Celebrating "obese" bodies: gay "bears" talk about weight, body image and health.
The current preoccupation with health problems associated with overweight and obesity has produced a demonisation of larger people, but there is a growing resistance to our anti-obesity culture by various groups who celebrate larger bodies. One community where bulk is positively embraced is the gay "bear" subculture wherein physically big (and hairy) gay men are privileged as sexually attractive. The present study is based on interviews with 10 gay "bears" and covers issues pertaining to identification with large bodies, masculinity and orientation to obesity-related health problems. Key focus is on the how "excess" weight is justified and normalised against the backdrop of the obesity "crisis." The implications for health promotion within the "bear" community are then discussed.
Keywords: men's health, obesity, gay "bear" culture, masculinity, qualitative studies
The incidence of obesity is now typically framed as epidemic and is routinely compared to the harmful effects of tobacco and alcohol use in terms of the extent of its negative impact on the health of the population (Kraft, Robinson et al., 2006; World Health Organisation, 2004). Statistics which represent the extent of this problem are frequently cited in the media and make for alarming reading. For example, it is predicted that by 2050, 60 percent of males and 50 percent of females in the UK will be overweight or obese. Obesity results in considerable costs to health services, forecast to reach 50 billion [pounds sterling] by 2050 (Foresight, 2007).
Obesity has been singled out as one of the most important (if not the major) risk factor for all manner of illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes and some cancers (Haslam & James, 2005; Kopelman, 2007). Although there is some evidence for a genetic predisposition to obesity (Blissmer, Riebe, Dye, Ruggeiro, Greene & Cladwell, 2006), many researchers and health professionals have highlighted the role of lifestyle factors, such as high-fat diets and lack of exercise (Brownell, Puhl, Schwartz & Rudd, 2005). Given the socio-medical demonisation of obese bodies in conjunction with the longstanding privileging of slim body shapes (Grogan, 2007), it is not unreasonable to assume that overweight individuals will experience their bodies as shameful. Research has indeed suggested a higher incidence of depression in those categorised as obese (Cahill & Mussap, 2007). However, the dominant construction of being overweight as being unhealthy (and even immoral) has not gone unchallenged, with resistance emanating from diverse sources, including some health professionals, academics, and web-based "fat-friendly" forums (Monaghan, 2005a). One group where being overweight is positively celebrated is the Gay "bear" Community, where men who fall outside the slender, fashion-conscious stereotype of the gay man meet and socialise together, whether online or in designated "bear" bars and clubs (Hennen, 2005).
"Bears" are usually mature gay or bisexual men with hairy bodies and facial hair who are heavy-set (Kampf, 2000), although there is some debate in the gay community as to the definition of a "bear" (Kelly & Kane 2001 ). The "bear" community originated in 1980s San Francisco and constituted a revolt against mainstream gay culture which privileged a hairless, slim and youthful ideal. It is worth stressing here that in light of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the occurrence of weight loss and a thin appearance were taken as signs of possible infection. Having a more burly, heavy and fleshier body was reinterpreted as an indication of health, vigour, strength and virility (Suresha, 2002; Textor, 1999). The advent of the Internet has reinvigorated the "bear" community, with sites such as "bear" world.com and Eurowoof.com promoting interchange and dating opportunities for self-identified "bears." Unlike the body-conscious consumerist ethic at work in mainstream gay communities, which some researchers have linked to body-image problems and even eating disorders in younger gay men (Drummond, 2005; Livesque & Vichesky, 2006), "bear" communities promote an ethic of tolerance and celebration of larger, masculinised (but not necessarily muscular) male bodies (Hennen, 2005). "Bear" organisations and groups provide spaces for socialisation, support and sexual encounters but unlike other "queer" groups have yet to develop a public, political profile so that "bears" remain relatively hidden within mainstream society (Hennen, 2005; Monaghan, 2005b). Outside "bear" communities, where anti-obesity rhetoric is ubiquitous, an interesting question for self-identified "bears" concerns how the putative health risks associated with obesity are discursively managed. How do "bears" account for their size and weight in the wider context of the obesity "crisis"? This paper reports on a study which investigates the talk of gay "bears" on issues regarding health, weight and lifestyle.
