• Evan McCoy

The Gay Pursuit of Perfection: A Reflection on the Toxicity of Influencer Culture

If you are a gay man with an Instagram account, your Explore page is likely a gridlocked wall of flesh: chessboard abs, firm pecs, rounded glutes, ballooning biceps. Picture after picture of shirtless, perfectly toned men. It’s a sea of skin, a cesspool of vanity.

It's a toxicity that has become normal.

At some point in the 2010’s, as social media ramped up and selfies became the gold standard for internet affirmation, gay men realized they could monetize their bodies by becoming “influencers.” They could capitalize on the sexualized nature of the gay community by posting shirtless selfie after shirtless selfie and drawing likes with hashtags - likes that eventually became followers and followers that eventually became brands offering free products in exchange for a post.

It’s not just Instagram - Twitter, Tumblr, and even Facebook have also become viable platforms for spreading the perfection message in pursuit of social clout.

It’s a perfect storm. Gay men are an inherently horny community, and we’ve trained ourselves to prize vanity and expertly tailored “perfection” in all forms, specifically in the male body - so the temptation to idolize and provide a platform for what we consider to be conventionally attractive men was simply too strong to resist, and now we’ve poisoned ourselves with a societal machine we are responsible for creating.

It’s easy to think It’s just social media and dismiss it. But as social media has become as necessary as the blood in our veins for many of us, it has also begun to inform and shape our daily lives, in ways big and small. When you’re seeing unrealistic bodies several times a day, every single day, it doesn’t take long for you to internalize what you think you need to look like.

You begin to notice all the ways in which your body in the mirror doesn’t look like the bodies you see being worshipped online. Your abs aren’t defined enough, your chest isn’t big enough, you have hair in places you aren’t supposed to have it, you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re too dark or too pale.

Then, we begin to view our bodies as home improvement projects. Oh, maybe I can flatten out my stomach if I just eat less. Maybe I can get a better chest if I do more pushups. Maybe I can get rid of the hair I don’t want by waxing or shaving. Each little part of ourselves becomes something that can be better, until we are stuck in a cycle of never being satisfied. There’s always one more thing that can be better, hotter, more like them.

And that’s just the private aspect, how it infects our relationship with ourselves. But what about our relationships with others, particularly other gay men?

Take the gay friend who texted me out of the blue one day saying, “let’s get hot together.” He wanted us to get gym memberships and go lift every day, with the assumption being that we were both too skinny and needed to bulk up in order to be seen as attractive.

Take the gay friend who works out six times a week and, whenever we go out to eat together, orders a side salad as his meal and then spends 20 minutes side-eyeing the plate of nachos I ordered for myself while complaining about how fat his 6-pack-abs are.

Take the group of gay friends who had a discussion about fatness being disgusting and inherently unhealthy, a discussion in which I was the only one who stood up for people’s right to be overweight and still be proud of who they were.

I don’t mention these examples as callouts to the individuals I am referencing, but rather as examples of the toxicity in gay culture that we have led ourselves to believe is normal. We have become so accustomed to what we see online being the gold standard that we don’t even allow ourselves - or other gays - the opportunity to look normal.

We have even begun to think it’s okay to be friends with other gay men only if we secretly want to fuck them.

Here’s how that starts with the influencers: between their shirtless selfies holding a block of swiss cheese or standing on a beach or brushing their teeth, there are group shots with their “friends.” Always, without fail, these group shots are full of other shirtless, muscular, toned men - not a single skinny or slightly overweight person in the bunch.

What, then, do we take from that? That we, also, can only be friends with people we deem as attractive as we are. When I notice groups of gays at bars or posting things online, it’s rare to see someone conventionally attractive hanging out with someone conventionally unattractive. We stick in groups by attractiveness level, and the mingling between these groups is minimal.

A few days ago, I chatted with a guy on a dating app who looks like the gold-standard of influencers: toned, chiseled, strong-jawed. I noticed in one of his pictures that he lived in the same apartment building as me, so we chatted briefly about that.

I could tell he wasn’t interested in me romantically, so I told him it would be great to make a gay friend in my building, absolutely no strings attached. He seemed to agree but immediately pulled back. When I suggested he come over for wine sometime, he just completely stopped responding.

I can’t say for certain that he didn’t want to be friends with someone he deemed to be below his attractiveness level, but when I look at his Instagram profile and see only him and others like him, I can’t help but feel like the ugly gremlin who wasn’t good enough for the king.

And that’s the root evil of the influencer culture we have idolized: we never feel good enough. We never feel good enough for ourselves, we never feel good enough for other gay men, and we never feel good enough to be worthy of being loved.

When I go to my Instagram Explore page, I try desperately to train the algorithm to show me other things. I will click on Pokemon posts, Taylor Swift posts, book posts, animal posts - anything other than the swaths of shirtless men - and yet, they always remain. In fewer numbers, of course, but they are there. It’s unavoidable.

How, then, do we get better?

When I look in the mirror, I focus all my energy on uplifting the parts of me I do like, rather than dissecting the parts I don’t like. When I find myself not wanting to talk to another gay man because I don’t find him attractive, I mentally slap myself and put my pride aside to see a person for who they are, rather than what they look like. I do everything I can to avoid seeing shirtless influencers and contributing to their likes, comments, and shares.

I don’t have all the answers, as I never do. But I am hopeful that the gay community will start to be more cognizant of the ways in which we actively contribute to putting ourselves, and others, down.

Influencers will always be there, and they will continue to do what they do - but maybe we can slowly start to worship ourselves for all the beautiful flaws and scars that make us who we are the way we worship the fantasy these influencers serve us.

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