Editor’s Note: Trigger warning. This essay includes difficult discussions surrounding mental health disorders, specifically regarding body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s.
“What would you rate him?”
I encounter this question more often than I’d ever want to admit. It's either a picture of a guy’s profile on a dating app, a side glance at someone across the bar, or a person walking across the halls in school. Each time I’m asked for a number, I am ashamed at how quickly the answer escapes me. I reply, “8.”
My older sister once joked that she felt obliged to serve the “beautiful.” There seemed to be this social contract to treat the “beautiful”: to give them what they want, laugh at their jokes (pretty funny vs. pretty funny), and compliment them on social media. As time went on, it seemed that the joke was on us: celebrities were excused for morally reprehensible behavior, conventionally attractive frat-boys were given the benefit of the doubt, and given more opportunities to make money.
There was an evolutionary advantage to winning the genetic lottery and to those who weren’t lucky enough to win, society was free to be unkind.
“At 17, I started to starve myself.”
As Florence Welch belted these lyrics in “Hunger,” an avalanche started inside of me. It swept me back to my first time in a musical and had to be shirtless for the first act. I was a 17-year old sophomore in college, surrounded by people who seemed like titan performers — with bodies honed by theater workshops and carefully prepared meal plans.
I remember one of my castmates asking me: “Are you really going to eat that? Aren’t you going on a diet?” There would be many more iterations of this throughout my life: “You’re not that fat. You’re just gay fat,” or “You would be an 8 somewhere else,” or even “I like you but I like your boyfriend better.” The words would be different, but the aftermath would be the same.
In 2018, I lost a third of my body weight in less than three months and, along with it, most of my sanity and identity. I developed an immense anxiety that I carried with me everytime I go to a gay bar and rarely did I leave a fitting room without crying. When it was at its worst, I didn’t eat meals or leave the house for days, inevitably delaying my graduation from my Master’s.
There were two things that made the horrible experience even worse. The first was that people were nicer to me. It seemed that, all along, I was right: that the secret to fitting in was to trim all of your edges away until you could fit the cookie cutter body type. The pain of becoming beautiful was more bearable than the shame of being undesirable.
The second was in finding out I wasn’t alone. Hating your body seemed to be the default in the queer community. Friends started sharing their experiences with these collective demons: running up and down the stairs because they ate something sweet, going on crash diets, circuit training thrice a day. The stories were endless and the scars, literal and figurative, plentiful, even shared.
It was only years later that I would put names to these communal demons: microaggressions, triggers, eating disorders, body dysmorphia… the list goes on. These silent battles were recorded on social media through dedicated hashtags and subreddits. Every now and then, when we think we’d moved on from our deep-seated traumas, we’d undergo a factory reset; square one revisited.
I haven’t had a mirror in my home in eight years.
“The first time you fall in love is also the rise of jealousy.”
When I first heard Céline Sciamma say this at BFI in 2019, it felt like someone finally put into words the paradoxical experience of being queer. I cannot count the number of individuals I’ve met who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be them or be with them. We perceive ourselves to be ugly for a lot of reasons, but maybe we just don’t fit “our type.”
People forget that beauty and desire are political. These images of desire are, in part, shaped for us by the media. From commercials and magazines to tv shows and films, gay men are told to fit a specific physical type and these are evident in many Filipino celebrities — lean, masculine, mestizo. Studies on facial symmetry and the myth of the “golden ratio” tell us who to be attracted to and those who deviate are tokenized as exemptions.
The obsession of attaining the perfect body is rooted in oppressive ideological structures created by capitalism and colonial ideas of beauty. These dominant images of desire endorse a landscape wherein gay men who don’t fit the cookie cutter type are left undesired on the chopping block. Swipe left.
The body positivity movement was birthed because there needed to be an acknowledgement that the world was composed of a plurality of body types and that there was no singular face or body to health. Parallel to this were calls for diversity and representation in international media and acknowledgement that beauty standards were moving targets that transform with our culture.
But capitalism seems to find a way to creep into systems, still. Nowadays, body positivity is co-opted by movements and systems that are inherently against it. Diet culture uses it to force laxatives into our systems masquerading as supplements when all they do is destroy your liver. Gym culture uses it to capitalize on insecurities by feeding us with ideas of “needing whey” and “summer bodies” as if they were travel documents to Boracay or Bali, but unknowingly contribute to the development of muscle dysmorphia in men and a continuous reinforcement of masculinity and the ideals rooted in it.
Not that I am against making strides towards self-improvement. But the main problem of these movements is that they give the appearance of health without the actual benefits of health. Glamor, especially in social media platforms like Instagram, is used to project and perpetuate an idealized type (such as a whiteness in the teeth, a sharpness in the bone structure, a decrease in the body fat percentage) without revealing the horrid underbelly (the sensitivity, the ulcers, the pain throughout the process).
The price of belonging
“I wondered why if 95% of us didn’t fit something we would encourage others to aspire to it, to emulate it.”
I came across this quote from British actress and writer Michaela Coel’s MacTaggart Lecture and it unlocked something in me — a box of questions: If everyone experiences this, why must we keep reflecting these images onto the screen? Why must we keep upholding this status quo? So what and who does it serve? Why did we feel the need to be beautiful?
Tied to this need is the queer person’s desire to belong in the queer community. Attractiveness mediates belongingness in the community, with bodily dissatisfaction increasing as individuals are more integrated to the community. As long as we and the structures around us commodify our bodies in this way and put a currency on each of us, we always run the risk of selling ourselves and each other short. As long as social acceptance is prioritized over health, we continue to validate systems that exclude and kill us.
Moving forward, we must question these structures and emancipate ourselves through a form of body liberation. Body liberation asks us to free ourselves from oppressive social, political, and economic systems that dictate these ideals of the body. Unlike body positivity, it does not ask us to constantly be happy with our bodies. Rather, body liberation decentralizes our concerns away from our bodies and acknowledges that all bodies must be respected regardless of form; discourages us from judging and reducing each other to just our transitory, corporeal form.
Especially now in a global pandemic, when access to proper healthcare is crucial but limited and when sedentary lifestyles in young adults is slowly becoming the norm, resulting in a second pandemic for the mind and the body. Cognitive neuropsychology has revealed that people with body dysmorphic disorder have a different way of seeing the face: failing to see salient features and missing out on important emotional cues due to their hyperfixations. These are challenges for us to not only celebrate new images but to also see the plurality in beauty and reimagine ourselves and our community for the better.
Until then, I’ll keep looking for good mirrors.