Gyms and leisure centres have finally reopened across England, signalling the end of a lockdown period that’s changed how many of us feel about our bodies.
In these “strange times”, some of us have become the least active version of ourselves: snacking and drinking through the mind-numbing boredom, stuck in ‘that week between Christmas and New Year’ for eternity, while worrying about how we’re going to look on the other side. Others did the opposite: bending, stretching and (literally) running away from the tension that the pandemic has brought.
People across all demographics and identities have different feelings about their bodies and exercise. For gay men, the pressure to have a “good body” can be intense and often has a uniquely complex relationship to what it means to be both gay and a man.
A 2018 surveyby Attitude magazine found that 84 per cent of its readers said they felt significant pressure to have a “good body” (which usually means very slim or big and muscley) with only 1 per cent considering themselves “very happy” with their appearance.
These pressures likely contribute towards health issues. Gay men are eight times as likely to have eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia than straight men. They’re also more likely to use laxatives and a study of gay gym-goers in London revealed a higher use of steroids for muscle gain. To cap it all off, gay men are also more likely to suffer from body dysmorphia, with Instagram and hookup apps being linked to a rise in “bigorexia” too.
So why do so many gay men dislike their bodies?
Even in “normal times”, the reasons why people of all sexualities and identities might dislike their bodies and exercise are complex.
Kyle Murray-Dickson, a clinical associate in applied psychology for children and young people, tells me that negative attitudes towards our bodies can start early in life.
“There is evidence to suggest that even five-year-olds have already absorbed the cultural stigma against ‘fat’”, he says. “In adolescence we all are trying to find a concrete identity and the easiest way to do that is to compare ourselves to our peers, and that easiest way to do that is by appearance. If we don’t fit in, then we feel excluded and vulnerable. These experiences can stay with us for a long time.”
The gay men I spoke to said that feeling vulnerable and excluded in school, particularly in “traumatic” PE lessons, had a major influence on their feeling towards exercise and their bodies years later.
“Being active in public filled me with anxiety,” Isaac*, 25, explains. “When I first joined the school the only sport they played was rugby. I was terrified and cried my way out of playing every week. People would laugh if I f***ed up, which inevitably I did because I was fem and chubby and terrified.”
Isaac feels that these early experiences “totally shaped” his relationship to his body and his sexuality, saying:
"You’re told at that age that you are worth more as a boy if you can run faster, lift heavier, be in the ‘A team’. No one gives a sh*t if you are good at chemistry."
Simon, 37, tells me that he found changing rooms excruciating.“My earliest embarrassments with my body began aged 12 when I started getting chest hair and people saw in the changing rooms,” he says. “My classmates who reacted with a combination of amusement, horror and disgust.” Simon remembers that having his body judged like this, combined with being bad at football, felt like a smear on his own masculinity – something he was already battling with as a closeted gay teen.
The body can be very important to gay identities
In the bookChanging Gay Male Identities, Dr Andrew Cooper discusses the importance of the body to gay identity. He suggests that projecting a “successful” identity becomes extremely important to gay men as they become aware of their sexuality. Moving into adulthood, the body becomes an important site for projecting a “successful” sense of self to their gay peers, but also for embodying success in the eyes of straight society.
Matt Boyles, 38, founder of Fitter Confident You – a fitness company that helps gay, bi and trans guys get into exercise – says that he struggled with this very thing growing up.
“I saw going to the gym as a way to fit in more, to falsely believe that I was acting and looking more straight, which obviously is complete nonsense.”
Matt says that many of his clients have often been put off exercise by experiences that make them feel like they’re “failing” at masculinity. But being out of shape can also make them feel like they’re failing at being gay.
"Often there’s a lot to un-learn from the past and you really have to build people's trust,” he says. “A lot of people are scared of the gym because they view it as a hyper-masculine which intimidates them. It brings back bad memories and reminds them of how uncomfortable they felt."
But in lockdown some gay men have conquered their fear of exercise.
