Queer Irish man discusses the immense impact of body image and positivity

Like a lot of people in the gay community, body image is something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember.

Cian Griffin posing on a fence post in rural Ireland
Image: Instagram @gaylgeoiri

It is only in more recent years I have learned to be more accepting of the body I’ve been given, but with that said, I still struggle with pressures that society and this community place on me relating to body image.

I’m by no means claiming to have conquered the issue, but I am certainly a lot more confident and vocal on the topic now than I was in my late teen years when I moved to Dublin for college from a small town in Wicklow and decided to make more of an effort to embrace who I was.

I grew up by the sea, and I loved swimming as a child. I completed lifeguard and water safety training between the bitter Irish Sea and the (questionably hygienic) local pool. I really loved it. Swimming really was an integral part of growing up in Wick City for me, and most summers in secondary school were spent jumping off the pier, all day every day.

 

In primary school, we also went to the swimming pool quite often for P.E. I have a vivid memory after a trip to the pool in 4th class, of overhearing a group of lads discussing who the ‘fatties of the class’ were. My name was among those that were named and for some reason, it’s really stuck with me since. It also meant that I refused to go swimming without a rash vest, claiming that it was to protect my pale skin from the sun – which in fairness, was also true – but really it was to hide my body.

This was probably the first domino to fall, and what I presume was the cause of this baggage surrounding body image to follow me into my adult years. Ever since, I’ve had a somewhat turbulent relationship with my body throughout my life.

I often fluctuate between intermittent body hatred and self-loathing, and a ‘you know what? I’m actually f*#king class!’ attitude. And although taking a leaf out of Lizzo’s book and celebrating myself is what I strive for most of the time, there is still a back and forth when it comes to how I feel about my own body.

It seems that every time I find myself reaching a happy acceptance of my love handles, my stomach, or body rolls, I am hammered back down to Earth with messages on Grindr from blank profiles opening with a message like ‘not into chubby’ – which is something I remember dealing with from a very young age – micro-aggressions throughout school, and of course the dreaded BMI.

In the past, I’ve definitely skipped a trip to the beach or pool because it meant taking my shirt off in front of others, and even still I find myself having to mentally prepare myself to do so. I think it definitely depends on the sport, but being topless has always been the biggest issue for me.

 

Discrimination based on body image is toxic in the LGBTQ+ community. As I mentioned already, I’ve experienced horrendous abuse on Grindr from faceless profiles, and even sometimes from people who had everything but their bank details proudly displayed on their profiles as they told me to ‘lose weight’ or ‘you should try going to the gym’.

I look back on photos of me from a time where I hated my body because of this abuse, and I was actually in better shape then than I am now! This rhetoric has made people with very normal bodies feel unhealthy, unattractive, and unlovable because they don’t have a six-pack or massive biceps. The average body is still seemingly not good enough because we are fostering a culture where body dysmorphia is inherent.

*This rhetoric has made people with very normal bodies feel unhealthy, unattractive, and unlovable because they don’t have a six-pack or massive biceps*

Now I know I don’t need to preach about the issues with body image, internalised-homophobia, and blatant racism on Grindr, but I’ve also experienced similar on Instagram. @Gaylgeoirí started off as a queer Irish-language radio show (such a clever pun, I know!) and has now become an online community where I can be the representation that I needed growing up as a gay boy from the country.

It may only be a meme page at its core, but the median is the message. It’s queer content promoting unapologetic authenticity, self-love, self-acceptance and it has led me to do amazing LGBTQ+ work on TG4, BBC, and countless other broadcasters across the country.

It has also helped me build an audience of people who celebrate me for the very things I wished I could change about myself growing up, and I’ve received hundreds of messages from young people telling me that I’ve helped them come out or accept who they are, I’ve shown them that queer people can be celebrated, and that it does get better, or that I’ve shown them that there’s a bigger world that’s more accepting than their small town in the back-arse of nowhere.

However, with the love comes plenty of hate. I have received countless messages telling me to ‘kill [myself] and do the world a favour’, as well as comments on my body image, my skin, or my receding hairline. Most of these are blank profiles, but again, some people are very proud to stand by their disgusting words publicly.

Anonymity is definitely the issue with most of them though. It’s something that we’ve all either experienced or witnessed and as easy as it is to say ‘don’t read the comments’, it’s a lot harder to do. I try my best to publicly go against whatever the ‘haters’ are preaching, to show younger people the importance of drowning out the negativity because it can have a seriously negative effect going forwards on self-worth. But during COVID when I was already feeling down, it certainly didn’t help.

As a society, we’re bombarded from every angle about how having a flat stomach, and clear skin, and thick hair, and cute little noses, and toned bodies is the standard we should strive for, and rather harshly, we should accept nothing less. We see it in movies, in TV ads, online, in education, in healthcare, in dating apps and the list goes on. We are completely obsessed with achieving a standard that is realistic for so few.

This used to affect me a lot more than it does now. I would constantly suck in my stomach when I was out in public, and tense my jaw for photos so I looked skinnier. I’d constantly rest a pillow over my stomach when sitting down on a couch to hide my rolls.

It can be a very negative, damaging thing, but even with countless celebrities and thousands of others campaigning online for more realistic body standards, it seems like it will never change, so going forward it’s about learning to ignore the photoshopped magazine covers, and chiselled abs of people who literally work out for a living.

I played a lot of Gaelic football growing up. My family were heavily invested in our local club, and as much as I loved it, I was forced to leave because of bullying to do with sexuality and body image. It is only since I rekindled my love for the sport after joining Na Gaeil Aeracha, Ireland’s first all-inclusive GAA / LGFA club, that I’ve learned to love my body more.

Playing football again has definitely taught me to appreciate my strength and my broadness, because of how handy it is on the pitch, and has helped me in my relationship with exercise too.

Going back to play a team sport I love so much with such an amazing and supportive club has taught me how much I’ve been affected by sport when it comes to body confidence and willingness to participate.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CPAgoIsnqMn

So much of my issues in life came from not feeling confident enough to set foot on a pitch or in a gym because of harassment I’d experienced in the past, and this is why queer spaces are so important in every aspect of life – not just nightclubs.

I was afraid that my first training session would transport me back to being twelve years old on a GAA pitch in a small-town rural Ireland, and feeling sick that I’d be called out by someone for being too gay or too fat, which was a farcry from the reality.

The great thing about communities like Na Gaeil Aeracha and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole is the sense of camaraderie and belonging that can be found in the shared experiences and trauma we all have. And it really is a powerful thing. Not only has playing for a queer sports club given me a whole new group of friends, but it has also completely changed my attitude towards sport and my body and I’ve definitely taken a leap in the right direction in terms of acceptance and self-love, love handles and all!

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