Movements encouraging body positivity have made calls to normalise a diverse range of body types in recent years. These calls often focus on individual feelings of joy and self-acceptance, rather than identifying how wider societal influences lead to bodily shame in the first place. Mapping the history and context of body types and related concerns amongst same-gender attracted men, my area of interest and concern, means navigating a history of homophobia and shame, as well as issues of masculinity and body image. In this article, I wish to recognise, acknowledge and contextualise the way we want queer male bodies and the bodies we interact with on a sexual level to be, showing that neither exists in a vacuum.
To this end, the emergence of ‘bears’ in the ‘80s provides as fruitful a starting point as any. The ‘bear’ was apparently made common by gay culture publication The Advocate, in their menagerie of types of gay men. ‘Bear’ described queer men with body hair, a large figure (burly, fat, and/or muscular), masculinity and desirability – although, as has been pointed out by Les Wright, historian and author of two books on the bear subculture, the term is nebulous. However, The Advocate’s article does little to explain the origins of the bear.
In the introduction to The Bear Book, Wright suggests that bear culture came to fruition due to the AIDS crisis. Gay men were heavily demonised, and distanced themselves from images of emaciation that were perceived to be associated with the condition. Desiring distance from images of ‘unhealthiness’ has since also applied to the valorisation of muscular bodies, to which modern proponents of the bear claim to be an alternative. This points to the notion that homophobia, intensified by the AIDS crisis, was internalised, leading to more bodily self-scrutiny.
This scrutiny was exacerbated by the way that bears were portrayed in the media. While bear communities may promote bodily egalitarianism in theory, Wright has suggested that this value is compromised by the ‘bear press’. “Once the bear press got going, it all became visuals for advertising,” Wright told the Georgia Voice. “It’s far easier and more profitable to use pictures of burly hairy men than to try and convey something as elusive as ‘inclusive’ feelings.” Bear bodies, then, emerged in the face of homophobia to reclaim the body as a location of pride. Made solid, they were sold as beacons of healthy inclusiveness. But as a result of homophobia and increased bodily self-scrutiny, shame shifted onto those whose bodies don’t meet such established and emerging masculine standards and categories.
As well as the HIV/AIDS crisis, the 1980s were when the first great paragons of neoliberalism, like Thatcher and Reagan, were in power. Neoliberalism is the ideology that continues to dominate economic and political theory and action, gutting unions and welfare and encouraging people to imagine society as a dog-eat-dog world where only the most competent and competitive thrive. Its answer to everything is for individuals to make better choices.
Following this tenet, in the neoliberal worldview the answer to body issues is to choose to eat better, exercise more and dedicate more resources to the modification of one’s body. Meanwhile, the structures in which we live push these things further and further out of reach for those without money, rewarding those who have material access to them. Access to these resources and opportunities is class-based, and as a result, obsession with physical fitness distances queer men from one another across these lines.
Take Grindr, for example. The new neoliberal politics of desire in queer male circles, nowhere more so than on this app, exemplify the expectation that we will treat our bodies as self-disciplined sites for the desires of others. This weird relationship between identity and appearance is reified almost to the point of absurdity in Grindr’s ‘tribes’. ‘Bear’ is there, of course, alongside ‘Jock’, ‘Geek’, ‘Rugged’ and ‘Twink’. Then there are unrelated aspects of one’s life, like ‘Clean-Cut’ and ‘Discreet.’ There’s ‘Trans’ there as well, which is handy for trans-identifying people who want to deter transphobia. There is also ‘Poz’, meaning HIV-positive. In most of these cases, labels like ‘bear’ function to allow individuals to indicate and narrow their target market and audience: they and their bodies are commodities that need to be distinguished, after all.
Those who use the free version of Grindr can only select one tribe, which aside from being a grab for users’ cash, has the disconcerting effect of suggesting a person can only be one of these things. HIV-positive men who have spoken elsewhere discuss how their tribe allows them to find support and community, but the connection between this kind of identity-labelling and commercialism became clear when Grindr was discovered to have been giving this information to third-party app optimisers. While Grindr has stopped this practice, our bodies aren’t neatly defined markers of belonging to groups of consumers, and ‘tribes’ as usable and valuable data only make sense in a framework that treats them as if they are. However bear culture began, it is now reified and marketed as one of a bunch of categories of body.
Perhaps the problem is not that certain bodies or ‘tribes’ are idolised above others, but that there is an incessant need to categorise bodies in the first place. The recent uptick in articles on male body image speaks to two issues which overlap: the push for queer spaces to be more diverse, and concern about the rising issue of male body image problems. There is a tendency to treat these issues as individual problems, but there is much value in thinking about how our desires are shaped by the society in which we live.
Men of colour have written on the socialisation of desire amongst queer men. As Philip Henry writes in his piece on racist sexual preferences in the LGBTQ+ community, “Sexual desire and socialization are linked. To act as though the two exist in mutually exclusive contextual vacuums is intellectually dishonest and only absolves blame from the abusers.” The desire for an idealised figure of masculinity – white and athletic and conventionally attractive – is the product of a society that prizes men who fit those categories above all others.
Men who are queer and not even trying to make up for it by embodying idealised forms of masculinity are to be punished and shunned, in this worldview. One ‘failure’ at masculinity (not being cis-heterosexual) is ‘compensated’ for by way of another, which is physical fitness. For the sake of perspective, I’m a gay man with a neurological condition called dyspraxia, which among other things, means that my body can’t tone. The washboard abs of Oxford Street fantasies are out of reach to me by biological circumstance. I used to believe this denied me intimacy. I no longer feel this way, but the commercial and conformist nature of the queer club scene is something I’ve always been particularly sensitive to.
Urging a sociological awareness of desire feels deeply unsexy, but perhaps it is the only way to ensure the decrease of Grindr profiles that include the slogan ‘no fats, no femmes.’ It’s worth being mindful of where our desires emerge from. An over-reliance on commercial spaces such as Grindr has led to queer men and their relationships with their bodies being compromised by the ideologies of commercialism and neoliberalism, in which satisfaction is always going to be just out of reach.
This is not a mindset that should be bought into, but rather one that needs to be actively identified and rejected. On a broader level, as a community, this means rejecting discrimination by weeding it out of existing queer spaces. It means furthering a collective dialogue about the ways the idealisation of limiting forms of masculinity and perceptions of bodies harms men, and the possibilities and practical implementation of queer meeting places that have inclusion, rather than profit, as their goal.