Sam Smith's Body Image Struggle Reveals an Ugly Truth About Homophobic Bigotry
He's definitely not the only one.
Anyone who's listened to Sam Smith's crooning knows he's wrestled for a long time with loneliness. But in an interview this week with Australia's 60 Minutes, Smith said he struggles more with his body image than he does with homophobia.
"I've accepted that, if someone calls me a faggot, I am gay and I'm proud to be gay so there's no issues there," he told 60 Minutes. "If someone calls you fat, it's like, something I want to change. Something I can change, so that affects me more."
The so-called conventional wisdom is that men have no problem feeling confident about their bodies. Though, for gay men, many of whom must also navigate social rejection rooted in homophobia, negative social messages about overweight people weigh heavily on their minds, giving way to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
What his story tells us. For the 22-year-old Smith, coming out at age 10 was a relative breeze at home, where he was accepted by his parents. But being different in both appearance and sexuality made him a target for bullies during his formative years. "I was so emotional and I was a gay kid, openly gay kid ... I grew up in a village and went to a Catholic school," he told Australia's 60 Minutes. "There weren't a lot of people who were like me."
But that's not where his inner torment ended. Smith also told 60 Minutes that he's had a negative relationship with food for a long time, stemming from his childhood experiences.
"From a young age, food has controlled me, basically," he said. "When I was in school and not having a great time, or when music wasn't going very well, I would eat and eating would make me feel better. When I felt lonely, I would eat."
Translation: Smith developed an addictive relationship with food and has dealt with disordered eating.
"Fat" remains a hurtful insult for many people, functioning as a pejorative rather than as a simple adjective. That's because there's still so much pervasive stereotyping of fat people as lazy, greedy, unintelligent, unattractive and weak. In reality, the weight on the scale says nothing about any individual's character. Instead, it's about the values unfairly associated with having the "ideal' body — where appearing thinner translates into more social acceptance.
This messaging remains undoubtedly targeted toward girls and women, who are more prone to dealing with eating disorders and often encounter sexist questions and criticism about their looks. But for gay men dealing with both societal and internalized homophobia, as well as the misogynist policing of their gender expression, the quest for social acceptance takes a toll. Brushing off any actual or impending rejection often means appearing as perfect in any way possible — including and especially body image.
Homophobia and fatphobia are a toxic combination. Even in the past couple years, Smith's had his brushes with bigotry. He's been punched in the neck and called a "faggot" while out in public. That experience of bigotry, in addition to his history of having been bullied, indeed interacts with what the National Eating Disorders Association identifies as an LGBT person's predisposition to develop an eating disorder — and an unhealthy relationship with their body.
Sadly, these behaviors are all too common for men like Smith. Although gay men are thought to represent only 5% of the male population, 42% of men with eating disorders identify as gay, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Other studies cited by organization showed that gay and bisexual boys reported being significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited or taken laxatives or diet pills to control their weight. They're also seven times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.
The negativity they encounter undoubtedly fuels it. And, for Smith, not even fame can shield him from it.
Pretty hurts. Smith has publicly shown before that negative remarks about his body strike at the core. As Mic noted, Smith was a target for Howard Stern's cantankerous criticism in January, where the shock jock called him a "fat ugly motherfucker" who "looks gay" and "effeminate." Stern dismissed the "Stay With Me" singer as a one-hit wonder who overcompensated for his lackluster looks with a velvet voice.
Discussing it on Twitter, Smith was virtually speechless.
But he'd have the last laugh at the Grammy Awards in February, where he took home four trophies, including song and record of the year. "Before I made this record, I was doing everything to try to get my music heard. I tried to lose weight, I was making awful music," he said during one of his acceptance speeches. "It was only until I started being myself did the music start to flow and people start to listen."
At the time, it was a perfect kiss-off. Smith used the moment to speak about the importance of authenticity and not bowing to negativity. Now, Smith has decided to lose weight. In a post on Instagram, Smith shared that he's with a nutritionist, who said he's just a few pounds shy of reaching his goal weight. He said he lost 14 pounds in 14 days last month.
Smith's reasons for the new regimen are his alone. But it's hard to imagine that the noise from his detractors — both past and present — had no bearing on his decision to slim down.
Smith's struggle holds a valuable lesson. It takes a lot of soul searching to reconcile remaining healthy and confident in one's body while filtering out negative social messages about fat people. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted for who they are, whether it means lasting friendships or romantic relationships. But for men who aren't heterosexual, social affirmation is often wrapped up in both sexuality and in physical appearance.
Smith is on his own journey of becoming more positive in his own body. And people like him, gay or not, don't deserve our ridicule, scorn or judgment. They deserve our understanding and compassion.
h/t Pink News