Matt says that, after an initial decline when the pandemic first hit, enquiries for his at-home fitness programs started to surge. He says that lots of newbies realised they had more time and saw it as an opportunity to start something positive. Many had tried fitness apps, but were looking for more structure.
Jack, 23, tells me he discovered exercise during lockdown because for weeks it was one of the only reasons to leave the house. “Before lockdown I don’t think I’d perspired intentionally for about... four years?” He started running five weeks ago using the ‘Couch to 5k’ app and it’s been “a game-changer” for him.
"I’d be lying if I told you I had a healthy relationship to my body even now,” he explains. “But I think not seeing people every day and so feeling less self conscious has made me focus more on the actual exercise. Before I’d just expect to be skinny after one run then give up."
Jack tells me that his aversion to exercise started young.
“It’s a weird thing as because as a gay man it’s a stereotype that we were all bad at sports as kids,”
“But then you’re also expected to be ripped with a six pack as soon as you reach adulthood?”
Benjamin, 28, got into exercise from his living room during lockdown. “I find gyms pretty intimidating, macho places so I never saw the need to pay to go somewhere like that,” he says. But now he’s finding YouTube tutorials to be an important release. “I don’t know if I’d have ever gone to a class in real life because I feel quite self-conscious about my body and they’re expensive. I am a bit worried if I’ll keep it up when life goes back to normal, though.”
In lockdown, some gay men have also realised their dependence on the gym
It’s clear that, for some gay men, a negative relationship with exercise runs deeper than just looks. But the stereotype of gay men being gym fit (and the endless requests for “gym buddies” on Grindr) indicates that lots of gay men have either managed to conquer their fear of exercise, or never had one.
Lockdown has made gay men who exerciserd regularly beforehand reevaluate their relationship with their bodies too. Phil, 31, realised how dependent he was on the gym environment. “I need routine to function well and it’s hard to stick to a routine during lockdown at home,” he says. “Once you’re at the gym you’re less likely to give up because you’re there. At home it’s just like ‘ugh’ and then a mental health spiral begins”.
For some, the reduced exercise options and stress of lockdown saw the return of problems they thought were behind them. Eating disorder charity Beat says it’s seen a 73 per cent surge in people wanting to access help and support during lockdown.
Alex*, 28, says he struggled even more without going to the gym. “I’ve become hyper vigilant with what I’m eating. I’ve suffered from anorexia and bulimia in the past but this last three months has made me realise how I was using the gym to compensate,” he explains.
“I’ve really had to take it day by day, because I’ve been so anxious about gaining weight."
Douglas, 24, hated sports growing up. But in lockdown he found himself realising how much he relied on exercise facilities, saying:
“I miss swimming so much. I don’t know how I’ve become so emotionally tied to sport but it’s difficult not having that to retreat to.”
Before lockdown, Douglas went to a gym in Soho that is renowned as a place for men to go cruising. This isn’t uncommon in London gyms: last year, a Virgin Active Gym in the Barbican was criticised for telling customers that undercover police would be frequenting the changing rooms to discourage public sex. “I’ve missed a bit of the locker room testosterone," he admits.“Weirdly, showering naked around other people is something I now find liberating because I’d spent so much of my teenage and uni years hating my body”.
Lockdown has made gay men reassess their relationship with exercise and their bodies.
Now gyms and public exercise facilities are reopening, but months of lockdown have revealed that many gay men still have a fear of these spaces, while others have realised their over-reliance on them. Both sides, and people in between, have been confronted by questions: was the problem really exercise, or a gym environment that triggers my trauma? Is my “gym body” for me, or for being desired by others? And at what point does that become an issue?
Ultimately, gay men asking themselves these questions during lockdown is a way of coping with a patriarchal culture that links athletic prowess and muscularity to masculinity, from childhood onwards. And where closely adhering to fatphobic (and elitist) beauty standards can dramatically boost their sexual currency.
As gyms reopen, the sexual economy is speeding back up again too. So let’s brace ourselves for mixed feelings, and plenty of thirst traps.