Let’s Unpack That

Walk this way... but not like that: How men’s walks became sexualised

‘Love Island’ contestant Mehdi Edno has been the subject of widespread speculation about his sexuality in recent weeks, all because of how he walks. Ellie Muir asks experts whether it speaks to wider paranoia about our strides, and what they seem to convey

Wednesday 28 June 2023 06:30 BST
Why do we give people’s walks such significance? And does our walking style have any meaning at all?
Why do we give people’s walks such significance? And does our walking style have any meaning at all? (iStock)

In the eight years since Love Island exploded onto our screens in a gale of pearly white veneers and perfect abs, we’ve seen more than 200 singletons walk into the Mallorcan villa. Each year, we watch them trot between the fire pit and the pool. They sidle over to potential lovers for chats on the daybed. They saunter down the stairs for their mandated two glasses of wine. But as we sat down to observe the newbies arrive for season 10 earlier this month, someone’s walk got people talking.

Viewers noticed that the 26-year-old French model Mehdi Edno seemed to have what they deemed a “feminine” sway to his step. His hips visibly move side-to-side as he swings his arms; there’s a confidence to his stride. Viewers quickly dubbed his strut “sassy”, “fruity” and “camp”, joking that he should be appearing on a different show, specifically RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Mehdi doesn’t walk, he sashays,” joked one viewer on Twitter. Another asked: “Why does Mehdi walk like that?”. Then came the posts that concluded: “Mehdi is gay!”. Only this week, the rapper Stefflon Don questioned, during an appearance on sister show Love Island: Aftersun, whether Mehdi “even likes females”.

Just weeks before Mehdi’s gait-gate, Everybody Hates Chris actor Tyler James Williams, who stars in the award-winning US comedy series Abbott Elementary, shut down long-standing internet speculation that he is gay – an assumption that had been made solely on the basis of his mannerisms.

“Usually I wouldn’t address stuff like this, but I feel like it as a conversation is bigger than me,” began Williams in an Instagram post. “I’m not gay but I think the culture of trying to ‘find’ some kind of hidden trait or behaviour that a closed person ‘let slip’ is very dangerous.”

Both are clear instances of trying to out someone against their will. There’s no denying that Mehdi’s walk is different compared to the rest of the boys in the villa. Yet the speed with which viewers decided to categorise his walk as “fruity” speaks to the idea that a man who exists outside the confines of hegemonic masculinity must be gay. Mehdi hasn’t discussed his sexuality in the villa, nor has he seen the discussion about it (Islanders don’t have access to their phones), but the speculation reeks of the societal need to obsessively look for covert signs of queerness in the hope of figuring someone out.

What the discourse shows, though, is that walking is personal and specific to every individual. Why do we give people’s walks such significance? And does our walking style have any meaning at all? A 2012 study published by British and Swiss psychologists found that the assumptions we make about each other based on how we walk are totally wrong. So a swagger might not equate to a huge ego, or an abrupt walk might not mean a person is angry. The study also showed that people tend to draw conclusions from a person’s gait in a similar way to how we might try to decipher their personality through what they’re wearing.

We can’t put a label on people and decide who they are by looking at their body language

Nicole Moore

After watching videos of people walking, participants in the study made judgements about the person based on their gait. Though their assumptions were found to be inaccurate, they often drew conclusions about the person’s emotional state or masculinity.

Nicole Moore, a body language expert, tells me that while Mehdi does have a “sway” in his hips when he walks, studying a person’s mannerisms, physicality or characteristics in order to decipher whether they are gay or not is rooted in stereotypes. “What people are using to judge Mehdi is a stereotype of a gay man, and trying to paste one part of his body – his hips – onto that stereotype in the hope that it will be a match.” Moore claims that studying body language usually helps us find unspoken or underlying emotions that aren’t being communicated verbally, but it can’t be used in the same way to reveal a person’s sexual orientation.

Moore adds that in the microcosm of the Love Island villa, where such rigid representations of masculinity and femininity are expressed, someone who slightly contradicts those ideals will inevitably stand out. Most male contestants adopt a walking style typically associated with being ultra-masculine, with robust and strong strides. Mehdi’s walk, by comparison, is carefree and relaxed. “We can’t put a label on people and decide who they are by looking at their body language,” she explains.

‘Confidence is about feeling cool, calm and collected and at ease with yourself – qualities I believe Mehdi has’ (ITV)

As it turns out, many of us are nervous about how we come across when we walk. Lucy Baker, a confidence coach and founder of She Coaches Confidence, tells me she’s worked with people who become self-conscious when approaching someone or a big group of people. “So many people lower their heads or pretend to check their phone. They might fold their arms, rummage in their bag or wallet, all because they feel awkward,” she explains. “Shoulders back, chest out, head up, [making] eye contact [is] a confident way to walk, but people find it very hard.”

Baker says that people often worry that they look overconfident, so opt for a more understated walk. “People fear confidence because they think it leans towards arrogance, which is simply not true,” she explains. “Confidence is about feeling cool, calm and collected and at ease with yourself. It’s also about knowing, liking and trusting yourself – qualities I believe Mehdi has.”

Mehdi may go down in Love Island history as “the one with the fruity walk”. Should this be the case, though, it will only further contribute to the harmful myth that gay people are visibly different from straight people. It’s nobody’s place to decide someone’s sexual orientation for them, either. Since the assumptions we’re making about a person’s gait feed quite clearly into stereotyping, we should let Mehdi walk, strut, march or gallop in peace.

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