"Women arent as impressed by looks as gay men are. They wil play a cute trade with a shitty personality in a minute."
That's what active Twitter user Drew Kyle tweeted yesterday morning, and I was immediately confronted with my own three distinct reactions.
First: anger. I've lived for ten years inside the world of harsh, largely-unattainable beauty standards that gay men have accepted and propagated as sine qua non. Abercrombie and Fitch. Porn. Guys with iPhones. Gay men have determined that "beautiful" within our community means white, muscular, tall, masculine and low body fat. It's an area I've written about before. I'm too fat to be a twink, too skinny to be a bear, too femme to be trade (or "str8 acting," "masc," "DL"), and too basic for just about everyone else. I get what it feels like to be rejected for not making the male aesthetic varsity squad. It makes me vocal. It hurts. "What's the point if I'll never be good enough for the people I'd like to date?" I ask myself as I scan the list of nearby dudes.
Second: Side eye. The premise of Kyle's tweet is the same fallacious truism that I've loathed since my dad suggested I read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus as some kind of rite of passage into puberty (this being before I came out): Women are not in tune with their visual senses when it comes to how they select their romantic partners. Even as a teenager struggling both with my sexuality, and to a lesser extent my place within my gender, I knew it wasn't that simple. Women have to care about what a man looks like. What more evidence did I need than walking fearfully down the halls of my high school? Cheerleaders got the jocks. The fuglies got ignored. I wanted to cheer what Drew Kyle was getting at, but the idea that women are not visually-discerning individuals is a tired myth that really needs to be put to sleep.
Third: exasperation. As if that one tweet hadn't already dredged up enough memories and emotions, it also reminded me how easy it is for men in the gay male community—including, at times, myself—to fall back on the heteronormative standards we've consumed throughout our entire lives when trying to decide how to live. The problem with that is the way in which straight women and men comport themselves in romantic situations is off point. So what if straight women care less about beauty than gay men do? Why does that matter in our ongoing struggle to shape a sustainable, healthy, happy, (and ideally diverse) gay community? Gay men shouldn't rely on straight women as examples for how we should act no more than any minority should look to the majority in determining how their culture should take shape.
I'd like to say that I could disentangle these three concepts in my mind, find some way to unite them all to work simultaneously. If women are equally as selective with their romantic partners as men are, why does it feel like men seeking other men, by nature, creates the most vicious, shallow battlefield? But I could not. So I did the only thing I knew how. I took to my largely female feminist group of Twitter friends to see what they had to say on the matter.
I wasn't prepared for the responses I was about to receive.
The conversation—consisting of about ten of us—started with some bumbling regarding the terms of what I was asking, (my awkwardly-worded tweet did not help).
I had largely expected this. The consensus was overwhelming and immediate: Of course women care about looks. It's idiotic for anyone to question that. But I felt I was being too broad, so I changed my tactics.
This is where things started to get interesting. Kinja regulars Ihatepickingnames and Rain Dog is Waiting among others informed me (and I'm paraphrasing) that if they were to receive torso pics—specifically headless and within the first handful of messages—from guys on Tinder or OKCupid, they would 1) laugh their faces off (heh), and/or 2) block said dude immediately.
This is what I was waiting for. The aversion among straight women to receiving shirtless, headless pics as a form of introduction is so widespread that alternative dating sites have spawned disallowing pics from being exchanged until each individual gets to know the other's personality. My reaction to this? Bless their hearts. If such an app were proposed as an alternative to Grindr or Jackd, two of the most popular gay dating apps, the Silicon Valley techie would be laughed out of the room.
You see, the torso pic has always said a lot more to me than just "I have a six pack." When I look at the galleries of abs and pecs, I hear men silently saying, "I pride myself on how good I look." "I'm confident." "I have the diligence and perseverance to stick to a work out routine until I get my desired results." "I value the masculine male aesthetic." I see proof of hard work, even commitment, and these are undeniably characteristics I'd like to find in a romantic partner. So even if I've hated every last torso pic I've seen (which, if I were being honest, would be because I didn't have the same pics to show off), I would understand why they're such a mainstay in our community.
