself.⁠

Matteo Angele: Gay culture has capitalized on a distinctive representation of what gay men should aspire to look like, we’ve seen that women have been victims of similar things; do you think that the capitalist impact gay people are victims of can be compared to what women have with makeup, skincare, etc?

Roger Ungers: I certainly believe that there is a perpetuation of a created body type to sell products to women and yes, it is very much the same for gay men.

I think that there is a cycle occurring here that is really hard to break, it’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. Generally, within our communities, we admire and put a certain body type up on a pedestal, we point it out when we see it and admire people who look like that, we want to be with people who look like that, and we want to look like that.

Advertising takes advantage of this, it plays into our insecurities about your physical appearance and sells you the idea that their product will help you achieve the ‘ideal look/physique’, and in turn, companies will profit from this. It's perpetuating and amplifying beauty standards that already exist within our own communities. But who started it? Was it us as a society or was it the companies that sell these products? 

What I would say, is that you will only become a victim of it if you allow yourself to, however, it almost feels impossible not to be a victim. 

Matteo Angele: Most gay men have experienced some kind of discrimination at an early age. This can sincerely impact self-perception and impact how we deal with acceptance from our peers. Do you think that this research of the perfect body, perfect job and perfect skin, to name a few, is a response to the lack of acceptance we’ve faced early on in life for being gay?

Roger Ungers: I think what you are referring to is this notion of internalized homophobia, I have also heard people refer to it as ‘Gay Shame’. So, someone who has been discriminated against for being same sex attracted can develop a really negative view of who they are based on the fact that they are same sex attracted. This certainly can manifest in someone wanting to redeem themselves by achieving things in life that are regarded as idealistic, so this might be having the ‘perfect body’, ‘perfect job’ etc. So that strive to be validated and accepted by others for having the ‘perfect body / perfect job’ can make people feel a sense of worth in order to compensate for that negative view they might have about themselves. 

Not everyone who is same sex attracted experiences internalized homophobia, however, I would say that we all sit on a spectrum of being discriminated against and feeling ostracised, and that can manifest in our behaviors later in life.

Matteo Angele: Do you think that the gay community has an obsession with heteronormativity? with being « straight looking ». And why is that?

Roger Ungers: I think it depends on which cohorts or tribes of our community you look at. 

I would say that there are a vast majority of cis gay men that subscribe to heteronormativity as the world we grow up in for the most part is heteronormative, and that can have an influence on us in one way or another. I would also say that things like the ‘straight looking’ models that are used in advertising targeted at gay men or the way people mention they only want to be with ‘straight looking/acting’ people on Grindr can also have an impact.

Maybe if you find yourself surrounded by groups of gay men who are ‘straight looking’ and that your sense of wanting to belong to that group requires you to be ‘straight looking’ or heteronormative. Therefore, you may want to adopt those ideals.  

Perhaps being ‘straight acting’ or ‘straight looking’ within our community could possibly be a result of the internalized homophobia that I mentioned before? ‘I’m a gay man but if I look straight I may not be viewed as an outcast’.

I would also like to say that there are many parts of our queer community that fully embrace who they are and are not ‘straight looking’ or ‘straight acting’ because they are not influenced by the things I mentioned above. 

Matteo Angele: With social media targeting more and more people, we see an important increase in plastic surgery practiced on men. Can we say that beauty is becoming, in a larger way, a new capitalism? Being skinny, muscular, having a great butt and wide chest could mean better social and individual lives. What do you think about this?

Roger Ungers: As consumers of social media, we certainly can come acros advertisements and ‘influencers’ promoting plastic surgery or ideals around being skinny, muscular, having a great butt and wide chest etc. I think that this has become more predominant not only for gay men but for some straight men too. I think the problem with social media is that it creates as sense of comparison. There is a saying that goes "comparison is the thief of joy" and it oes hand in hand with social media. If a certain body image is being promoted as ‘idealistic’ and you compare yourself concluding that you don’t have that ‘idealistic’ body, perhaps you’ll go down the path of striving to have that body through plastic surgery or other means. I guess where there are social media platforms that can influence us to feel a certain way about our physical appearance then there will be opportunities to make money off solutions like plastic surgery that are promoted on the very same social media platforms.

Matteo Angele: The interview presents five individuals in their 30s to 50s with strong opinions on this topic, do you think that the younger generation is as much impacted and/or do you think that we will see a change regardless of these discriminations? 