To contextualise the study further, it is worth considering the emerging literature on male embodiment, masculinity and men's health. A recent UK text on male obesity (White & Pettifer, 2007) draws attention to the growing problem of obesity in men. While being overweight and obesity in the UK has more than doubled in the past 18 years, the greatest increase has been amongst men. In fact, the number of overweight and obese men has tripled in this period (Foresight, 2007; White & Pettifer, 2007). In examining the problem of male obesity, the book frequently cites the role of "masculinity" in practices such as dieting and healthy eating (Gough, 2007a). Research has suggested that such practices have been so closely tied to women as to be considered alien to men, who express preferences for "hearty" meals which feature red meat (Gough & Conner, 2006; Gough, 2007b). Social class is a factor here too (Roos, Prattala & Koski, 2001). In terms of physical exercise, another lifestyle
factor which clearly mitigates against obesity, there is evidence that men engage in it more than women (Department of Health, 2004), especially in a competitive sports context (Lee & Owens, 2002; Messner, 1992). However, such health-protective behaviour may be undermined by poor food choices and the greater consumption of alcohol (especially high calorie beers) by men as a way of demonstrating "masculine" power and camaraderie (de Visser & Smith, 2007; Gough & Edwards, 1998).
To help us understand the situation for obese and overweight men we must also consider the growing visibility and eroticisation of the male body, typically portrayed as slim but muscular (Labre, 2005; Stibbe, 2004). The ubiquitous images of "six-pack" men with toned, rippling physiques presents an obviously challenging ideal of contemporary masculinity for overweight men, although in some cases these ideals may prove to be motivating (Grogan & Richards, 2002). Indeed, men are increasingly positioned as "metrosexual" consumers of health and beauty products (Simpson, 2002) and encouraged to enhance their bodily appearance in line with contemporary norms (Grogan & Richards, 2002), although actually displaying an interest in feminised body care practices is potentially fraught with negative associations for men (Gill, Henwood & McLean, 2005).
We know that men in general are reluctant to seek help, at least until major problems emerge (Kapur, Hunt, Lunt, McBeth, Creed & MacFarlane, 2004). For overweight and obese men in particular, avoidance of health services, a lack of body care and a lifestyle which may feature high fat diets, alcohol consumption and inactivity are likely to prove to be a dangerous, unhealthy mix.
The equation between being overweight and ill-health has been disputed by some medical professionals (Robison, 2005). Research by Monaghan (2005b) has documented the various ways in which men categorised as obese have resisted the medicalisation of weight online, for example by constructing themselves and other "obese" people as fit and healthy and joining a collective politicised critique of the sociomedical obsession with weight in general. Moreover, these men and their admirers emphasise the virtues of big bodies by drawing variously on repertoires of "natural" masculinity, erotic desire and playfulness (Monaghan, 2005b). Apart from discussions on web-based size acceptance forums, however, questions about how overweight and obese men deal with societal stigmitisation remain. The case of gay "bears" is especially intriguing as an example of a counter-cultural community built around the celebration and eroticisation of large male bodies. Monaghan's (2005a, 2005b) exemplary work has included an analysis of talk on "bear"-related websites, but further interview-based work is required to document personal stories and encounters relevant to body shape, weight and health.
The present paper reports on an interview study with self-identified "bears" who qualify as obese with respect to the widely used Body Mass Index (BMI) formula (Department of Health, 2008). The study used a qualitative design with semi-structured in-depth interviews (Smith, 1995). A qualitative approach was chosen for this study in order to generate first-person accounts and focus on the meanings which people attach to actions, decisions, and values within their social world. "Bear" perspectives were elicited in depth and respected. The study was interested in how interviewees orient to issues of weight and health with respect to lifestyle practices and "bear" community identification.
Sampling and Recruitment
Sample recruitment was facilitated by the fact that one of the co-authors and interviewer (GF) identifies as a "bear" and had access to relevant networks of "bears" within the North of England. Potential participants were selected initially because they were known to GF and known to be members of a "bear" community and could be classified as obese using the conventional Body Mass Index calculation (Department of Health, 2008). One interviewee ("Cliff") was included despite his present weight falling as "normal" within the BMI because he was an active member of the "bear" community who was engaged in deliberately attempting to gain more weight. Initial interviews were carried out with friends and acquaintances of GF while subsequent interviewees came forward through cascade referral from others or in response to a recruitment poster displayed within a "bear" bar.
All participants were from the North of England and all were white British. Of the ten interviewees, two had reported significant recent weight loss (between three and seven stone within the previous 12 months). (1) Five had regained previous weight lost, while three had not lost weight in the previous 12 months in the first place. Participant details are presented in Table 1.
Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and one hour, and all ten interviews were audio taped and transcribed by GF. Interviews took place face-to-face, either at the interviewee's home or within a room at the local university.
The study was approved by a relevant university Ethics Committee and abides by the principles published by the British Psychological Society. Participation was voluntary, and participants were aware that they could withdraw from the study at any time. All interviewees read through a study information sheet and signed a consent form. Transcripts were anonymised, with any potentially identifying information re moved or altered, and all participants were allocated pseudonyms. Interview Schedule
The interview schedule involved four interrelated sections relating to:
(a) personal experience of being overweight in different times and places;
(b) involvement with the "bear" community, and its impact on weight perception and body image;
(c) personal thoughts on aspects of gay life, masculinity and body perceptions;
(d) influences of lifestyle practices on health, with particular reference to diet, physical activity and alcohol consumption.
