Content note: This article contains references to dieting and struggles with food.
Men in our society — contrary to what the ideology of toxic masculinity would have us believe — are extremely susceptible to the weight loss, dieting, and exercise culture we’re subjected to every day.
That includes, but is definitely not limited to, the near incessant advertising for workout programs on TV and streaming services; the glorification of athletes and fit celebrity bodies, diets, and workout regimens; the constant belittling of fat men’s intelligence and worth; and so on.
Even though men, particularly cis men, are poised to benefit from the hierarchical and patriarchal valuation of bodies, this status quo has not come about without creating a hierarchy of what constitutes “good” and “bad” masculine bodies. This standard, as any hierarchy does, forces many men to suffer scrutiny at the hands of their peers and society in general for not fitting into the narrow ideal of the “good” body.
It is hard for many men constantly berated or criticized for their “bad” bodies to recover from the emotional and sometimes physical damage they have endured. The unending struggle between embodying toxic masculinity and showing vulnerability is a large part of the hindrance to finding peace with one’s body. I hope the following lessons can help other men overcome their tumultuous relationships with their bodies.
Lesson #1: There Are No “Good” Bodies
There is no such thing as a “good” body or a “bad” body. Our society has been built on the concept of “good” and “bad” bodies for centuries, with the most pertinent examples being connected to race, gender, dis/ability, and size. In terms of race, bodies belonging to people of color have been either belittled as inferior to white bodies or fetishized as biological and sexual oddities. When it comes to gender, women’s bodies have been deemed too frail to compare to men’s bodies and are often also subjected to objectification and fetishization (which often goes hand in hand with racist fetishization). People with both visible and non-visible disabilities have faced incredible levels of scrutiny and abuse in both the medical world and in general society for having “bad” bodies.
The sooner we can eradicate the notion that some bodies are “better” than others, the sooner we can collectively heal from the emotional and physical damage we’ve done to ourselves by constantly comparing ourselves and feeling inadequate. This is why being unapologetic about our bodies and promoting body positivity is so important for everyone, including men.
Lesson #2: Weight Loss and Fitness Culture Are Flawed
The beginning of any year is always tough on a person’s self-esteem. If you watch TV or Hulu, you’ve probably seen weight loss commercial after exercise commercial after some other commercial glorifying the “ideal” male body (e.g. any movie trailer featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Then you see even more ads all over the Internet, with people making resolutions to lose weight or get fit, many of whom want to change their bodies for the acceptance of others rather than for themselves.
Of course, it doesn’t just stop as the year progresses; there’s always new ad campaigns for weight loss techniques or programs, or other instances in our everyday lives where we’re told our bodies aren’t good enough.
The ideal situation would be having the ability to just ignore all of it, like AdBlocker for your general life (get on it, scientists!). The reality is that we have to deal with these constant reminders of how our bodies are never good enough. Rather than just accepting it, though, it’s important to acknowledge all of the flaws that come with the weight loss and extreme fitness culture.
We all have to understand that these industries are just that: industries. They’re trying to make money off our low self-esteem by making us buy into the idea that we need to change our bodies. We have to work towards buying into our own self-worth rather than an industry that doesn’t actually care about our well-being.
Lesson #3: Your Lived Experience Will Be Different than Experiences in the Media
Beyond the many ways the weight loss and extreme fitness industry will try to make you change your body to fit the mold society has determined as the “good” body, mainstream media will do its best to make your self-esteem plummet even further. Seeing actors go from fat to skinny or bulky to fit for movie roles is always met with fanfare in the media, from Jonah Hill (before he was vilified for gaining weight again) to Josh Peck (of Drake and Josh fame) to Drake (remember Degrassi?) to Zac Efron (have you seen the Baywatch trailer?).
It’s hard not to see actors, or musicians, or anyone in mainstream doing what’s considered by many to be the “right thing” with their bodies without feeling inferior or helpless.
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The key to overcoming this aspect of our society’s obsession with belittling our bodies is understanding that the lives of celebrities and other people in the media do not reflect our own lived experiences. These people are surrounded by managers and trainers and stylists who make sure they’re (almost) always looking what society views as perfect. As folks who do not have the luxury of having people make sure we are looking our “best”, we should not be expected to keep up with the rich and the famous.
