Is Everything Cool As Long As I’m Getting Thinner?

Skinny Homos, Queer Anxiety and Dominant Culture

A certain queer ontology has been gaining a concerning amount of trendiness of late: the skinny homo. While I am acutely aware that the everyday stresses of being in a marginalised group take their toll on the body in one way or another, the glamourisation of an anxiety-producing, appetite-suppressing, ‘busy’ lifestyle isskinny homo just not that subversive.

The skinny homo as cultural phenomenon seems to rely on an appreciation of anxiety and its dramatic (and drastic) effects on the body (/ life): fight or flight mechanisms direct blood away from the digestive system in stressful situations causing a loss of appetite or inability to eat. Certainly, queer sexual and social lives can induce this reaction for extended periods of time (half-days, days, weeks). However, even if the skinny homo aesthetic eventuates out of something other than not eating to actively ‘diet,’ it nevertheless results in a culture and celebration of skinniness highly conveniently aligned with current mainstream ideas about desirable embodiment.

Along with the behaviour itself, the way in which it is talked about reinforces this reverence of skinniness. Not eating becomes ‘culturally-legible’ as it is reiterated: “look how skinny I am…you’re so skinny…things are so fucked up.” Here, the tendency to directly relate ‘how bad things are’ to a level of skinniness results in a physically manifested hierarchy of oppression, named and duly noted as unhelpful by queer theorist Jack Halberstam as “transgressive exceptionalism.” Having a healthy body is no longer read as strength but rather that things ‘simply can’t be that bad.’

Our bodies are the ultimate metaphor for power and control within our grasp. And we do suffer. Embracing such a ‘lifestyle of starvation’ comes to metonymically represent our being in the world: as damaged. Furthermore, the discourse of ‘the skinny homo’ affirms a self-harming sado-masochistic pleasure in watching one’s body disintegrate. Albeit in a different context, this nevertheless reinforces culturally dominant ideas about skinniness, idolizing a state of fucked-upness as desirable; that is, “I can’t eat, oh, well, being skinny is not only so cool, but also shows I’m the most oppressed.” The citation of the skinny homo encourages continued failure to eat because it is considered somehow a part of queer culture, and not a particularly problematic one. But it clearly is.

Negotiating our way in an oppressive and violent world can be devastatingly hard and painful. But we are strong and endure. We need (our bodies) to be healthy; our lives sustainable.

Eat up.

Max xx

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9 Comments

Filed under "Queer Culture", Fashion, Feminist Politics, Max Attitude, What's Queer Here?

9 responses to “Is Everything Cool As Long As I’m Getting Thinner?

  1. Josh

    As someone whose body type you’ve just attempted to mark as pathological and politically dubious, I take exception to this post. I think you are perpetuating the norm as ideal. That is, that the body types of straight people is the neutral condition. Thereby, you are construing the different body trends of “homos” as being necessarily abnormal and requiring explanation.

    I am genetically thin. Furthermore, many “homos” are thin simply because of a different lifestyle – we don’t have three meals a day or come home to a cooked hot dinner. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – traditions of food and nutrition are heavily influenced by traditional family and lifestyle structures, which are inappliable to our case.

    Rather than tacitly labelling thin gay men as representing “incorrect” attitudes towards food, perhaps you should be question why straight men are so intent on having a large and bulky appearance? Maybe it’s really the anxiety of those people that is the issue here. Perhaps we, by rejecting this ideal, are making positive steps towards a society where strength and size are not synonomous with the “male” gender presentation?

    p.s. I have assumed your use of “homos” has referred to gay men above. If not, please clarify this, and I will extend the above.

    p.p.s. I don’t believe there’s any evidence thinness – in the way that is currently the norm in parts of the queer community – is unhealthy. I believe it’s only below a BMI of about 18.5 that negative health effects really start to kick in.

  2. Lia

    Beautifully said. I think being skinny is also associated with a particular kind of grungy androgynous glamour that’s privileged over other queer gender identities performances appearances …

  3. What’s a body for if not wasting in an unsustainable way?

    Whilst there may be reasons why dashing once self against rocks in a struggle where one is hopelessly out numbered is better then going for the skinny look, it being more sustainable does not seem to be one of them.

    Here I am assuming that negotiating our way through a world of oppression and violence is synonymous with some quest for justice.

    Does the argument then run into something that suggests that such a quest is better than pursuing the transitory and silly prejudices of cultural taste? If so does this constitute a vote for a brutal revolutionary quest for justice with no compromise for such silliness or are there some grounds for differentiation between silly and not-so silly cultural tastes that are worth pursuing?

  4. To Josh,

    Firstly, ‘homos’ does not refer exclusively to gay men. The term ‘skinny homo’ is not one I invented; ‘homo’ can refer to men or women, ‘skinny homo’ is certainly used for all kinds of people (L,G,B or T). I talk about queer anxiety as a way of showing that this effects all kinds of queer people, and I am in fact more interested in how it effects queer women because it is their need to differentiate themselves from the skinniness of straight women which I think is interesting.