Occasional prompts were used to encourage participants to provide more details. Notes concerning the style of the interview were also completed at the end of each interview. On reflection, it was felt that the interviewer's known status as a "bear" worked to our advantage in that participants talked at length about a range of persona! issues, thus providing extremely rich data.
Data analysis was in part informed by grounded theory techniques (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Initially, many descriptive codes were derived from line-by-line coding. For instance, the sentence "If I lost weight, I would have lost a part of my appeal' was coded simply as "big = desirable." These descriptive codes were then subjected to constant comparison techniques, comparing similar and contrasting codes, until these codes formed more analytic categories that described similar phenomena (Willig, 2004). For instance, the code "big = desirable" was placed under the analytic category of "bear identity" along with other relevant codes. Where possible, code wording was initially kept close to what the participants had actually said, so that analysis remained grounded. Following the analysis of each individual interview, we cross-checked our categorisations and developed a consensus regarding significant themes and their labelling. This form of triangulation was repeated for each individual interview. In addition, memo-taking was conducted throughout the data analysis process which helped keep track of developing themes, and to note differences and similarities between themes within a particular interview and across interviews.
In the second stage of the data analysis, the higher order themes derived from the grounded theory-based stage were subject to discursive analysis. The form of discourse analysis used here follows the synthetic approach suggested by Wetherell (1998). This analysis was concerned with the positions available to and taken up by the participants with regard to their weight, body shape, health-related practices and salient social identities, and also considered the action orientation of the participants' talk. In other words, we examined the discursive resources that were used by the participants (for example, notions of gayness currently available such as "twink," a slim, fashion-conscious gay man), and the discursive practices engaged in by participants (for example, constructing thin or "twinky" gay men as superficial) in their talk. This stage of analysis was informed by our knowledge of the literature on obesity, masculinity and men's health. The process culminated in the identification of three inter-related repertoires.
The analysis attended closely to the various ways in which the "obese" bodies of self and others within the "bear" community were worked up as desirable and ultimately healthy in the face of the widespread mediated and medicalised critique of obesity. Based on intensive analysis of interview transcripts, we noted that the larger male body was celebrated in a number of ways, as three of the themes presented below illustrate. The first theme, however, covers accounts of stigma and rejection associated with particular body shapes and sizes.
The interviews were structured in a broadly chronological way such that participants were asked to recount relevant aspects of weight, body consciousness and lifestyle practices from early childhood up to the present. In light of this interview format it is perhaps not surprising that interviewees provided "before and after stories" (see Horton-Salway, 2001) which contrasted negative body-related experiences in the past with a more positive reception in the present within the "bear" community context. We have characterised this form of accounting as a personal development or "progressive" narrative (Gergen, 1994) wherein the formerly shamed body becomes transformed into a desirable and desiring body. It is interesting to note that experiences of prejudice and discrimination were seen to emanate from the gay community as much as society generally, and that previously thin as well as fat bodies proved a source of discomfort and dissatisfaction for our participants. As well, it is important to note that participants still spoke of ongoing "fat abuse" outside the "bear" community. Early in the interviews then, most participants recounted tales of prejudice and abuse directed at them on account of their larger bodies, sometimes delivered casually and in a professional setting:
Frank: ... then she (the nurse) weighed me, and she turned round and said "Oh you look like a little fat round ball don't you?" It really, really upset me.
GF: How did that make you feel?
Frank: Oh, it just completely, like, I was only what, like, top infants, aged six, and I remember crying when I came out and my mums like 'never mind, you'll be ok,' and I was like, but, I didn't understand why she said that. (1:6, p. 2) (2)
This invocation of an early experience (age six) is presented as emotionally damaging and confusing, emphasised by extreme case formulations such as "really, really" or "completely" (Pomerantz, 1986). It is an example of constructing vulnerability through minimisation ("only ... aged six") and membership categorisation ("child") (Stokoe, 2004). The impression created then is of a traumatic moment which had a major impact at the time and possibly beyond.
