This week Gay Star News reported on the death of Augusto Murillo, a gay Colombian dancer, following a silicone injection.
It seems that the man’s low self-esteem, stemming from poor self-image, was responsible for him seeking out means by which to tackle his “inadequacies”. While fortunately cases of death in such circumstances are rare, there can be no escaping the terrible reality that such a lack of body confidence affects an increasing number of young gay men and that the fashion and beauty industries’ power and commercial aggression has significantly contributed.
I speak from experience, both professional and personal. In my late teens and early twenties, already insecure and uncertain about my sexuality, I was deeply aware of my own physical imperfections. At that age I was very sensitive to others making me aware of my less than ideal body, something which was not helped by the apparent obsession in the media with the perfect physical form (both male and female) and the extent to which this became a consumer product in its own right. Those of us who were less attractive, or at least felt that way, inevitably lost out in this marketplace and would have done anything – or almost anything – to rectify it.
It was not merely the mainstream media that was responsible for perpetuating this ideal and indirectly creating pressure to conform. The gay publications I was able to get hold of were similarly full of images of attractive men and their near-perfect bodies - sadly, the LGBT "world" was buying into the myth of bodily perfection as much, if not more, than everyone else. It was an ideal I eventually realised (after an obsession with visiting the gym) that I couldn’t aspire to. Certainly if I’d had the means I may well have been sufficiently desperate or insecure to look out the kind of remedies that killed Mr Murillo. I felt rejected by a society I feel now should have been more supportive towards vulnerable young adults.
It took me several years to understand and accept who I was, something that may have been significantly easier without the pressures to conform to either masculine stereotypes or the perfect physique. My insecurities ran deeper that this of course, but they were ruthlessly exploited by those in the beauty industry happy to aid me in my quest for the elusive physical attractiveness I yearned for and the confidence I imagined it would bring. Fifteen years later, those close to me might find it difficult to appreciate that I was once gripped by such low self-esteem and hopelessness that I felt suicidal. My now self-evident confidence is testimony to some close friends who enabled me to accept myself and, eventually, to be myself. But the memories of that time are very real.
More recently, I have worked in mental health nursing. This regularly brought me into contact with young men and women who suffer similarly from having a poor body image, often as a result of societal, media and corporate pressures to confirm to its image of perfection. This has serious consequences, and not merely in extreme cases such as that of Mr Murillo. When people feel the need to undergo invasive treatments, there are inevitably risks – physical risks but also psychological ramifications. While a medical student, I worked in plastics and emergency surgery and witnessed first hand the horrific consequences of silicone injections, botched breast enlargements and sunbed obsessions. I also became suspicious of the arbitrary nature of rationing cosmetic treatment on the NHS, and the way it responds to matters of deep personal insecurity often by feeding them rather than challenging them, empowering the beauty industry in the process.
What I think is sometime overlooked is that an individual’s sense of worth and emotional well-being have an effect on their inter-personal relationships. And so undermining body confidence can have enormous social and personal ramifications. For some of the people I have worked with, an inability to accept themselves have led to feelings not only of inadequacy but also a refusal to believe they can be, or deserve to be, loved. This in turn has led to the breakdown of relationships and self-destructive behaviour. Very recently a young gay man I had worked with over a long period of time committed suicide. The reasons for this are inevitably complex and deeply personal, but for many years he had struggled with body confidence issues in spite of others thinking he was actually very good looking. I am not suggesting a direct link between exploitative fashion/beauty industry and suicide, but in this case it was possibly a contributory factor. It certainly caused a great deal of his unhappiness and affected his judgments.
I cannot state categorically that this affects gay men any more than heterosexual men, but certainly I know of many young gay and bi people who struggle unnecessarily with their self-image. Identity and self-confidence go hand in hand and young gay people, often struggling with the former, do not need their confidence being undermined as a result of the narcissistic marketing methods of an industry that reduces human beings of objects of desire. Certainly, society as a whole needs to become more aware of how deeply this affects men. Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson has done some positive work promoting “Real Women” via her “Campaign for Body Confidence” in the last three years and has turned her fire on fashion magazines that use photo-manipulation to create a near-unattainable female perfect body image. She is right to do so, but the issue is so much wider than the techniques used to exaggerate perceived body perfection. It also affects more than just women.
At the heart of the matter is not some academic debate about what beauty actually is, but a rampant and aggressive industry that preys on insecurities and enslaves vulnerable adults, creating untold misery for purely commercial purposes. In my view, this unnecessary human cost is not a price worth paying and something I hope that will become both recognised and challenged by our politicians.