Body-Image Dissatisfaction in Gay Versus Heterosexual Men: Is There Really a Difference?

Background: Gay men are thought to experience body-image concerns or disorders more frequently than heterosexual men. It is unclear, however, whether these putative concerns are due to unrealistic body ideals (aspiring to a body shape that is difficult or impossible to attain), body-image distortion (misperceiving the actual shape of one's body), or both.

Method: We administered a well-established computerized body-image test, the "somatomorphic matrix," to 37 gay men recruited from the community in April 1999 and compared the results with previous data from 49 community-recruited heterosexual comparison men and 24 clinic-recruited heterosexual men with eating disorders.

Results: Gay men were indistinguishable from the community-recruited heterosexual comparison men on measures of both body ideals and body-image distortion. By contrast, eating-disordered men were significantly distinguishable from both other groups on body-image distortion. The lack of differences between community gay and heterosexual men on body-image indices seems unlikely to represent a type II error, since the somatomorphic matrix showed ample power to detect abnormalities in the eating-disordered men, despite the smaller sample size of the latter group.

Conclusion: Contrary to our hypotheses, gay men did not differ significantly from heterosexual men on measures of body image. These unexpected findings cast doubt on the widespread belief that gay men experience greater body-image dissatisfaction than heterosexual men. If our findings are valid, it follows that some previous studies of body image in gay men may possibly have been influenced by selection bias.

J Clin Psychiatry 2004;65(11):1555-1558