However, accounts of "fat abuse" were not confined to the distant past:
Eddie: Personally I've had, the aggro I get is that, you know, 'Who ate all the pies? You fat bastard, you fat bastard' is what they say, and you're made to feel ugly, a loser, sad, depressed, people call you idle. (I:5, p. 1 )
Hugo: The amount of time I was having off, you know, [people] called me 'lazy, fat, idle git'; "He'll be off next week, what does it matter?" Yeah, Yeah, that was hard. (I:8, p. 2)
Here, both interviewees attend to the personal impact of verbal abuse based on assumptions about excessive food consumption and indolence. Reported speech is used in both extracts, which is an established way of enhancing the verisimilitude of accounts (Dickerson, 1997), while the "you know" used by both interviewees works to build up familiarity and perhaps sympathy with the reported abuse. Hugo also uses a three-part list "lazy-fat-idle" (Jefferson, 1990) to underline the extent of abuse suffered, and suggests a distinct lack of sympathy at work concerning personal health problems. Participants also spoke of prejudice and rejection from the wider gay community:
Brian: I think they [gay community] view us as 'look at them, they have let go, they cannot go to the gym. I get the impression that most of them think that we sit at home eating pies all day, "Who ate all the pies?"--of course it's the "bears." If its not pies, there are in the pub having a few pints and that what we do, we don't go to the gym, we don't walk anywhere, we just sit by the fridge on the sofa, watching TV and just reaching over to the fridge, that's my perception as to what they think. (I:2, p. 3)
John: One of them [gay man] turned round and said, "I don't date fat bastards" and I just laughed it off, and, but at the time it really hurt mentally ... it does harm you psychologically, it really does, it knocks your confidence for six. (I: 10, p. 2)
Brian's talk again highlights the use of stereotypical assumptions about bigger men such as lack of exercise, excess consumption of food and alcohol, fixed to the sofa or bar seat, which in this context contravenes the body consciousness associated with gay men in general. Again, there is use of reported speech and extreme case formulations ("all day" and "all the pies") to emphasise the veracity and extent of abusive treatment. Minimisation is used ("just sit"; "just reaching") to reinforce the portrait of "bears" as radically inactive. John, in contrast, recounts a personal experience of rejection, the callousness of which is produced through the reporting of direct speech that amounted to abusive language, and the attention drawn to psychological consequences through three-part listing ("hurt mentally"; "harm you psychologically"; "knocks you confidence") and extreme case formulations ("really hurt"; "knocks your confidence for six"). These accounts of abuse do not dominate the interviews, however. Our interviewees talked more about positive experiences within the "bear" community.
The "Bear" Sanctuary
In the light of such accounts pertaining to previous and continuing experiences of victimisation emanating from the gay community as well as straight society, the "bear" community becomes heralded as a place of salvation:
Innes: A lot of people assume "You're bigger, you obviously let yourself go." Sometimes that's not the case, sometimes you just want to be bigger. The prime example was when I first moved to [city in North of England], dressed head to toe in denim, facial hair, a belly, and I had no idea where to go, so I thought, "Oh, [name of a mainstream gay club], that sounds where I want to go" ... couldn't get in, they wouldn't let me in, because I, from my understanding, 1 didn't fit in with what they wanted to have in their bar.
GF: How did that make you feel?
Innes: Like an outcast would, it felt a little wrong, why am I not allowed in there?, I'm as gay as they are, maybe not as flamboyant, it felt strange, then I re-found the "bear" community. (I:9, p. 4)
Another tale of rejection is recounted, but this time ending on a positive note, acceptance within the "bear" community. Prejudiced assumptions about "bears" ("let yourself go") are actively countered here, with the notion of choice ("You just want to be bigger") used to repel the passive, inactive stereotype. The "bear .... look" is succinctly presented (denim, facial hair, belly) to emphasise difference from standard gay male images and is linked to exclusion from a mainstream gay club. This "outcast" status is then presented as inexcusable and nonsensical ("wrong"; "strange") within the context of a shared gayness, although a point of difference is then highlighted (regarding "flamboyance") before ending with a triumphant re-insertion into a more welcoming "bear" community. Indeed, statements about the supportive and sexualised context of the "bear" community abounded in the transcripts:
Garry: If you're overweight, in the general world you're told off for being that size, you're made to feel to blame for your weight and cost to the state, you didn't get attention, now, all of a sudden you get complimented and attention from younger, slimmer guys who like the belly, what is better, not getting it in 40 years or having sex on a regular basis? [laugh]. It's all down to fitting in and pleasing others to get into the gang. (I:7, p. 5)
As the extract above suggests, society is constructed as anti-fat ("told off ..."; "to blame"; "cost the state"), a construction which works to throw the "bear" community into light relief as an environment where big is celebrated and desired rather than pilloried and rejected. The difference between mainstream society and the "bear" community is reinforced variously through a dramatic temporal shift ("all of a sudden"), the invocation of generally prized membership categories ("younger, slimmer") as consumers of the eroticised larger body, and a rhetorical question framed to ridicule a focus on health over sexual adventure ("What is better?"). The extract ends with a bottom line argument "It's all down to ..." (Potter, 1996) which presents the theme of the "bear" community as a space where belonging and contentment are offered. Indeed, this theme of the desirable "bear" body is, unsurprisingly perhaps, emphasised throughout the transcripts and is often favourably compared and contrasted with inhabiting a thin or thinner body:
Doug: I must admit I do love going to the "bear" events because I feel thin compared to some of the guys who are there, because they make me look so thin because some of the "bears" are so big and I think, "Hmm, okay." But it is nice to go to these events because you can take your shirt off and you've got no-one saying, "Come look at that fat person over there!" because everyone's the same. I'm quite happy. I've been more happier since I've been big than I was when I were thin. I've had more fun since I've been fat than I have when I've been thin. (I:4, p. 7)
First, a continuum of largesse is referenced in relation to members of the "bear" scene such that relative thinness, for Doug at least, is something to be prized while those positioned at extreme end of the continuum are regarded with some concern ("Hmm, okay"). The opportunity to display one's body in a safe environment, free from ridicule, is also valued with reference to shared bodily attributes ("everyone's the same"). In the space of a few lines then we have seen that both diversity and homogeneity are successively invoked to fulfil different functions, highlighting the complexity and creativity of participant talk. Being ensconced in the "bear" community and being big are then linked to happiness, a theme which is affirmed by contrast with the less happy experience of being thin. In fact, our interviewees all drew on such comparisons, especially between "bears" and mainstream gay men, to construct themselves and other "bears" as happier and healthier.
