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My relationship with my body has changed a lot over the last year. As I began to work out more, lose weight, and develop something resembling abs during lockdown, the number of shirtless pictures on my Instagram feed went up. While I’ve always loved a selfie, in the past my pictures would be pretty tame, mainly because I didn’t consider myself “fit” enough to warrant showing off my body. But because I’m proud of the progress I’ve made (and also because, let’s face it, I enjoy attention), I have left that kind of self-doubt behind, even if I still don’t look like most of the other guys I know posting gym updates.
And I’m not the only one. With frustrations mounting in quarantine and no immediate outlet for that energy, a lot more people have been getting thirsty on main. Similarly to how the less artfully curated “photo dump” has become increasingly popular on Instagram due to a “screw it” mentality, some of us have decided to throw caution to the wind and wild out when it comes to just how much body-ody-ody we show, whether that be on our IG grid or in the relative safe space of the Close Friends green circle.
Sometimes these photos are taken in gym mirrors after an especially sweat-inducing workout. Other times, they’re snapped on the beach, or by a pool, or while still in bed and overtaken by hangover horn, or literally any time you might be feeling yourself.
It’s easy to call out a sexy selfie as shallow and attention-seeking, especially if the person taking it is a woman. A lot of guys seem to take the moniker “thirst trap” literally, and due to the parasocial nature of platforms like Instagram, will mistake any kind of photo showing skin for an invitation to slide into someone’s DMs. “People seem to assume that women’s thirst traps are a cry for attention, but that’s not how it is for me,” says Katie, 28. For many women, sharing pictures of their bodies isn’t about getting male attention at all, but reclaiming ownership of their body image in the wake of years of warped diet culture, beauty standards, and convoluted ideas around exactly how sexy they are allowed to be.
“I’ve recently started posting more thirst traps than ever before, and it’s not because I’m desperate for horny strangers to slide into my DMs,” Katie continues. “When I post a photo in workout clothes or a bathing suit, it’s me pushing back against a world that’s told me to hate my body and be ashamed of my sexuality. It’s like…a reclamation of myself. It’s powerful. It’s me saying, ‘I am here, I physically take up space.’ It’s funny how men think our thirst traps are all about them—the men. They’re about us.”
For men, the motivation and intended audience behind thirst traps tell an equally complex story, albeit one with an inherently different dynamic, since men haven’t been told what to do with their appearance since time immemorial.
“I think for both men and women it comes down to seeking validation and attention,” says writer Graham Isador. “Sometimes that’s to do with sex. Other times I think it has to do with controlling your image. Growing up, I struggled with disordered eating. The gym allowed me to take ownership of my body in a healthy way. Showing off that work was affirmation of work that I put in. I don’t know if many men would admit this, but I think gym-based thirst traps for guys are as much ‘look what I can do’ as they are about getting laid. Mostly because very few women I’ve known—even women I’ve slept with—have ever given a shit about gym selfies.”
He has a point. When buff, heterosexual movie stars like Chris Hemsworth and The Rock show off the gains they’ve made in the gym, those photos are as much about projecting conventionally masculine ideas of power and strength as they are about looking sexy.
But anybody who falls outside the categories of cisgender and heterosexual may be expressing something completely different when they share photos of their bodies with the world. Take earlier this year, for instance, when Elliot Page posted a photo of himself in swimming trunks. Yes, his lean abs were on show, but there was so much more going on in that picture: Page was proudly sharing a first look at his bare chest post-top-surgery, and celebrating the purchase of his first pair of men’s swimwear after coming out as trans in December 2020. Seeing somebody be able to embrace their own body after years of dysphoria? That’s the kind of joyful visibility that is still all too rare for trans people.
In an essay for Catapult, A. E. Osworth explored how selfies and thirst traps helped them to keep a record of their own transition, while also learning to take up more digital space. “By taking the photo, by taking the time, I am conferring value upon myself and my body-in-process,” they wrote. “I confer meaning upon myself, I affirm my thereness, my rightness; my desire to confer more meaning upon myself increases.”
Funnily enough, elsewhere in the LGBTQ+ community, there are those for whom racy photos are a way of life—not to mention a way of making a living. As both a gay man and a writer for Men’s Health, my Instagram Discover page is wall-to-wall shredded shirtless thirst traps, mostly from instagays (that’s hot gay influencers, to the uninitiated) who have leveraged their abs and V-cuts into millions of followers and brand sponsorship deals.
But while these sculpted himbos are frequently accused of narcissism, or of projecting unrealistic and unhealthy body image ideals, it is worth noting that this too has its roots in something deeper. For gay men in the ’80s and ’90s onward, displaying a muscular physique became a way of defying stereotypes and proving that they were in robust health during the AIDS crisis.
That this would eventually become removed from its original context and entrenched in gay male culture as a way of getting attention was perhaps inevitable, especially given the proliferation of digital means of self-broadcasting. And as with all internet culture, it’s important to be cognizant of the closed loop into which these images and likes are circulated: the kinds of shirtless photos that accumulate likes and thirsty comments on social media tend to all feature a similar array of physical characteristics. (These men are thin, able-bodied, muscular, conventionally handsome, and overwhelmingly white.)
Regardless of the somewhat problematic aspects of the thirst ecosystem, where women’s sexual expression is frequently, often wilfully misinterpreted and certain body types are disproportionately lauded, there is undeniably still power to be found here. To be renegotiated and reclaimed. For anyone who was bullied, judged or discriminated against when they were younger, or or who has finally achieved the outer body that reflects their true identity, embracing a scantily-clad, sexualized approach to validation has its appeal. I myself am certainly not immune.
As long as we’re not getting all of our self-esteem and sense of worth from these sources, there’s nothing wrong with flaunting what you’ve got, right?
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