Updated: May 13
Humans are rather like magpies, both easily distracted and drawn to pretty things. The set of keys left on an outdoor picnic table is to the magpie what a TikTok dance is to us: something dazzling that seizes attention quickly. We are just as fast to peck that like button as the magpie is to swoop down and steal whatever metallic object takes its fancy.
This is nothing new, of course. You need only walk into a newsagent and flick through any magazine to be faced with a sea of glossy-skinned, pearly-toothed women advertising shampoo, or bare-chested men clutching bottles of perfume as though it were the Holy Grail, with abs you could crack eggs on. It doesn’t take long to recognise some very strict beauty standards within western society, the emphasis firmly fixed on slender waists, toned stomachs, spotless complexions and voluminous hair.
However, I believe that these beauty standards are more rampant within gay culture specifically, and this has much to do with how gay men are portrayed in visual media. Over and over again, we are presented as well-dressed, blessed with designer stubble or inch-perfect beards; we have triceps that burst out of our shirt sleeves, we have smiles that glisten through the lens of an iPhone camera, and our piercings and necklaces are noteworthy but never too much.
This stereotypical portrayal of gay men as manicured, coiffured, and assembled in outfits that are always just so is what underlines the prevalence body worship in gay culture. Gay men are stereotypically motivated by pursuits of external beauty – the floppy-wristed Gay Best Friend trope being one standout example – and this is what supports the notion of there being just one valid body type. A quick scroll through Twitter gives me at least six posts of muscular guys shooting a selfie in their bathroom mirrors, the overhead lights perfectly accentuating the structure of their abdominals and the curvature of their thighs – and these posts will be rewarded with at least 5,000 likes. There is often no message attributed to these posts, with the only merit being their body image.
I don’t even follow accounts like this, but the way Twitter operates is that posts liked by the accounts I do follow then appear in my feed. It is literally unavoidable, and a damaging reinforcement that because I am skinny and have greasy skin, I will never be recognised as attractive on any scale beyond that of a one-to-one basis. I am not punished for the way I look, but I am so unremarkable in appearance as to be virtually ignored – which, in the age that thrives on the economy of attention, is almost as bad.
I was unsure if this opinion was purely my own, as someone who felt mostly ignored because of their ‘normal’ appearance, so I asked some of my gay peers for their input. I wanted to know what their experiences had been as a gay person in the digital age and if their own sense of self-worth had been affected by the representation of male beauty in media and popular culture.
The first person I spoke to was Fred Shirley, 22, a Photography MA student based in Brighton. “As with
any community or group,” he says, “there are standards of beauty which are aspired to, and gay culture is no exception to this. Certainly, on TV and social media – Instagram particularly – a certain demographic of very conventionally attractive men display themselves and are admired. On the ground, however, I think it's different; all sorts of people find partners who may or may not be considered attractive according to those same standards.”
The advent of social media has observed a radical degeneration of user attention span, as visual content becomes the predominant means by which information is communicated. The projection of eye-catching, instantly attractive imagery is one to have been perfected by Instagram especially, as Fred highlighted. While he admits that his face will never grace the cover of Vogue or Vanity Fair, he asserts, “I never had an issue finding sexual partners when I've wanted to.” Asked to clarify this point, he means that if he can, anyone can, and that one’s appearance in practical application won’t drastically impede their ability to attract members of their preferred gender.
A writer and content creator based in London, Max Hovey, 22, also believes “insane beauty standards” are not just relegated to the queer community, but prevalent within society generally. “With the growth of social media and face-manipulating software, I think so many people feel they need to live up to these unrealistic expectations and construct a façade.”
Max admits quite openly, “and with shame,” that a major proponent of his social media activity previously
catered to the “face-tune, body-image, #instagay crowd.” It’s easy to understand why, particularly in the early phases of building the follower base of one’s personal brand, as sex will always sell. Indeed, the number of posts marked with the #instagay hashtag currently exceeds 46 million.
Max recognises the detriment of such specific beauty standards and believes the way to dismantle this is through “the greater number of people that learn to love themselves as they are, and not focus on the images put on social media.” Image-centric platforms such as Twitter and Instagram represent the next evolution of the age-old phenomenon known as pretty privilege, whereby acceptably ‘good-looking’ people attract more positive attention and are generally enabled to advance further in life.
As Max concurs, “there’s no secret the number of people who have a large following are going to be more aesthetically pleasing, which is just down to the superficiality of our society.” Speaking for himself, “I feel that people definitely used to treat me very differently. My whole Instagram account was built on the whole body-image, selfie, face-tune thing, which means that’s what my following wanted. Yet there has been a massive downturn in my following over the last year because my content has shifted massively; it was no longer what I wished to put out there.”
The videos, blogs, and Instagram posts Max produces now revolve entirely around the importance of self-love and acceptance of one’s body – and taking ownership of whatever flaws and imperfections may be found therein. Yet this is not without backlash, as Max asserts whenever he posted anything that showed his body as anything less than the six-pack’ed, toned-chest representation of male beauty, he would lose 500 followers a go.
In fact, shortly before I approached him for this article, a post discussing lockdown weight gain saw his Instagram following dip from 138k to 125k in the span of a single weekend. This may have been something of a blessing in disguise: the followers he retained have proven themselves to be far more engaged in the message he is spreading than the beauty standards he previously tried to uphold.
As such, he no longer relies solely on how he looks to retain his social media following. “If I get compliments from people messaging me or complimenting my appearance, of course it’s nice, but for me it’s easy. Because you can see someone, appreciate how they look, and simply say that – but it takes time and effort to appreciate someone’s mind. When people compliment my work and compliment what I do, that warms my heart ten times more.”
What gets muddied within social media is the distinction between popularity and quality. As Max asserted previously, earning a complimentary comment for how he looks is easy. The actual recognition of value involves greater investment and, more often than not, is left by the wayside as users scroll through yards and yards of newsfeed, liking a post without ever reading it.
Jack Allen, 25, from Newcastle, recognises the significance of instantly recognisable beauty in this regard. “Body capital can be an avenue into creating a brand, because those who have it have what the modern world wants – statistics. If you have the numbers then you can become your own product, and thus
become #marketable. If you have it, own it; but in reality, this takes time.”
If one considers a ‘like’ or ‘follow’ as a reward, and a substitute for substance, Jack upholds that generically attractive people are always going to be able to count on that. “Creating a brand means having financial backing, innovation, and a lot of incredibly hard work. It’s often easy to overlook these values, and we often associate the appearance of financial success – I reinforce the word appearance – with actual success.”
The metrics by which Jack measures the success of his own life have nothing to do with his social media following. “It is measured by my own happiness, my friends, and my own journey through life” – and there is no compulsion for him to share every day of it online.
The conclusion at which I arrive, having spoken with other gay men about the issue of unattainable beauty standards, is not an especially surprising one. Yes, being attractive means you will stand out and probably have more people swipe right after seeing you on Tinder, but that only gets you so far. The quality of a relationship, be that with another person or among a large online following, is built on the value of what you think and feel and how compellingly these thoughts are expressed. Pretty is useful, but it is not the ultimate solution.
Because after all, what does the magpie do once it’s stolen that shiny pair of keys? It drops them in a bush and swoops down at the next thing to catch its attention.
Liam Heitmann-Ryce, 24, is an Australian writer and TEDx speaker with strong interests in music and the exploration of topics relating to LGBTQ+ culture. Currently based in Devon, he is active on Twitter and Instagram (both @liamhr96), and more of his interview features, news items and creative work can be found in his Portfolio