"Bears" vs "Twinks ": Big as Healthy
A "twink" was a common membership category used routinely by our interviewees to reference stereotypically thin gay men:
Eddie: I think because the "bear" community accepts each other in the way we are, the way we look, and there's not this, it's not as strong, that you have to fit into this, you've got to look like this, you've got to look pretty, you have to wear the latest label clothes, there doesn't seem to be any of that on the "bear" scene, you get accepted for who you are, without wearing your glad rags, umm, I suppose the twink society, you stand sometimes in the [a gay bar] and you see twinks looking at each other's waist and the label and if you have some hairs out of place they would scream their heads off, but with "bears" they seem to be more masculine, they seem to be more down to earth, bloke next door type, men who just get on with their lives, allow people to be who they are. (I:5, p. 6)
The theme of acceptance within the "bear" community is emphasised and contrasted with a more judgemental "twink society" defined by the policing of appearance and caricatured ("Some hairs out of place, they would scream their heads off'). This perceived fixation on image and connotations of superficiality, perfectionism and falseness enables a counterposed portrait of gay "bears" as more substantial, ordinary and real ("masculine ... down to earth ... bloke next door type"). The implication that "twinks" are less happy and healthy than "bears" is a theme common to all interviews, often within a reference to emasculation:
John: "Bears" tend to generally don't care about the weight, they just eat what they want to and seem to be more masculine than the thin population who think they are trendy and goes with campness and pretence of elegance of it all, "bears" don't have that. (I: 10, p. 5)
Hugo: I've always liked big guys, in particular slightly older guys ... I don't want a guy that looks like Kylie [Kylie Minogue, a popular and diminutive singer and former soap actress from Australia well known in the UK], you know, if I want a girl friend, I'll get a girl friend, one that can give me children not just ear ache and spend my money [laugh] Boils down to that masculine and size thing for me personally, definitely. (I:8, p. 6)
Innes: A "bear" community is really, men that go out around certain pubs to be with men who like men as opposed to men who like prissy little skinny little things that I use to be. (I:9, p. 3)
While "twinks" are "camp," "prissy" and "look like Kylie," "bears" are more "masculine," carefree and actively desiring of other big men. As regards the topic of losing weight, our interviewees were unanimous in contesting moves towards a leaner body:
GF: Would you feel less of a "bear" [if you lost weight]?
Frank: No, I don't think so, 1 don't think I would, no, I still would feel the same, because I'll always be big, I'll always have big shoulders and leg legs and always look like a rugby player, I will never be nine stone, let's put it that way--if I was 9 stone, people would be worrying I should go to hospital, to be honest, people would think I've caught something, I'd be dying or something, that I'd lost my arms and legs [laugh]. (I:6, p. 3)
All interviewees talked in a similar way about the prospect of losing weight, linking extreme weight loss, in this case, to a three-part list comprising ill-health, amputation ("lost my arms and legs"), and even death and thus something to be avoided ("I'11 never be nine stone"). That thinness is associated with "catching something" is likely a reference to HIV/AIDS, with larger bodies taken to be healthy within this context (Suersha, 2002). In contrast, being big is constructed as an enduring form of embodiment ("I'll always be big ...") and here embellished with a "masculine" image of a rugby player. The link between weight loss and HIV/AIDS is explicated by Doug:
Doug: How would I feel, If I lost a couple of stone, I'd probably feel a lot better--my body would feel a lot better, and I don't think it would change me.
