“My gay son seems to be very uncomfortable in his body. He doesn’t seem to like what he sees in the mirror. Is this because he is gay and can’t accept that?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Steve Reaugh
Traditionally, women have been and continue to be the target of societal pressure to reshape their bodies into whatever is perceived as “ideal” in that given moment. (“Thigh gap,” anybody?) Unfortunately, our society loves to screw over anyone it can, especially those who do not identify with the majority. Your son may be one of the aforementioned “screwed.”
While he benefits greatly from not being in the crosshairs of woman-focused media pressure, I would bet my left foot that your son feels a humongous pressure to look a certain way because he is a man. There are pressures out there for men, too, when it comes to their bodies. So, being gay may or may not have anything to do with it.
Gay men can, however, classify themselves according to their body types, which could be making your son feel as if he does not belong. In my own experience, when I first came out, I was confused not only by the lingo that gay men can use, but also about which category I should fit into. I was young, so I figured “twink” would work, since that’s a category for young, thin (and often hair-free from the chin down) gay men, but, well, I liked being a little hirsute. I certainly wasn’t thin, either. So then I thought about “otter,” which is like a twink but with a bit more heft and certainly more hair.
By the time I got to knowing what an otter was, though, I felt more like a walrus because I was so overweight, and then I didn’t feel like I belonged to any category at all. I thought, “If only I could lose weight, then a guy will be interested in me.” So I lost the weight, but nobody came running.
It was only when I started to put myself out there—literally and figuratively, because I’m quite the hermit!—that I began to get some attention. I also started to realize that I shouldn’t need someone else to make me happy—and while that hadn’t really sunk in, I tried to believe it. I eventually found a guy who liked me for my personality (though my ego would like to think my looks were important somehow), and now we’re quite happy together. Recently, though, I started re-gaining weight, and although I had all of this love and support from my partner, I still felt worthless, most days, because I wasn’t “the right size.”
So, yes, I’m going to guess that your son feels bad about his body because he feels pressure to look a certain way. But I’m also going to bet that he feels bad about his body because of something else, too. Maybe he feels depressed and doesn’t want to acknowledge it, as I finally realized was part of my problem. Maybe he is experiencing gender dysphoria, meaning that he’s not feeling comfortable in his body in a biological sense. It could be a very deep concern for him, and you may need to treat it as such.
But maybe you’re noticing something different: he’s lonely, or maybe he’s angry, or maybe he’s sexually frustrated, or maybe he’s feeling something entirely different and the only way he can channel that emotion is to point it back at himself.
If that’s the case, then what you need to do is to take him aside one day, bring up a picture of his celebrity crush, and tell him he does not need to conform to The Media’s standards. He does not need to be that dude he sees. He is perfect the way he is, and you love him.
There you go. Problem solved.
…oh, wait, it’s not?
I hate to break it to you, but if his concern is that he doesn’t look like a celebrity, an athlete, or a kid from school, then this may be one he has to figure out on his own. This may be a case of needing to love himself.
Chances are, if you tell him, “You don’t have to look like that, buddy,” he’ll just roll his eyes and insist that he “knows,” and you probably will not get much of anywhere. You could suggest changes to his lifestyle—eating more mindfully, changing his skincare routine, or gradually including more exercise—but think about it: do you want your parents telling you what you should look like? Imagine if you were his age and your father suddenly started showing up on Saturday afternoons with a jump rope and some truly unfortunate spandex, or your mother started going off over breakfast about the benefits of protein in a growing teen’s diet. Would you listen? (Would you really?)
Instead, let him do the talking. If he’s willing to talk to you about how uncomfortable he feels, that’s a good start. If he’s shy, you might want to go to him first. Gently suggest that you’ve seen him unhappy, or frowning at himself lately, and ask him what that’s about. Acknowledge what he’s feeling. If he says he hates himself, don’t say, “That’s nonsense; you’re so handsome.” That won’t help. “I love you” will, of course, but don’t just leave it there.
Instead, share. You know there’s something about you that you didn’t like when you were his age—and you may still dislike it. Commiserate about it. He’ll probably want to tell you that you shouldn’t feel that way about yourself…and then he might start to get it. Then he might start to get at what’s really tugging at him. Then you might be able to help, if he opens up—you can share your tips and tricks, or point him to a family friend or to a professional, if that’s what he wants. If you feel like there’s something deeper at the root of this, dig gently and remember to keep listening.
Remember, though, that maybe he won’t open up right away. Maybe you won’t get anywhere right now. Maybe you have to tell him you love him and he’ll roll his eyes and you’ll hope that that is enough. No matter what happens, you’ll have told him that he’s not alone.
His body is his own. If he wants to change the way it looks—and if he’s doing so lawfully, healthfully, and respectfully—then all you can do is support him as best as you can. Keep an eye on him. This is his fight, but it doesn’t mean you can’t supply the armor.
Steve Reaugh is a third-year candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing in prose at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His writing, a hybridized blend of drama and memoir, focuses on the depictions and performances of an LGBTQ self in the public sphere, and how that self changes based on both acceptance and non-acceptance. In addition to teaching English and Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, he volunteers with the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Writers in the Schools initiative, which introduces creative writing instruction to Title I schools in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding area as a complement to academic success. He currently resides in Tuscaloosa, with his fiancé of 3 years, Josh, and their dog, Brooke.
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