By Dan Singh. Dan is the lead facilitator for South Asian HangOuts, a peer support and social group for South Asian gay, bisexual and trans men. Information, stories and anecdotes are based on discussion and feedback for the South Asian HangOuts group. 

South Asian gay, bi, trans (GBT+) men, and as men in general, we do not often talk about our bodies; the way they look, the way they make us feel and talking about having control of our own body without the need to compare or ‘fit in.  

As I grow older, I guess there are parts I like and other parts of my body I appreciate and some parts that I try not focus on, well at least not too much. As South Asian GBT+ men we don't want to be exoticised and fetishised or generalised on hook-up apps or in the physical reality of a gay bar, club or sauna. Yes, this still happens and sometimes because our own fragility as a direct consequence of being excluded from an early age, we allow this, for the need to be desired and accepted. For South Asian GBT+ men who have newly arrived in the UK, to study or work, or those that are coming out for the first time, navigating a new queer uneven terrain can be difficult. The culture of socialising in pubs, bars and clubs may not always be in line with our cultural upbringing and social experiences, so the need to ‘fit in’ or ‘exit out’ becomes greater and self-conscious.

We also need to look at our own cultures around ideas of beauty. The fairer the skin is still desired or considered more beautiful. We are told from when we are growing up, sometimes from our parents, from Bollywood Cinema, television and the matchmaking that used to (and still does to a lesser extent) go on. But things like the pressure of having a good career, our social circles and even what we wear, all contribute to a self-conscious body image through this collective social impact. This collective pressure distorts our own ideas of beauty. In turn this affected our inner selves which in turn can affect our outer being not matching up. Trying to unlearn childhood and cultural norms, or bullying and the differences commented on, of what is masculine rather than looking at our intersectionality or rather our masculinities' can be key in developing the body image we re-define from a new South Asian queer lens. 

Being fetishised and othered 

There is also the issue of being exoticised and fetishised by others, for pure pleasure, because of our physical attributes, and how uncomfortable this viewing can make us feel as South Asian men. We are not just objects of desire in UK queer landscape. Feelings of being excluded from ‘hook-up' apps and from ignorant, prejudice or racist folk digitally and from the physicality of the gay scene, can also lead to our poor mental health, isolation and loneliness. This is even more heightened for people arriving new for the first time in the UK, where English language was something, they may be using for the first time as conversation. Managing these two very different cultures can be tricky and assimilating into another culture can remove some of us further from who we are as a people from a rich cultural background.   

Holding on to our values and learning about other cultures or about what the city is about where you live, is an investment worth making. But then celebrating who you are by wearing what you wish, or talking about your culture beyond the response of just saying where you are from – when we are asked “Where are you really from?” - if there is enough energy to do that can be a strategy of politely challenging. Having said this sometimes asking the same question back “No, where are you really from?” often illicit a confusing look from the person asking, some giggles and then apologies. We are not just objects of desire; we are all so much more. So, what is ‘body positivity’ and how do we reclaim who we are with greater body confidence and self-esteem to feel better about ourselves?

Body positivity and our lived experience 

From my own lived experiences, body positivity is feeling healthy, physically and mentally and accepting what I have. Of course, this journey of acceptance takes time for us all, and for most of us how we age and how we physically change, can affect how we feel. We go from being labelled and othered as ‘twink’ to ‘daddy’ before we know it, but do these terms and definition really help?  

Body positivity is also emotional too and by this, I mean having the mindset that we deserve intimacy and desire and to be desired just like anyone else, and that we have control over our own bodies and not defined by social media or other people selecting mis-informed preferences on a hook-up app. Also, reminding ourselves the greater body confidence we have the better our mental health. Sometimes, just being aware of all this noise is a starting point on a journey of accepting who we are and what we have. The layers and fabric of intersectionality can feel heavier when not understood or seen by others. 