Lesson #4: Bodies Are Always Different
Achieving a good relationship with your own body means you have to stop comparing it to others. As hard as it may seem, the less you compare your body to other people’s bodies, the more space there is to concentrate on healing that rough relationship you have with yourself.
Everyone’s bodies are different, from the basics of size and weight variance to height, muscle definition, and torso-legs ratio (something I personally struggle with, as weird as it sounds). Everything about our bodies is different from person to person to person. You should never be striving to look like someone else; you should only be striving to be happy with your own unique body.
Lesson #5: Our Bodies Are Constantly Changing
Not only are our bodies unique from everyone else’s bodies in many ways, but our bodies are constantly changing as well. For men, our bodies will always be changing as we age, with certain parts of our bodies not “holding shape” the way we’re used to. Even throughout the day, our bodies fluctuate in weight and change in shape and comfort depending on what we have been doing.
Healing that strenuous relationship with your body in large part means you have to accept that your body will never be able to stay exactly the same at all times. Sometimes it’s hard to admit this, as our self-esteem often reflects how comfortable we feel in our own skin at any given moment. But you have to accept that your body will always be changing in order for you to have a healthy relationship with yourself.
Lesson #6: Eating Isn’t A Competition — Or A Cure
As I’ve discussed in other articles, many men have just as rough of a relationship with their bodies as they do with food, and the two often go together. Many men feel the need to overeat either as a competitive action caused by toxic masculinity or as a compulsion due to mental health or self-esteem issues that go undiscussed. Food then becomes more of a tool for one-upping your friends or for trying to cure a personal issue.
Men also have estranged relationships with food as it relates to fitness and weight loss, as men will often forego full meals for low-calorie bars and protein shakes mixed into already extreme workout regimens. They will then often throw in a cheat day that involves overeating all the foods they avoided throughout the week.
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Establishing a healthy relationship with your body means balancing all of these factors in order for your body to feel properly sustained without either eating yourself into sickness or starving yourself to achieve a “good” body.
Lesson #7: Exercise Should Be Fun, Not Torture
Another form of disordered behavior for many men is the way we try to exercise. Some men feel the need to exercise for hours every day in order to maintain or further improve their “good” bodies, while others push themselves too hard trying to achieve their often unhealthy goals. Still others treat exercise and movement as an insurmountable chore that has to be performed to the most extreme extent or it’s “not worth it”.
Exercise and movement should never feel like a chore or like torture, and they should never be done to the extreme; rather, exercise and movement should be treated as something enjoyable and therapeutic.
There are simple ways to get your body moving, as your ability status will allow, that can make you feel better about yourself and your body, even if it’s just going for a walk or lifting small weights. And if you do choose to work out more regularly and rigorously, it’s important to remember that putting yourself through pain is not an effective way of truly building a satisfying relationship with your body and yourself.
Lesson #8: Role Models Can Help You Achieve More Confidence
As I said earlier, we should never be comparing ourselves, our bodies, and by proxy our worth to others, because this leads to damaging thoughts about ourselves and worsens the relationship we’re trying to mend with our bodies. However, that does not mean we can’t find inspiration in the ways others find happiness with themselves. Whether it’s a celebrity that gives no f*cks about what the public says about their body, or someone in your own life who has surpassed the negativity they face on a daily basis, there is bound to be someone out there who inspires you to find happiness and maintain a good relationship with your own body.
Finding that person who inspires you may just be the key you need to make up for the many years you’ve spent feeling bad about your body. And that is exactly the kind of radical self-love you owe yourself.
[Feature image: Photo of a Black man sitting outside under a blue sky next to some trees in what appears to be the back yard of a home. He has short, close-cropped dark hair, facial hair, a septum ring, and is wearing greyish slacks and a pale blue t-shirt reading “FOOD FOOD”. He has his arms crossed and propped up on his left thigh, which is also propped higher than his right leg. He looks deep in thought. Source: Harrison Haines for Pexels]