But straight women don't have this jealousy factor to consider, so why do they find the headless dudes of steel so appalling? If women really are as concerned about looks as men are, wouldn't they be eager to see the hot bod they might soon be banging? Wouldn't they want to ask for visuals during the initial repartee? Thankfully, I didn't have to ask.
"Am I defeating the idea of women being visual too?"one of the participants posed rhetorically. She had just stated, "I guess I don't get [hot] and bothered by random hunks of meat[.]" "What about the face?"
Slowly, as I received more responses, it was clear that the key to our disagreement was the missing face. This, however, was still problematic. Sure, many gay men advocate for having faces in pictures, too, but it's almost always framed as a question of pride and privacy. Even after decades of winning more equality, some gay men still don't like having their identities associated so explicitly with gay culture, "the gay scene," as having their face plastered up on gay dating sites.
It's always seemed a little paranoid to me (speaking solely of gays in Western countries). I suppose anyone could copy and save these pictures inside their hypothetically immense archives of strangers, but it doesn't seem like a very rewarding pastime. I guess, maybe, someone could produce a shirtless, smiling Grindr pic during a competitive interview process as evidence of a lascivious lifestyle, but I've never heard of such a scandal occurring. A digital pic alone doesn't usually out someone or lead to lost opportunities, though I suppose the possibility is there. Likewise, when gay men do show their faces, they almost always cite their willingness to be identified as gay as the reason for having done so. (I've even seen men castigate others who don't show their faces by calling them self-loathing cowards.)
All that to say, being comfortable with affirming one's sexuality, as laudable of an action as that is, was not what my female friends were thinking when they were advocating for having faces in addition to torsos.
As others expanded the point, it became clear: to them, this was a conversation about dehumanization. Posting headless torso pics felt a lot like music videos filled with faceless female back up dancers, or video games that feature women namelessly, nonplayable, and even dismembered as prostitutes. The headless torso, to this small though intelligent group of women, appeared to say, gay men are just bodies detached from any personality, we're interchangeable goods, and any six pack is as good as any other. Perhaps worst of all, the proliferation of these images and the subsequent dehumanization was being performed by gay men themselves.
This was not a perspective I had considered. But it appeared, finally, to connect those three disparate reactions I had felt after Drew Kyle's tweet.
Women are not less visually picky when it comes to whom they choose as romantic partners: they simply don't approve of, on principle, the ripping apart of bodies. They loathe the nameless, soulless ranking of individuals in an endless chase to determine who's hot and who's not. That's the kind of treatment women have received on the daily from media and society over millennia. Feminists are fighting against that kind of treatment, and they have become masters at sniffing out objectification from a mile away.
For gay men, however, we have not been taught through life experiences, through cat calls, through revenge porn, through leaked nudes, through fridged girlfriends, through superheroines-as-sex-objects, and a white dress on a spinning dais the pain that such treatment produces inside objectified groups. We still benefit immensely from our male privilege. So when we inflict the objectification upon ourselves, we're only aware that, if hot enough, we could be the prized object of some other gay male's gaze, and in the process we've unknowingly dissected ourselves and, inevitably, enforced the same self-harm from others in the dating pool.
I don't know how behaviors will change, or even if they should, but maybe, gay guys, we should let the women's rights movement help us out. This kind of objectification will lead to harm. For those who have been watching, we've seen the lengths women have gone to prove—even when the onus should be on men to change their views—that women are more than just their bodies. We already know the problems exist, too. The low self-esteems, the eating disorders, the obsessive behaviors, they're rampant in our community. Why are we moving in the wrong direction on this issue? Why are we perpetuating the same dehumanization—on ourselves—that women have unjustly endured from men for centuries?
I'll admit that I'm not an idealist, but approaching these pictures as I do now, I might be more likely to favor the guy who shows his face in his pics—not only as a sign of pride in his sexuality, but as a statement that he is more than just his body. Smiles and eyes are windows into the personality. We need as much personality as we can get in our digital world. Maybe if we removed the slabs of meat from our daily grind, we might be more likely to think—no matter what we look like—that we're more than just our bodies, too.
Not just some torso ripped away from its humanity.
Kevin Zimmerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. He goes by Clio while on Kinja, is shopping a YA novel, and can be contacted via Facebook here and on Twitter here. (He'd also love to write for you.)