Dating in the LGBTQ+ Community: Perspective from a Guy in Recovery

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Ryan Sheldon (resized)

Ryan Sheldon, NEDA Ambassador

In this day and age with all the apps, dating has become mainstream. But, while it’s become extremely accessible for all communities, it’s also become ever fleeting. You meet someone and there’s one thing you don’t like about them, so you go on the apps and continue to swipe. This could lead to a date that night. Now imagine this scenario, but add in the fact that I am in recovery from an eating disorder and struggle with body image issues—that’s a whole other can of worms. 

Up until about three years ago, I dated women. Then I switched my “seeking for” to men and what I found was extremely different from what I thought I was going to find. I asked myself, “How hard could it be to date men?” and “How different could it be to date men instead of women?” What I found out was almost paralyzing and, in turn, exacerbated my own issues with eating and body image. 

Within the first month, I realized that body image was way more important to men than to women. I’m not talking about the way you dress, the way your hair is styled, or even the scent of cologne that you wear. I am talking about the way your body looks.  

I was soon introduced to the different gay stereotypes (Bear, Cub, Twink, Otter, etc), and I was so confused by this. At first, I found myself obsessing about which stereotype I fell into. I started to exercise almost double the amount of time I did when I was dating women, and I started to limit my food intake. This stemmed from men asking me for “body pics.”  

Now, I’m generalizing here, but in my experience on dating apps when you are swiping for men, one of the first things they say to you is “body pic,” not even “Can you send me a body pic?”. I remember thinking to myself, “No, this can’t be how this is going to go.” But it became abundantly clear I was wrong when, by the twentieth guy I had spoken to, 16 out of 20 had asked for a body pic.  

In addition to that, I quickly realized that the majority of men want to find a guy that has that “ideal body image.” You know, the ones you see on the cover of Men’s Health. Let’s not forget that most men don’t look like that. In fact, with all the air brushing that is done, the guys on the cover of magazines probably wish they looked like that. 

I was once on a date with a guy who, you could say, had that ideal body image. He proceeded to tell me that he used to be “extremely overweight” but lost it all. He said, “Ryan, why do you think I lost it?” I didn’t respond, but he quickly said, “Because I decided I wanted to date men and men like a tight body.” Sigh… 

I took some time to really think about why this community is so focused on body image. The community that is supposed to be inclusive has me feeling excluded. How is this possible?  

When you see gay men in the media, you see them portrayed a certain way, and I can tell you first hand that I do not fit that mold. Or when you go to the gay bars you see men with very little clothing on and 0% body fat dancing on the bar tops. GREAT. Is this how I have to look to achieve the ultimate status in the gay community? 

I fell into a depression. My main focus became on my body, and how it was lacking that aesthetic that seems to be so accepted in the gay community. This led me to really start wondering, “Will I ever find someone who accepts my body the way it is?” That was until I did find someone. It was a short-lived romance, still it gave me the confidence and perspective that I needed—beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. 

In addition to what you see in the magazines, on tv, or at the gay bars, you also now have Instagram “thirst trap accounts”—the ones where the guys post half naked pics. Even though I try to steer clear of these accounts on Instagram, I can’t help but sometimes look. It’s mind-blowing how quickly their follower count goes up. You’re telling me that guys with that ideal body image are gaining more followers than I am just because they are posting shirtless pics and have a six pack? That will never be me. 

While I am still trying to navigate this new path I am on, I have found solace in the thought that I truly love myself and my body the way it is. It took me so long to get to a place where I can say that. Now don’t get the wrong idea, I have good days and bad days, and I live by the phrase “body neutrality” as opposed to “body positivity” because I can’t sit here and say that I always love my body. But I truly do accept my body, every last inch of it. 

I don’t know exactly what needs to happen for this online/app “body pic” dating environment to change. Maybe just starting the conversation could be enough. We need more gay men talking about this issue and bringing it to the forefront. Will you join me? 

A motivational speaker and brawn model, Ryan has been educating audiences about body image and binge eating disorder since his own diagnosis in 2015. Passionate about raising awareness of binge eating and body image issues as an Ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, he has shared his story with the Today Show, Huffington Post, and Teen Vogue, among other outlets. An LGBTQ+ man living in a larger body, Ryan also speaks to teens about masculinity, identity, and body confidence. He is currently working on a book about his and other men’s experiences learning to eat mindfully and love themselves just as they are. You can find Ryan on Instagram at BingeEaterConfessions or at his blog