    I am not marking such bodies as pathological. What I am interested in is the way people talk about their/our skinniness as being subversive and as an effect of oppression, without being critically aware of the way it is aligned with current (mainstream (read: straight)) trends of beauty and desireability. I am certainly not perpetuating the norm as the ideal: whether by norm you mean straight or skinny. As I said, what I am interested in is the way in which people talk about (and ‘defend’) their skinniness as subversive in comparison to nonqueer people’s skinniness – a defense I find pretty poor and unthought out. Skinniness itself, whatever the boundaries of such a label may be, is not what I think is ‘unhealthy’ but the way in which (queer) people excuse (their) not eating.

  5. To Lia,

    I also think there are certainly things to be said about the aesthetics of drug-use (‘heroin chic’), especially in queer communities, and I do think it can be and is affective in ways we look, think about how we (want to) look, work-ethics, and eating-habits.

  6. Gauche

    Yes, I think particular aesthetic values apply for each substance more than they differ between straight and queer cultures though.

    Re “affirming a self-harming sado-masochistic pleasure in watching one’s body disintegrate”:
    Self-harm is pretty appealing, as proof, expression and relief of suffering. And there is genuine pleasure in it, I think, which is easy to justify, at least with an already broken mind, especially when any community accepts select methods of inscribing pain on the body — certain drugs, certain modifications, certain ways of fucking.

    So you’re sleepless, starving, squatting, getting beat up by cops, feeling like strength means surviving, means suffering, the more meagre and cruel the more exquisite, and there’s some kind of justice or truth in it, some kind of transparency. This is how the system works. You’re always subbing.

    And then on the other hand, you’re reckless, you can’t afford to wait, all your pleasures are perverse so what does it matter, you’ve got it so hard and you hardly get what you need, you deserve this.

    So I don’t know how to escape it — how to talk about oppression in ways that don’t glorify suffering. But I know pleasure and pain get mixed up and I forget who I’m punishing, or for what.

  7. Cole

    I am one of those genetically thin people too. Recently at a doctors appointment I was told my BMI was “too low” at 17.9. After this appointment I felt really bad about myself. I went home stripped down and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at my ribs, and my tiny “beer” belly. I looked at my thighs and arms which seemed to be a nice amount of muscley(I mean I do have a scrawny bird chest).I did not by any means look unhealthy. Not a single person that had seen me naked recently said anything about me looking unhealthy. I certainly did not feel unhealthy.
    I eat three meals a day and consume snacks in between. Most of that is vegetables, nuts, and grains. I mean I do eat pretty healthy just as a general rule. I like healthy food. It is something I truly truly enjoy. I love vegetables. I also eat a lot of food and by a lot I mean a ridiculous amount. 3/4 of my after rent income goes to food. I eat the whole bunch of kale/chard/whatever , along with the whole package of veggie protein, and a big serving of carbs. I do this twice a day. For breakfast I have similar amount. So as one can see I eat. Snacks too. Fruit and crackers and string cheese. Cookies and cupcakes too.

    Yes, people have said things to me about it. They have asked me if I was on drugs or had a eating disorder. These people were strangers. Talk about an invasion of privacy. People on the bus and street have even come up to me and asked me if I needed help!! “I AM JUST SKINNNNNY MY MOM IS SKINNY MY DAD IS SKINNY WE ARE JUST SMALL PEOPLE” I said to this older gay man at a store in the castro after he handed me a “meth addicts self help packet” and tried to talk to me about “getting help for myself”. I tried to think what was so wring with being skinny. Why do I have to feel bad about it? This is the way I am.
    Back to feeling bad about myself for being skinny. I thought and thought about it. Then I finally after a week of feeling bad about myself and trying to gain weight by drinking protein shakes, nuts, and baked goods I decided that the way I was shaped was good enough for me the day before my appointment. I stopped feeling bad. But it wasn’t without effort.

    The point is this article made me feel the same way the doctor did. Sometimes being around the “fat positive” queers makes me feel the same way. Why in our community is there lack of acceptance?

    I guess there is always someone/something to criticize. Oppressed people once given some sort of freedom or status (e.g.becoming more socially accepted) often oppress.

    Will that cycle end?
    Who will change it?

    • Dude, you’ve got privilege-guilt. Ask white folks about it and see how defensive they get (this really comes out when you say you feel bad being around fat positive queers). Get over it.

  8. Many of the literary and erotic attitudes known as ‘romantic agony’ derive from tuberculosis and its transformation through metaphor. Agony became romantic in a stylized account of the disease’s preliminary symptoms (for example, debility is transformed into languor) and the actual agony was simply suppressed. Wan, hollow chested young women and pallid, rachitic young men vied with each other as candidates for this mostly (at that time) incurable, disabling, really awful disease. ‘When I was young,’ wrote Théophile Gautier, ‘I could not have accepted as a lyrical poet anyone weighing more than ninety-nine pounds.’ (Note that Gautier says lyrical poet, apparently resigned to the fact that novelists had to be made of coarser and bulkier stuff.) Gradually, the tubercular look, which symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, became more and more the ideal look for women – while great men of the mid and late nineteenth century grew fat, founded industrial empires, wrote hundreds of novels, made wars, and plundered continents.

    – Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1978

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