The toxicity of the gay male glo-up

Often masked as promoting 'wellness', ugly duckling-to-swan narratives are wreaking havoc on the self-esteem of young gay men today.

by Otamere Guobadia
07 April 2020, 8:00am

Culture has long been fixated on the before and the after -- on extreme beast-turned-beauty makeovers and radical duckling-to-swan transformations. Between the F45 '8 Week Challenge' testimonials, Facebook's 10-year challenge, 'feel old yet?' memes and American television's near 20 seasons of The Biggest Loser, ours is a world obsessed with achieving our ultimate form. When it comes to beauty, no narrative appears to quite satisfy us like the emergence of a buried charm; a conventionally attractive aesthetic lurking underneath a supposedly base and ugly original form, just waiting to be discovered.

In other words, we fucking love the glo-up.

The glo-up has ignited the imagination of popular culture for time immemorial. You only need to look to giants of Western canon such as Pygmalion and Princess Diaries -- the latter with its now-unforgettable reveal: "Only Paolo can take this and this and give you… a princess!" Hidden amid an 80s-style backcombed mane, overgrown eyebrows and nerdy glasses, was Princess Mia's 'true' and 'beautiful' self. Mean Girls inverts this trope when Janis Ian, via clever and nefarious means, wages war on high school bully and queen of teen society Regina George's "technically good physique" -- aka her "hot body" -- and all which is constellated around it. The sum total of which was an incredibly valuable social capital she wielded to rule those shallow, hallowed hierarchical halls.

It comes as no surprise then that gay men are so invested in the cocooning phenomenon of the glo-up. Between early years of a society-mandated closet, school bullying, and a position at the bottom of the high school food chain -- the best revenge would be the acculturation of hotness and social capital. There's a reason why so many glo-up anecdotes inevitably reference school bullies.

The glo-up is sneakily insidious. Why? Because it frames our shallow fixation with aesthetics -- and extreme aesthetic transformation -- as wellness. In many ways, glo-up culture has co-opted the tropes of the body positivity and fat-acceptance movements, with its toxic philosophy often cloaked in the language of taking action to 'love the skin you're in!' But the reality is that glo-up is the most shallow kind of wellbeing phenomenon. It does nothing to disrupt existing hegemonies of beauty -- ones that are fuelled by and propped up by racism and ableism -- nor does it dismantle the system that rewards conformity.

Our unhealthy, all-consuming gay-male veneration of aesthetic hypermasculinity -- of impossibly rippling torsos and sub 10% body fat composition -- has been the subject of much investigation and theory. The rise in muscle-gay aesthetic is often understood as a collectively traumatic response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, a body -- and a body politic -- developed as evidence of health, as a rage against the literal waning of a community. Now it exists as a pervasive cultural artefact. Not simple adherence to vanity, but a complex, hypervigilant relation to image and masculinity, from a community who were so often picked apart for failing to successfully conform to both. But whatever its origins, our cultural fixation on the perfect body continues to endure and impact our collective psyche in a number of harmful ways. The science tells us what many of us anecdotally and instinctively already know to be true. As summarised in this paragraph from a recent psychology paper, "research [indicates] that gay men are at greater risk than heterosexual men for developing eating disorders and have a higher incidence of drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and body image related anxiety."

"The reality is that glo-up is the most shallow kind of wellbeing phenomenon. It does nothing to disrupt existing hegemonies of beauty – ones that are fuelled by and propped up by racism and ableism – nor does it dismantle the system that rewards conformity."

David, a gay academic in his late 20s, had always had a difficult relationship with his body pre muscle glo-up. He describes a childhood where he was "bullied for being ugly and camp and girly", and the subsequent disordered eating and body shame that continued into his adult life. "When I overcame my disordered eating, which took a long time, I started to hate my body even more. I just felt I had lost control over it and I felt wrong. I fell into a depression over it," he says. "It got very bad. If I was out in public and I saw men with bodies I wanted -- which were always muscular, toned, big, everything I had never allowed myself to be when I had spent years making myself thin and tiny -- I would become horribly sad."

When I speak to Kush, a 27-year-old musician and employee of a boutique fitness studio, he offers up this perspective on the gay male glo-up: "I find it intriguing that for a community where we constantly say we celebrate being different, we have slowly all moulded in to the same [person].' For Kush, the predominant images and aesthetic values of gay culture have weighed heavily on his self-esteem. 'Being a brown boy it’s been engraved in me that I will always come second to a blond twink or a muscly Clapham gay stereotype.”

Brandon is a 23-year-old London gay man who has spent the last couple of years relentlessly and methodically transforming his body from twink physique into muscular temple. His journey began as a result of criticism he received from a casual hookup, who said when he took his top off for sex that "[he] just thought [he'd] be more toned.” The resulting anguish set Brandon on a near-obsessive gym craze. "Part of me wanted to smack that guy into the next decade but the other half of me wanted to cry. And at the time I was 18 and thought I was hot shit so it felt like a smack in the face. After that I went on a huge revenge body vendetta because I wanted to make this guy so jealous that I was now muscular," he says.

Perhaps nowhere is the new found thirst bestowed by a glo-up more stark and pronounced than in the case of reigning YouTube twink Tyler Oakley's metamorphosis into mini muscle daddy.

Responses ranged from the truly chaotic--"tyler im sorry i said you were so annoying please.... im 18 im free on tuesday are u free on tuesday please text me and let me know if you want to hang out on thursday when i am free" to "tyler CHOKE-ME OAKLEY!!!!" Essentially offering him a lifetime’s supply of the standard hypersexual thirst his image had largely denied him in previous years.

These transformations are rewarded like clockwork. Most who come up against the culture and its impossible standards are strong-armed into conforming. Both Brandon and David acknowledge what is perhaps an obvious point -- evidenced so clearly here with Tyler Oakley: that for them changing musculature corresponded with radically shifted status and greater sexual capital and visibility within the gay community. The implicit message broadcast being that it isn't the standard that is broken, but rather the individual who fails it. This might seem like a shallow game with little real world consequence, but the simple fact is that, much like being “straight-passing”, respect, safety, success and a myriad other prizes and resources, are often apportioned according to these very hierarchies both in the LGBT+ community and beyond. The message relentlessly sent is that what waits for you on the other side of your glo-up is worth it and no cost is too high to pay. Fad dieting, steroid use and plastic surgery are all encouraged.

But the glo-up is not just a newfound hotness. More than simply a finished product, the glo-up is hotness with provenance. The likes and comments and shares it engenders come not just simply from the hotness, but from the contrast. The first image --literal or otherwise-- serves as a kind of foil, to heighten the perceived success of the transformation. No matter claims to the contrary, the glo-up does not accept a continuum of beauty. So at the heart of the problem with the glo-up, is that it posits the untransformed body and the person attached to it as ugly, unappealing, unfinished -- take your pick -- and the transformed body as living their very best life. They are now worthy of your praise, fame, engagement, free underwear subscriptions, and a world of endless accolade and possibility, despite being the exact same person beneath the surface.

The sinister belief that seems to underlie this and every 90s/00s romcom transformation, is that love is just around the corner, should we make that bold leap to become beautiful. The 'before' is as, if not more important, than the 'after'. The glo-up is the American dream writ across the human body: an ideology that says one can rise from the rags of their 'unattractive' birth to the riches of beauty -- if only by drastic reinvention. As with these films, and real life, unconventional looks and imperfection is permissible, as long as they are temporary -- a bridge between ugly duckling and Instagram selfie-swan. This pressure creates a positive feedback loop that sustains this endlessly dysmorphic culture. A culture that maintains at its core that there is only one kind of external fitness magazine 'beauty' worth having and striving for, and encourages us to take the most extreme lengths to achieve it.

Transformation always exacts a cost, and those metamorphoses mandated by dominant paradigms of beauty, motivated by a desire to be sexy by the standards of gay media and community, often demand the highest. I ask Kush what would have to change to quash his desire to conform, for him to be happy to live in his body the way that it is. “For more people of different sizes cast as leading men,” he says, and for social media's renewed emphasis to be less about vanity and more about creation. “I want us to see people of all shapes and types being the desired ones in our media.” This is not intended to be moralising, nor place the onus on individual action; people are entitled to take whatever steps in their personal lives, meaningful or banal, that make them feel beautiful. But gay glo-up culture sells a toxic fantasy, underpinned by the belief that we are not enough until we are perfected adonises. A narrative that traps some people in a vicious, unrelenting and often dangerous pursuit of the perfect body. I want a kinder culture, to be freed from the draconian pageantry. No crowns, no runners-up. Don't you want that too?

Think Pieces