Roger Ungers: I would say that younger generations of gay men have grown up with smartphones very early on in their lives. That to me that is another opportunity to be impacted by certain body image ideals and how you might view others based on that. But also, as the years go by, people’s views become more progressive and inclusive, and we also see people expressing these views on social media too. It’s a great question, the definitive answer to that is beyond my experience. 

Matteo Angele: Starting the documentary, did you have a personal opinion on the topic and if yes, did the process of making this movie change your way to look at body positivity within the gay male culture?

Roger Ungers: The only thing I really knew when I sparked the idea of making this film was that body image amongst gay men felt like a priority. I was affected by it, and a lot of my friends were too. It felt like we were all intensely grappling with our own physical appearance, but why?

It took 2 years to make this film and in those 2 years, I learned a lot! I will be honest with you it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and when you watch the film you will know what I mean. Having said that, the film is powerful, meaningful, a rollercoaster ride of emotions and does touch on body positivity and how we can potentially combat body image-based discrimination.   

I think that there is an incredible amount of work being done around body positivity and inclusivity in our community but there is still a lot more work to be done! I am hoping that ‘Shape’ will contribute to that and be a catalyst for some positive social change. 

Matteo Angele: Would you say that gay men are more inclined to suffer from body dysmorphia than others?

Roger Ungers: Body dysmorphia is experienced in all of society but gay men do tend to suffer from it a lot. The body image standards in the gay community are in my view quite high, and we are bombarded with what is considered idealistic. We put that image up on a pedestal, and quite frankly the ‘ideal body’ is unattainable for most of us, so as a result of that I feel that there is a greater opportunity to suffer from body dysmorphic disorder amongst gay men. 

Matteo Angele: Let’s talk about tribes for a moment; I’ve seen a reel once on Instagram of a young guy referring to himself as a « twink » talking about his routine before a sexual date. He was talking about the ice regime; a way to eat without eating and supposed to help people get skinnier. He was basically eating cubes of ice and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about how this young guy was starving himself to fit in the « twink » category. Is it safe to assume that tribes are also part of the problem? the idea of including and excluding individuals for how they look and how much tribes can impact young people.

Roger Ungers: Tribes in the gay community are a tricky one, on one hand, they create a great sense of belonging to a group of people that share a similar physical appearance or set of values. On the other hand, they have the capacity to exclude those who don’t fit that physical appearance or set of values, it can be very divisive! If you are out on the gay scene, you may notice that there are events that cater to certain tribes, and I believe that that is a good thing! It creates a safe space for people who may not have felt comfortable in other parts of the community. The problem is that most tribes don’t seem to cross over or talk to each other and this can segregate and ostracise people. I think if we could allow tribes to exist but for those tribes to acknowledge and accept others that are different from them, this would be a step in the right direction.

Matteo Angele: With this obsession for perfection within the gay community I’ve seen something odd. Pure for Men for example is a brand selling food supplements that target gay men to help them prepare for anal sex. Their price tag for supplements goes from 23 euros to 74 euros. What is funny to me is that people are paying these crazy prices when these supplements are « psyllium » and can be bought at any drogue store for 2 euros. Do you think that brands capitalize on the gay community’s body dysmorphia to increase their sales?

Roger Ungers: Absolutely, I think sometimes with marketing strategies, they like to present and package their products as a premium product with a high price tag even though that product might not be so premium. If you target a community that has a tendency to be body conscious and you provide a ‘premium product’ specific to that community touting that it will improve your body image etc, then of course people will tend to choose that product specific to them.      

Matteo Angele: Finally, do you think that the problem lies within the gay community itself or is body dysmorphia created by capitalism? Are brands and society capitalizing on the so-called « perfect body »; and impacting at the same time our view on people, on what is good or not, on what tribe should people be, on inclusivity within the community, on sexual life, etc?

Roger Ungers: All the negative repercussions around body image ideals amongst gay men I think is a combination of things. It’s the way we validate someone with an ‘ideal body’, the types of social media we interact with, it’s the types of models that we see in advertising targeted towards gay men, and even the young fit gay men that are cast for leading roles in queer cinema. When we see all this, we compare ourselves because we are presented with this representation of what an ideal gay man should look like. We see it in our social scenes as well. It's aspirational to look a certain way, it gives you better opportunities to connect with people in the gay community, however, if we feel that we don’t fit the mold then it can lead to body dysmorphia and feelings of unworthiness. 

It’s a cycle that we feed off, and it feeds us back, the media and brands pick up on this and it gives us another serve. We are continuously perpetuating this ideal body type and we are unfortunately suffering from it. I often think to myself, is this idolizing of a certain body type all worth it in the end?


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