Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Confronting Body Image as a Gay Man Living with HIV
by John Francis Leonard

Gay men don’t have a monopoly on the constant pressure to fit an idealized image; ask any woman. Even our straight male brethren face those issues in a culture saturated with images of the “perfect,” impossibly fit man. But my experiences are those of a gay, cisgender, HIV-positive man, and those are the experiences I know best.

I recently interviewed a young gay filmmaker, Linus Ignatius [A&U, February 2020], and we had a remarkable conversation about issues such as these which he has dealt with both personally and in a short film he wrote, directed, and starred in entitled Mass. The piece was about him, so of course I left much of what I had to say out of the piece. Neither do I want to revisit too much of what he had to say in this essay, but suffice it to say that, in the recent past, he had struggled mightily with his self-esteem. He spent hours at the gym trying to build the muscle mass that seemed to come so easily to the gay men surrounding him in NYC’s image-obsessed gay culture. The whole time he recounted these struggles, I was amazed. How could such a good-looking man ever feel inadequate? I totally related; for years, especially after my diagnosis, I went to extremes keeping that same kind of body that I saw all around me, whether it be my friends, those I saw at the many circuit parties I attended, or the constant idealized images in porn or in advertising. I achieved the results, for a while, but at what price? I spent large amounts of money on gyms, personal trainers, steroid injections, and even resorted to plastic surgery, trying to fit an image that was as much in my own head as it was projected onto me.

It’s been a decade since I left that world behind me and part of it still remains. I thought I had settled comfortably into being a bear, but I still struggle. Recently I got all caught up in a weightlifting app to build mass. I figured I’d try to embody the kind of guy I’m most attracted to. I don’t mind a husky guy; in fact I prefer it, and I love it when a guy stays husky, but builds his arms and chest in particular. A gut is fine and when there’s balance in the arms and legs, even better. I’m talking about what I consider a real muscle-bear. Not some circuit queen with a six pack who grew a beard and stopped shaving his body, but a real, thick guy. What I’d found was just another mold to try to fit into. It’s funny because I’ve left my old friends behind, and I’m happier. I left the need for a large income behind, and I’m happier. I left a string of affluent partners behind, still happy. But I can’t seem to shake that need to be an image I want to project. I got so carried away lifting heavy weights, that I injured my shoulder and haven’t yet been able to lift again. Did I stay dedicated to my cardio at least? Well, no. I haven’t been back to the gym since late May and have continued to eat like I want to gain, a recipe for disaster. I don’t mind being a husky bear, but I’m much heavier than I’m comfortable with.

What does all this, all this pressure to look good stem from? A lot of places it turns out. I asked Linus about what HIV had to do with a body-obsessed gay culture and he hit the nail on the head. Gay men have been fighting the image of those early AIDS patients wasting away for years. It is no wonder we became obsessed with a “healthy” look when we did. He turned it around and asked me what I thought was a contributing factor and my reply was one word, steroids. When gay men who had been wasting away were given a second lease on life through modern medications, they were also often prescribed testosterone and other steroids to combat the wasting. Suddenly, you had a group of men who had been near death’s door who were seemingly at the gym and muscular overnight. It had a trickle-down effect that we all felt. Steroids had always been around certainly, but suddenly there was an enormous black market. I started taking them long before I was ever diagnosed. We all wanted some of that magic.

So here I am at fifty and losing twenty to thirty pounds is more my speed. It wouldn’t make me skinny, as I’m built like a linebacker, but it would make me a lot healthier. That’s what should be my focus now, health. My father died of a heart attack at thirty-five and my maternal grandmother had one in her fifties. I really need to take heed of that legacy and gain some control. It won’t happen overnight, especially at my age, but I can start at anytime. The second that I feel myself striving to fit some image, some photo I have in my head, I’m dead in the water. Same goes with trying to be something for someone else. The focus needs to be on myself and my health. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about this in my column, and it may not be my last, but by next time there will be some progress made.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.