Minding Your Health – The Amazing Power of Body Image

With summer just around the corner, we’ll soon be shedding our sweaters for swimsuits and having fun in the sun … or will we?

Although every person is different, research on women and sexual minority men suggests that they don’t find it easy to be physically exposed because of concerns about body image. For sexual minority men specifically, several considerations can help us think twice as we head for the pool.

Think about the narrative about body image that is prevalent for men in the gay community. Generally speaking, we endorse a body type that is thin and muscular. This is communicated through the conversations we have, the centrality we place on appearance, and the media we consume that endorse this body type. Research indicates that the more we are exposed to this narrative, the more likely we are to believe subconsciously that our own sense of worth is linked to how well we meet these appearance expectations.

The problem is that researchers have linked this connection between sense of worth and appearance to outcomes such as increased risk of eating disorders, decreased self-esteem, increased steroid use, and increased depression for sexual minority men. And think about that trip to the pool — we are less likely to make that trip when we feel shame about how we look.

Think about the times you have checked out a hot guy, bought a magazine because of the model on the front cover, or commented that your buddy has “let himself go.” Each of these incidents is seemingly no big deal, but they add up to the narrative that sets up the body image so many people strive to attain and that contributes to the resulting psychological consequences.

This narrative won’t change overnight, but we all own a piece and can contribute to change if we stay aware.

So as summer approaches, focus your comments honoring the body on competency-based attributes (like strength, flexibility, and endurance) rather than appearance-based attributes (like waist size or muscle development). Think twice about saying things that communicate that someone’s worth is related to their appearance. Finally, challenge yourself to spend time with friends, at the pool or elsewhere, to celebrate being together rather than to size up who maintained a six-pack over the grueling winter months.

Chris Davids is an organizer for the LGBT-Affirmative Therapists Guild of Greater Kansas City and is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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