Do Muscles Make the Man?
New research helps explain why some sexual minority men strive for big muscles.
Posted Aug 27, 2018
Internalized homophobia or homonegativity refers to the extent to which sexual minority individuals internalize society’s heterosexist ideals and negative views of sexual diversity. Internalized homophobia is often common as an individual begins to grapple or come to terms with their sexual identity and can either dissipate quickly as one grows more comfortable with their identity or can stick around for life, lurking in the shadows of one's psyche! Body image dissatisfaction is just as it sounds: feelings of dissatisfaction associated with one’s physical appearance, which are often associated with harshly judging oneself against prototypes of societally accepted beauty: aka celebrities and supermodels. Researchers Badenes-Ribera, Fabris & Longobardi wanted to investigate how these two concepts may be linked among sexual minority men (e.g., gay and bisexual men).
This topic has been studied before – but the problem has been that different studies have come up with different answers. Some find a link, while others have not. To address this issue within the literature, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis. Meta-analyses require searching the literature to find as many relevant studies as possible and then combining the published data on each of those studies so that the results can be statistically analyzed together. One of the key benefits of conducting a meta-analysis is that it can overcome the limitations of studies that have very small sample sizes by combining such studies with other studies, and thereby increasing the overall number of participants who have contributed their responses to the question at hand.
The researchers who conducted this meta-analysis were able to find 59 studies that were relevant to the question of whether internalized homonegativity may be associated with greater body image dissatisfaction among sexual minority men, but due to variations in methodologies, only 12 of the studies met the inclusion criteria (e.g., using relevant measures, reporting the necessary statistics). The authors go into great detail reporting exactly how they analyzed the 12 studies, and I encourage you to read the paper if you would like to learn more, but here, I will focus on their results and conclusions.
After examining these 12 studies, which came from Canada, the United States, Australia, and Italy, the researchers were able to calculate pooled effect sizes for the association between internalized homonegativity and four types of body dissatisfaction:
- Wanting to be more muscular
- Wanting to be thinner
- Closely monitoring one’s appearance (body surveillance)
- General distress over one’s physical appearance.
Higher internalized homophobia predicted greater body dissatisfaction for all four types examined, and the strongest association was between internalized homophobia and general distress over one’s physical appearance (body-related distress).
Why might gay and bisexual men who experience internalized homonegativity also be less satisfied with their physical appearance?
One suggested explanation is that, for men, muscularity and physique is seen as a symbol of masculinity. Homophobia, on the other hand, often focuses on painting gay men as being weak and effeminate. Some theorists have even argued that gay men are not really targeted due to homophobia, but rather, femmephobia, or the pervasive devaluation of femininity within Western society (e.g., ‘don’t be a sissy’, ‘he throws like a girl!’). In other words, society may often be less upset about men loving other men than they are about men not acting like men! Consequently, sexual minority men who feel less confident in their sexual identity, and who have internalized the outside world’s negative views of homosexuality, may more critically assess and monitor their own bodies in an attempt to appear more masculine in the hopes that doing so will also make them appear less gay. Of course, what’s important to note is that internalized homonegativity is an unconscious process, so it is unlikely that individual gay or bisexual men would outwardly state that they are dissatisfied with their lack of muscularity because they want to avoid being seen by others as gay!
Another suggested explanation for the link between internalized homonegativity and body dissatisfaction is related to experiences of bullying. Past research has found that men who have experienced bullying (regardless of their sexual identity) tend to have a greater desire for muscularity. This may be driven by a desire to appear strong and tough, so as to ward off any future instances of physical victimization (surely you think twice before picking on the guy whose muscles are nearly bursting through his shirt). Thus, given that we know that sexual minority youth experience a disproportionate amount of bullying during their childhood and adolescence, it makes sense that some may then grow up to have a preoccupation with developing the kind of body that would make would-be aggressors think twice.
It's also important to note that after combining the information from 12 different studies, the effect sizes (or the extent to which these two variables are associated with each other) were all small to moderate. As the authors note, the study does not provide a causal link between internalized homonegativity and body dissatisfaction, but it does point to an interesting association that should not be ignored. After all, body dissatisfaction is also linked to eating disorders, which could mean that, by extension, sexual minority men who have higher levels of internalized homonegativity may also be at higher risk for eating disorders and related health complications.
In other words, just because you notice one of these traits in someone you know (either internalized homonegativity or body dissatisfaction), it doesn’t mean that the two are related, it just means that sometimes, for some people, they are. So, if you have a gay friend or partner who spends a lot of time at the gym, don’t start your next conversation with them by saying “I think you have internalized homonegativity” – trust me, I’m married to a gym rat – that conversation will never end well!
Finally, even if you do think that someone you know, or even yourself, might be represented in the data discussed by this study, we should remember that internalized homonegativity is a natural reaction to living in a heteronormative world. Ultimately, the only lasting solution to internalized homonegativity will be a society that stops viewing sexual diversity as something to be fixed, tolerated, or eradicated, rather than celebrated and accepted.
Badenes-Ribera, L., Fabris, M.A., & Longobardi, C. (2018). The relationship between internalized homonegativity and body image concerns in sexual minority men: a meta-analysis. Psychology & Sexuality, 9(3), 251-268.
Boyda, D. & Shevlin, M. (2011). Childhood victimisation as a predictor of muscle dysmorphia in adult male bodybuilders. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 32(3-4), 105-115.
Wolke, D. & Sapouna, M. (2008) Big men feeling small : childhood bullying experience, muscle dysmorphia and other mental health problems in bodybuilders. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(5), 595-694.