GF: ... if you went back down to 15 stone?
Doug: I wouldn't like it, I wouldn't be very comfortable, its not me, its bizarre, I think, when I first lost all the weight, being that I was a gay man, people just thought and associated the weight loss with HIV. "Oh God, he's got AIDS, look at him, he looks awful." I think that had a lot to do with it as well, I didn't feel right in myself either, so uncomfortable, ugly, and I didn't have any confidence, I used to hide away a lot, certainly didn't go out on the scene, or meet people, I was very lonely.
GF: Then what happened?
Doug: I found the "bear" community, I stared to gain weight, met my partner at the time, [name given]. I actually found the "bear" community late on in life, it was only about four years ago, ironically, I found the "bear" community at the end of the relationship with [name given], who I had been with for 10 years, so, I don't know what I was looking for at the time. I just found a bunch of great people, who I enjoyed the company of and realised there was a "bear" community and that's how I became associated with it, and talking to people on line. (I:4, p. 7)
While Doug presents himself as amenable to some weight loss ("a couple of stone"), his account of previous radical weight loss invokes a negative public response and the spectre of HIV/AIDS. Also, his portrait of life as a thin gay man is evidently a rather depressing one, emphasising personal distress and isolation. As with the previous theme, encountering the "bear" community is then celebrated as a turning point, facilitating weight gain and (self-) acceptance. Other interviewees who referenced a formerly skinny self also reproduced similar themes:
Hugo: It was puppy fat because as I got to sort of 18 year old I lost all the weight and went down to 32 inch waist, which most people would say is the perfect weight and size, But I actually felt at the time, very uncomfortable, with myself.
GF: Was that because of the weight loss?
Hugo: Yes, I was less confident definitely even though in the eyes of others I was sexually more attractive, I didn't feel comfortable with me. (I:8, p. 1)
Hugo makes a distinction here between the public perception of an ideal body image and private feelings of discomfort with a thinner self. This surface/depth contrast works to prioritize individual emotion over social standards of embodiment, a powerful psychological register which resonates with Western therapeutic culture (Parker, 1997). The appearance of known others who have lost weight is similarly decried:
John: The prime example, we know a couple from [place], the pair of them used to look really really sexy, both of them have started to lose weight, the one guy is unrecognizable, he's just, the whole appeal of him is just gone, cause he has lost all the weight and he looks much older, he looks poorly, you know. (I:10, p. 9)
Again, we see weight reduction linked to ill-health, but also ageing, with the former bigger body construed as desirable. The changing body engendered by weight loss is lamented in dramatic terms ("unrecognizable ... whole appeal gone") which works to pathologies thinner bodies. The subversion of the thin ideal is also connected to a broader critique of the moral panic surrounding body weight and shape.
Resistance and Countering the Socio-medical Pathologization of Weight
In addition to decrying "fat abuse" and presenting the thin gay other as abnormal, our interviewees explicitly rounded on mediated and medicalised depictions of overweight and obesity. For example, Eddie comments on a theme of defiance he has noted within the "bear" community:
Eddie: I have heard a lot of comments, "F--k you, I am what I am," and, I'm overweight, so what? I've enjoyed my life, it's not a rehearsal and we're only here the once, if my partner is so happy with me, stuff society! I think there is a lot of rebellion there, because big can look good, you don't have to be skinny to look good, I know some "bears" who are stunningly handsome, beautiful as well as the personality, and you know it's, you don't have to be skinny to be happy, good, to fit into society, it's just the way society downs with the magazines and the TV programs and "You are what you eat" Blah, Blah, Blah and that sort of crap. (1:5, p.5)
Links between happiness, beauty and thinness are disrupted within this account by drawing upon social validation ("my partner is so happy with me") and observation ("I know some "bears" who are stunningly handsome"). Rebellion is invoked, with the restless pursuit of thinness critiqued as media-generated folly for gullible others. The same theme is deployed when talk turns to encounters with health professionals:
Hugo: What he [his doctor] wants does not concern me. If he was to advise me because it's better for my health and wellbeing, I may listen to him, but I wouldn't take it because he wants me to fit into a tighter pair of jeans, to be another person off his records and medication. He says, he'll say to me, "Hugo, if you don't act on this, and this, this is what can happen." At the end of the day, it's my choice, ah yeah, it is my choice, it's my body. (I:8, p. 3)
According to this account doctors are in the business of dispensing advice which goes beyond a purely medical remit and into the realms of dress size ("tighter pair of jeans") while also being more concerned with practice statistics than patient care ("another person off his records ..."). The delivery of medical advice is presented as mechanical ("If you don't act on this ..."). A discontinuity marker is then deployed ("at the end of the day"), signalling a challenge to the preceding statement about medical advice and anticipating a preferred utterance, which duly arrives in the form of a discourse of personal choice. This is a familiar ploy when members of the public perceive health guidelines to be overly rigid or overly advertised (Gough & Conner, 2006), often accompanied by a view of the body as a personal possession, a sovereign terrain over which no other party has any authority. In other places the BMI measure is explicitly critiqued as stringent and unrealistic:
Eddie: I don't ever want to be skinny or have the perfect BMI; they are a load of shit, not real to life. 1 want to be around 16 stone, my GP [general practitioner] wants me to be 12.5 stone, if I was 12.5 stone, I'd look like I'd been incinerated, something out of Jason and the Argonauts, like the skeletons walking around.