I remember going on a gay men’s retreat once, where there was a workshop around exploring our body through touch. Even the notion of getting semi-naked with a bunch of men I didn’t know, triggered me to think about those embarrassing and awkward changing rooms at school and at gyms. But I took the risk and after a few minutes accepted that we all come in different shapes and sizes and by the end of it I felt a lot calmer and accepting of my body and personal space. I often get the same feeling of anxiety when I decide to go to a beach holiday and again remind myself that everything will be fine. Of course, any experience in our childhood and adolescence can define how we feel about our bodies. We all come in different unique shapes and sizes, and it is this thought and self-validation that may reduce the idea of overly comparing and reinforce that your body is owned by you and is yours to keep. Often as children we don’t have space and time to talk about how we feel about our bodies.  

So how do we accept our adult body image in a world where we are shown what is beauty through magazines, TV, film, cinema, dance and the internet. A world where we are still defined, by some of our own community; i.e. what shade of colour we are or how tall we are or what job we are doing, in pursuit of the perfect match.  

Attributes that define beauty and the commodification of this, has always been an issue in the world and an even bigger issue within the LGBTQ+ community. Body Image may be perceived as how we see our appearance and our bodies but there is an unseen inner beauty too that can exude calmness and confidence, giving us a better self-esteem; visibly identifiable in our eye contact, the way we walk, our voice and keeping as fit as we need to, without being addicted to consciously self-appearance and pleasing others. It’s also the binary beliefs we have about the way we look, both positive and negative that can dictate what we think when we look at the person in the mirror. 

Reclaiming our body confidence 

So how do we do we reclaim our body confidence? It is always good to check in to see what you are doing currently to enable you to accept your body, that makes you feel comfortable. For some people it may be the gym, exercise, eating healthier but for others it may also be wearing what you feel comfortable in or focusing on your inner self-care. Sometimes trying colours or designs you wouldn’t usually try can help. For example, I wore a harness under my shirt for a ‘men’ only club nightclub recently and felt self-conscious but during the night felt began to feel much more confident because most other men were expressing their style too. But was I trying to ‘fit in’, I guess sort of but also, I felt good wearing a chest harness. The material felt soft and comfortable and made me feel more daring fashionably. Maybe next time I might only just wear my harness, if it feels right to do so, for me and only me? So, trying different types of venues and realising everyone in the place is generally not judgmental is good to know 

In 2023, I also tried my first naturist party (yes total nakedness), with a lot of anxiety, but once I was there, with the support of a friend, I felt fine, and it was one of the friendliest social gatherings of the year. I met lots of nice people and look forward to attending again. Of course, some of my anxieties were about parts of body (my tummy, which I accept more and like), my bum and of course sometimes comparing my dick size, but hey I am happy with all of it really. I know we all come in different sizes, so no need to compare 

So, I guess sometimes trying something different it helps to appreciate our body more, but this can take courage and trust. Taking small steps and having friends who are willing to go out with you socially can also help or having social support groups to connect more, helps with our confidence. I tend to look at my current situation and see what new experiences I want to try. I research them a little, perhaps join a friendly social group and make connections. I think since Covid I had lost some of that social confidence to explore who I am, but I know the importance to connect with people who care. This connection makes me feel better and reduces isolation. 

Asking ourselves open questions like what we like about our bodies and what we don’t is okay, when you feel safe to do so. Any positive or negative feelings swirling around our over-thinking brains, might be better to write down to reflect on. Remember, some of how we feel may be a projection from trauma, or negative attitudes from others and society. So, take your time and if you are spending a lot of time worrying about how you look, see if there is anyone you can talk this through with. At any age we can feel insecure about the way we look. Just remember it does not mean that we are vain or self-obsessed, it just means we may feel isolated about how we are feeling. For some people limiting certain social media posts that would trigger us into comparing ourselves, can help. Getting help, even by talking to others can help. Sometimes even a forum might work. 

Surrounding ourselves with people who love and accept us and reducing social media where ‘a digitalised body beautiful’ is portrayed, which we know us unrealistic can help. The connection with others may give you a more solid ground to start from, to expressing your inner and outer selves. 

Further reading