If you ever wanted to know the price of fame, it’s $100,000. That’s the amount Justin Jedlica paid to look like a “Real-Life Ken Doll,” investing in more than 100 cosmetic surgeries, from facial reconstruction to pec implants. After becoming an Internet sensation thanks to his appearance on TLC’s My Strange Addiction, website Feast of Fun reports that Jedlica will be the star of his own TLC show. A gay man who currently lives in Chicago, Jedlica has been candid about his surgeries, which he refers to as an “art form,” and about also his history with body insecurity, which began with his nose. After five rhinoplasties, Jedlica told ABC News that his nose isn’t perfect yet: “It’s still not 100 percent.”
Jedlica represents an extreme case, but plastic surgery is becoming increasingly common in the gay community, as men struggle to cope with their perceived body imperfections. Gay men are said to be the fastest-growing client base in the cosmetic surgery industry, with liposuction being a common request. Although hard data is difficult to come by (because doctors rarely question patients about their sexual orientation), some estimate that gay men seek treatment at highly disproportionate rates and that as many as a quarter of plastic surgery patients are gay. Couples surgery is a hot trend in Florida, as men come in with their partners to go under the knife together. It’s commitment with a side of Botox.
This high rate of plastic surgeries is likely driven by the dysmorphia that gay men so often feel around their bodies. According to Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, queer males are “more likely than heterosexual women to have a subclinical eating disorder” and have eating disorder rates three times higher than straight men. Of men with eating disorders, 42 percent identify as gay. According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, body image issues have reached mind-boggling levels in the gay community, with nearly 15 percent of gay men having battled anorexia or bulimia at some point in their lives. If that figure seems alarmingly high, that’s because it is. Even those without eating disorders feel the pressure to look a certain way.
In a popular BuzzFeed article from last October, Louis Peitzman said that it doesn’t get better for gay men who are considered “fat.” “The internalized shame I feel about my weight is largely a credit to society, where all fat people are treated like second-class citizens,” Peitzman wrote. “But adulthood should be about repairing those wounds and learning to love myself as I am. Instead, I’m surrounded by people who, despite having faced the same oppression I have as gay men, largely refuse to embrace me at my current size. The end result is that I’ve been out for nearly a decade, and I still feel like an outcast within the gay community.”
In an essay for the Atlantic, Brandon Ambrosino ascribes “the tyranny of buffness” in the gay community to a number of factors, including internalized homophobia and a desire to fit into the community’s message of upward mobility. But another explanation stands out. “After the AIDS crisis, many gay men hit the gym to avoid looking thin and frail,” Ambrosino argued, “which might have been taken as signs of being diseased. This new drive to achieve an athletic body was described … as a form of ‘protest muscularity.’” What began as a form of survival turned into its own affliction.
Of course, gay men don’t necessarily need a reason to desire fitness, and a much simpler explanation comes down to aesthetics: We’re attracted to what we’re told is sexy, and this creates an insatiable desire to look a certain way. In 2012, a British poll found that 48 percent of gay men surveyed would sacrifice a year of their life to enjoy their ideal body now, and another 10 percent would give up 11 years, killing themselves to be beautiful. The gay community’s subcultures each have their different ideals—and the standards vary between bears and twinks. However, if you don’t look like a Ken Doll (or the muscle bear equivalent), you might do whatever it takes to fit that mold.
Justin Jedlica himself sees his surgeries as a protest against our struggles for conformity. “The stranger the surgery, the better,” he quipped. “Bucking the norm is so much fun!” Jedlica is a product and a logical extension of our body image issues, a man who has spent his entire life trying to attain shiny, hard plastic perfection. His Madame Tussauds-like face is like a funhouse mirror of the gay community, a distorted reflection of the beauty myth, one that too many gay men struggle with every day. But few of those men will get their own reality show. Their stories are waiting to be told.
Nico Lang is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Salon, the Huffington Post, and the Advocate. He is the co-editor of the BOYS anthology series and author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses.