The young man that who sat on the couch in front of me was wrapped in despair. His perfectly square jaw struggled to point upward as he made his best attempt at a forced smile. With tears welling from aqua blue eyes, Dan paused for a moment to look at his reflection from a nearby mirror. After a few moments of silence, he began to speak.
"I'm tired of trying to look perfect all the time. I hate my hair, I hate my complexion and I hate my body. I want to be hot – like the guys you see in the workout magazines." His voice began to crack as he struggled to fight back the tears. "But no matter how much time I spend at the gym or how much I spend on creams or Botox, I still think I look like crap. Can you help me feel better about myself?"
As our session continued, Dan offered up more clues to his dilemma, which in their totality I ultimately believed qualified him for entry into the not so elite club of gay men I call Kenmen. In short, "Kenmen" are guys who are typically in their late 20's to early 40's and who secretly hate their appearance while desperately trying look flawless. Everything they wear is name brand and generally, brand new. They will spend hundreds of dollars a month on various cosmetic products, dye their hair to hide the slightest hint of grey and when in social settings, believe they are the least attractive person in the room. Through a dangerous game of comparisons, Kenmen never feel "hot enough" and constantly need positive attention from others to combat preconceived notions of "ugliness". These men are depressed, suffer from low self-esteem and often suck all of the oxygen out of the room due to their enormous need for compliments. Between the cosmetic procedures, the beauty products and gym memberships - Kenmen usually see a hefty monthly self-care tab.
Let me state here that wanting to look attractive is normal. In fact, attention to one's personal appearance is important in a society that places high value on "looks". For Kenmen however, the vanity cavern dividing healthy and unhealthy is gigantic.
What Kenmen can do to create change:
If you (or someone you know) club Kenmen, here are some tips that may help you cancel your membership:
1. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else
Make a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others. This means not going out with friends and making comparative, self-hating statements like, "That guy has a perfect complexion and mine looks like crap!" Instead, listen to your friends when they pay you a genuine compliment and focus on the things about your appearance that you like.
2. Challenge those media images from magazines, movies and television
Sure, the guy doing abs in the latest workout magazine may look perfect but who wouldn't look like a million bucks after being airbrushed and photoshopped? Have you ever met someone who has modeled for a magazine or a T.V. personality? If not, you would likely find out that what appears electronically is vastly different from what appears face to face. Remind yourself of this when thumbing through periodicals, ipoding movies or Tivoing your favorite shows.
3. Avoid all of the self-criticism
Kenmen are experts at self-criticism. Disparaging remarks insidiously designed to elicit compliments are both common and destructive (i.e. "I hate my body" with the hope of someone replying, "You look hot". While this may immediately bring gratification to Kenmen, over the course of time, remarks like these and others take a nasty toll on self-esteem. What's more, they can exhaust your friends and chase them away! Think about it - it gets tiresome constantly having to prop up another person emotionally and validate their appearance. So instead of beating yourself up and draining your friend's energy, try focusing your attention elsewhere and remember that self-criticism is part of the problem.
4. Read more about body image issues
One of the best things Kenmen can do to address their problem is to read as much as they can about body image issues. An excellent place to start is by picking up the workbook: The Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks. For Kenmen who suffer from muscle dysphoria, consider reading the book: The Adonis Complex. The goal here is to recognize the signs and symptoms of overall body image issues and discover healthy ways of thinking about ourselves and those around us.
5. Consider speaking with a professional
Working with a therapist who specializes in body image issues can help combat distorted self-views and promote healthier ways of thinking. Look for a therapist who is experienced with these types of issues and has a cognitive element to their therapeutic approach. This type of therapy is designed to challenge irrational thinking in the here and now.
It has been several months since Dan first visited my office and in that time he has made tremendous gains. No longer does he "hate" his body and what's more, avoids the game of comparisons. It truly is a game when you think about it – because there is always a winner and loser.
For many former Kenmen, the road to emotional wellness is not always easy. The reality is that it takes time to reprogram caustic thinking into something healthier. So go ahead and take care of yourself. Enjoy your friends and let them enjoy you. Looking good is certainly important however, remember there is much more to you than your appearance – and that is something to celebrate!
Thank you for reading this edition of Living Well on ChicagoPride.com. Best wishes for 2008!