GF: So you're saying this medical ideal BMI, so you fit in a graph..
Eddie: Exactly, I looked at it and I just screamed, there is just no way, and he said, "Well its, blah, blah, blah, Just try." I think it's the stereotypical blindness, text book reads where it's written in ink, it's got to be right, it's got to be true, there's no flexibility. I think its rubbish, If I was down to what they class as my proper weight, I would be a walking skeleton, I don't think that graph takes into account, yeah you can be skeletal size, but there is your muscle structure, cause I've got quite big muscles, weighing more than fat, so, when the doctor said that, I thought he wanted to squeeze me into the general society rule book and that sort of behaviour doesn't wash with me. So yeah, maybe I am rebellious. I want to be 16 stone, and be happy there. 1 will still have a little belly and fit in somewhere along the line. (I:1, p. 4)
The legitimacy of the BMI as a normative measure of unhealthy weight is forcibly dismissed by Eddie, who contrasts his own desired weight (falling outside the BMI norm) with the BMI-friendly but fantastical "incinerated" skeletal figure (Monaghan, 2007). This stark "othering" of medicalised standards highlights the gap between individual and official conceptualisations of weight and health by inverting the association of relative thinness with good health. The skeletal image is then reiterated to mock the rigid ("blind," "textbook," "no flexibility") application of medical measures of "proper weight" and Eddie proceeds to counter the BMI norm with recourse to an argument about weight and muscularity, an argument that has actually been recognised within recent Department of Health publications (DOH, 2008).
Remaining big in spite of medical advice is also justified in relation to personal choice, self-care and sexual appeal:
Innes: In this section, overweight, even into obese, where I fit now [laugh] Not too big, but not the ideal BMI. Definitely, the BMI, my ideal weight is, according to the doctors is supposed to be 79 kgs, no sorry 72 kg, for me that's not an appealing weight, that's going back to the way I was, I don't want that, because I think I have, I've found and defined a look that I'm most comfortable with, and I have started to look after myself a little, more than I used to, because I believe I have a certain appeal, that sounds really arrogant ... [laugh]. (I:9, p. 3)
Innes: I think, the "bear" community does encourage you to remain the weight you are, provided you fit within these ranges, of overweight and obese, not skinny but not too big that you look ridiculous, The society BMI would like me at 12 stone, the "bear" community wants me to be meaty, the "bear" community wins hand down because being this size changed my whole outlook on life, because I have, whether its [name of a northern city], the fact that I've matured, I've got more friends here, than I ever had in my whole life. (I:9, p. 7)
For Innes, the development of an "appealing" weight, which falls into the medically-defined obese category, has been associated with positive life developments and concomitant enhancement in self-image. Even when health problems are experienced which may be linked to weight, interviewees still constructed their current body size and lifestyle as healthier:
GF: How do you view your weight now?
Innes: I'm very comfortable with my weight, I'm 20 stone and I'm obese- overweight, and like I said it's, as I said, it has created health problems, but, I feel I can handle the health problems and manage them majority of the time, quite well. I'm probably more active now, then when I was slimmer, and I'm also a non smoker now, so, I feel I can do more, and I do try and push myself, to do more. So I don't feel from the aspect of my health, although it has left me with Type 2 diabetes, that, it hinders me like it did before.
GF: With your increase in weight how do you feel?
Innes: Definitely more confident, definitely, I feel no one is a threat to me physically, or mentally, I think it goes back to, like I said before, I wasn't happy in myself when I was thinner, so, I became quite reserved and couldn't face people the same, now I'm totally accepting and happy with myself, Nobody can hurt me, in a sense, because I feel content and secure. (I:3, p. 5)
Although Innes makes a link between his weight and health issues, he emphasises his ability to manage these before claiming to be actually more active and healthy now compared to when he was slimmer. He proceeds to highlight the virtues of confidence, strength and contentment, which he feels his increased weight has engendered. The notion of invulnerability is particularly striking in its masculine connotations. In a way Innes's narrative of progress neatly sums up the cross-cutting theme of this analysis, namely, coming through weight-related adversity towards a position where the fat body is celebrated as desirable, comfortable and secure, a theme which resolutely subverts the dominant mediated and medicalised fixation with obesity as a modern day plague.
