Thirst trapped

The struggle for body acceptance within the gay community

Jesús Alvarado

April 26, 2019

Orlando Soria, 36, is a blue-eyed, fit man with broad shoulders and deep dimples. He's someone who seems to have it all: great looks, talent and even his own interior desiging show, HGTV's “Unspouse My House.” He could even pass for a Calvin Klein model, showing off his Calvins in ads featuring his pretty face.

But Soria's story illustrates how even a young gay man like him, who seems to have everything going for him, is still not immune to the pressure many in his community feel to have a perfect body. Nor is he unaffected by the mental health challenges that can result from chasing such unattainable ideal.

And this pressure is prevalent in the gay community, even though some gay men think of body dysmorphia and body dissatisfaction as a “girl's disease.” In reality, body dysmorphia and body dissatisfaction is not limited to any gender identity or sexual orientation.

Body dysmorphia is a mental disorder, which makes people who suffer from it become obsessed with specific aspects of their bodily appearance they deem flawed. Their self-regard may grow into a more general dissatisfaction with their bodies and could also lead to eating disorders, said Zach Rawlings, a Denver counselor who sees a number of gay clients who suffer from body dysmorphia.

Explainer video: Watch before proceeding

A lot of the gay lingo that is used throughout this story is explained in a fun, visual way in this video.

Soria wrote a blog post in 2012 in which he listed 10 reasons why he—and other gay men—hated their body at times.

“Because we are surrounded by images of perfect bodies,” he began. “Because of fear... Fear of being alone... of being rejected.”

And although his post was supposed to raise awareness about the psychological impact that body-image pressures can have on gay men, much of the gay community didn't approve of it and actually received a lot of backlash.

“People criticized me as this kind of horrible representative of the inner community that I myself felt alienated from,” Soria said in an interview.

Despite the negative feedback, Soria's article was pointing out a phenomenon that was all too real. Trends on social media and research show that many gay men experience poorer mental health and self-esteem when they follow accounts that share images of other gay men who are lean and attractive on Twitter or Instagram.

Photos like these are called thirst traps—images of gay, lean men who are often semi-nude, if not fully undressed.

Thirst traps, however, are not foreign to the heterosexual community, nor to the lesbian community, because the goal of one is to get attention online and be seen as sexy.

Gay thirst traps posted on Instagram have often featured the hashtag #InstaGay, which is typically followed by other hashtags that indicate the type of gay subculture they identify. Twitter-based thirst traps do not usually include these hashtags.

Other hashtags that InstaGays use on Instagram are: #daddy, describing an older man with a muscle, but not lean, body; #twink, referring to a younger man with a skinny body, little muscle and no fat; #bear, a thicker man who is older, hairy, teddy bear-like; and #cub, a younger version of a bear. These are only a few of many types of gays within the community.

Examples of thirst traps

Some of these tweets may have been deleted. Click on their respected link to see profile.

These images often lead gay men to feel a dissatisfaction with their bodies, which can trigger sadness, depression and other mental illnesses, according to Rawlings.

Rawlings said in an interview that spending time in the closet before coming out may negatively affect gay men's body image and could lead to dissatisfaction, dysmorphia and eating disorders.

“We are seeing that many gay men cope in the closet by focusing on competition, financial and career success, and physical attractiveness,” Rawlings said. “When physical beauty is used to buffer yourself from rejection in and out of the closet, it can be a set up for more dissatisfaction and unattainable standards.”

Gay men are raised with specific ideas about what it means to be men, and they may be unwilling to speak about their body issues because they see it as a “girl issue,” according to Sara Cibralic and Janet Conti, co-authors of a 2017 qualitative research on men's body image.

The gay community doesn't get a lot of attention or research regarding mental health and body dissatisfaction, which makes it difficult for gay men to open up about it, Cibralic and Conti added in their research.

The lesbian community, in contrast, has been the subject of more attention and research on body image and obesity concerns. This is due to the fact that lesbians are more likely to engage in alcohol binge drinking, and adds to the risk of becoming overweight or obese.

This is alarming considering that gay men represent about five percent of the overall male population, but make up 42 percent of the men who suffer from eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

“Body dissatisfaction is one of the highest risk factors for the development of an eating disorder, which could help us understand why we see more eating disorders among gay men than heterosexual men,” Rawlings said.

He also emphasized that interacting with social media platforms that feature “thirst trap influencers will trigger all of these dissatisfactions,” and encouraged gay men experiencing body dysmorphia symptoms to talk about it in order to help change the narrative.

Data source: "Male Body Image: The Roles of Sexual Orientation and Body Mass Index Across Five National U.S. Studies," 2016.

New York City-based psychotherapist Mark O'Connell said in an interview that he agrees with the claims that Orlando Soria made in Soria's body image-focused blog post.

“Certainly images of perfect bodies on social media will trigger feelings of inadequacy, but the real internal trauma—that those images are triggering—is already there,” O'Connell said. “The self-hatred inside each of these men has been cultivating from a very early age.”

Also, data shows that gay men who fall within the normal weight of the body mass index are more happy about their appearance, whereas those who fall along the overweight or obese spectrum express a dissatisfaction with their appearance.

Moreover, gay men with spouses compare their own physiques with their own partners' because the majority think that by being equally fit, if not more fit than the other, they will somehow be able to stay together with their partner for a longer period of time, according to a 2016 study.

Those who are single or actively dating feel as though they're in competition to attract more men, so they, too, compare their bodies to other gay men's, according to that same study.