This small-scale but intensive study of accounts provided by men identifying as gay "bears" highlights the difficulty that some individuals and communities display in recognising the generalised and sometimes dramatic claims about the health effects of obesity, claims which some sociologists flame as "myth" (Campos, 2004) or moral panic (Monaghan, 2006). From a health promotion perspective, such claims about unhealthy weight would need to be moderated and also take account of the particular contexts in which particular people live. Indeed, our evidence suggests that health practitioners might be hard pressed to convince "bears" about the benefits of BMI-driven weight loss and might be better advised to appreciate community norms which value largesse and so recommend only modest changes to body shape and lifestyle. Aligned to this point, it would be prudent if health professionals, health psychologists and policymakers were to develop a more nuanced appreciation of the scientific evidence concerning those health problems routinely linked to obesity, since the evidence has found it to be far from conclusive (Campos, 2004; Gard & Wright, 2005).
Our study is small-scale but our analysis chimes with other critical work where the accounts of people categorised as overweight and obese reject dominant medical and media constructions of size and health and offer alternative perspectives. The sociological work of Monaghan (2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007) which has considered the accounts of men on weight loss programmes and online size acceptance communities (including "bear" websites), stands out here, but there is clearly a need to further investigate the place and meaning of "fat" in the lives of other individuals and groups boasting "problematic" BMI measurements. After all, the statistics suggest that most men (and women) can be constituted as overweight or obese within the BMI scale (Foresight, 2007). Weight is clearly a gendered issue, with most critical work to date focussing on the social construction of thinness and femininity (Orbach, 1997; Bordo, 1993), and some recent work on perfectionism, body-image concerns and the slim-but-muscular ideal evident in gay men's communities (Drummond, 2005; Livesque & Vichesky, 2006), but now more work needs to be conducted on how fatness is construed and gendered for men and women. Regarding men, some men's health research has high/ lighted the role of masculinity in men's health-related practices such as diet, alcohol consumption and exercise (deVisser & Smith, 2007; Gough & Conner, 2006; Robertson, 2007), and while some theorists have critically considered male embodiment and masculinities (Connell, 1995; Watson, 2000), the negotiation of identity by larger men within the current anti-obesity culture is a topic ripe for further study.
In terms of developing further work with gay "bears," our study points to the merits of having an interviewer who is also a community member since the interviewees talked at length about ordinarily personal issues concerning body weight, sexual desire and health problems (Hennen, 2005). A useful extension to this study would entail ethnographic observations of "bear" conversations and practices in relevant settings (for example, designated "bear"-friendly bars and clubs) in order to establish the relevance of health concerns in situ within this subculture. Hennen's ethnographic study represents an important contribution to understanding "bear" culture, although his focus was not on obesity-related health concerns. It would also be useful to carry our couple interviews with "bears" in order to establish the co-influence of partners on health and lifestyle issues and to compare these data with data from "bears" who are currently single. We did not examine the role of relationship status in our sample. Further, it would be instructive to examine actual interactions that "bears" have with members of the health professions in order to gauge how the medical constructions of weight and health are negotiated in practice. With such data on both the public (for example, "bear" bars, health centres) and private (relationships, home life) contexts in which matters of identity, health and weight play out, we would be in a good position to develop informed, nuanced and dedicated health promotion initiatives for men who identify as "bears."
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Nottingham Trent University
Leeds Partnerships NHS Foundation Trust
(1) One stone equals 14 pounds.
(2) These numbers refer to interview number and page of the protocol.
Brendan Gough, Nottingham Trent University; Gareth Flanders, Leeds Partnerships NHS Foundation Trust.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Brendan Gough, Division of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University, Burton Street, Nottingham, UK, NG1 4BU. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Table 1 Participants Participant (Interview number Height Weight BMI BMI and pseudonym) Age (cm) (kg) Result Outcome Label 1 (Andy) 44 188.0 143 40.5 Severely Obese 2 (Brian) 42 198.0 165 42.1 Severely Obese 3 (Cliff) 26 177.5 63.5 20.2 Normal 4 (Doug) 37 177.5 95 30.2 Obese 5 (Eddie) 44 180.0 120 37.0 Obese 6 (Frank) 29 183.0 140 41.8 Severely Obese 7 (Garry) 42 167.5 89 31.9 Obese 8 (Hugo) 34 180.0 127 40.0 Severely Obese 9 (Innes) 39 172.0 89 30.4 Obese 10 (John) 39 167.0 108 38.7 Obese