Although the landscape of toxic masculinity would like us all to believe otherwise, men in our society are extremely susceptible to the weight loss, dieting, and exercise culture we are subjected to every day. That includes, but is definitely not limited to: the near incessant advertising for work out programs on TV and streaming services; the glorification of athletes’ and fit celebrities bodies, diets, and workout regimens—that are not meant to be followed by non-athletes; 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 status quo that our patriarchal culture has set forth surrounding body shame—that is, women and nonbinary people are more intensely scrutinized for their bodies—this status quo has not come about without creating a hierarchy of what constitutes “good” masculine bodies 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 of those men who are constantly berated or criticized for their “bad” bodies to recover from the emotional and, sometimes, physical damage that they have endured. The unending struggle between toxic masculinity and vulnerability is a large part of this hindrance to finding peace with one’s body. Although it is not an end-all-be-all of solutions for this issue, I hope that the following steps can help other men overcome their tumultuous relationships with their bodies.
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1.There Are No “Good” Bodies
One of the major notions to understand when it comes to improving your relationship with your body is that 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 coming down to the lines of race, gender, disabilities, 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. For gender, women’s bodies are 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 a ton of scrutiny and deprecation in both the medical world and in general society for having inherently “bad” bodies.
In terms of size, and especially for men, your body is either too big, too scrawny, your gut is too big, your legs are too short, etc. All of these determinations of a man’s body mean the same thing: these body types are all “bad” bodies. That simply is not true. The sooner we can eradicate the notion that some bodies are “better” than others, the sooner we as a society can collectively heal from the emotional and physical damage we have done to ourselves by constantly comparing ourselves to one another and feeling inadequate. This is why being unapologetic about our bodies and promoting body positivity is so important for everyone, including men.
2.Acknowledging Weight Loss & Fitness Culture Are Flawed
The beginning of any year is always tough for a person’s self-esteem. If you watch TV or Hulu, you have 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, people making resolutions to lose weight or get fit, many of whom wanting 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 places in our everyday lives telling you that your body is not good enough.
The ideal situation would be having the ability to just ignore all of it, like AdBlocker for your general life against everything trying to tear you down (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—that are trying to make money off of your low self-esteem by making you buy into the idea that you need to change you body. We have to work towards buying into our own self worth rather than an industry that does not actually care about our well-being
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 or skinny to bulky or 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 is hard not to see actors, or musicians, or anyone in mainstream media, who seems to be doing the “right thing” with their bodies without feeling inferior or helpless.
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 your own lived experiences. These people are surrounded by managers and trainers and stylists who make sure that they are (almost) always looking perfect. As folks who do not have the luxury of having people make sure you are looking your best—other than the folks who feign concern with a heavy dose of criticism and disappointment—you should not be expected to keep up with the rich and the famous when it comes to your body.
4.Bodies Are Always Different
In a similar vein as the point above, 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 for you to concentrate on actually healing that rough relationship you have with yourself. Everyone’s bodies are different, from the basics of size and weight variance to height, to muscle definition, to 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 (although taking inspiration from others is okay, as I’ll talk about later), you should only be striving to be happy with your own body and its uniqueness.
More Radical Reads: 8 Ways Men Can Get More Honest About Body Shame
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 in many ways as well. For men, our bodies will always be changing as we age, with certain parts of our bodies not “holding shape” the way that we are 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 is harder to admit this than others, as our self-esteem often reflects how comfortable we feel in our own skin at any given moment. The important thing is that you have to accept that your body will always be changing in order for you to have a healthy relationship with yourself.
6.Eating Isn’t A Competition—Or A Cure
As I have 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 hand-in-hand. Many men feel the need to overeat either as a competitive action as caused by the toxic masculinity trope of men proving they are better than each other, or as a compulsion due to mental health or self-esteem issues that go undiscussed, again often relating back to the strains of toxic masculinity. Food then because more of a tool than a source of sustenance—either as a tool for one-upping your friends or a tool 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 healthy, full meals for low calorie bars and protein shakes mixed into already extreme workout regimens, and they will often throw in a cheat day that involves overeating all of the foods they have avoided throughout the week. Establishing a healthy relationship with your body means balancing out all of these factors in order for your body to feel properly sustained without either eating yourself to sickness or starving yourself to achieve a “good” body.
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, while others still treat exercise and movement as an insurmountable chore that either has to be performed to the most extreme extent or it would not be 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 therapy or something enjoyable.
There are simple ways to get your body moving, as your ability status will allow it, that can make you feel better about yourself and your body, even if it is just going for a walk or lifting small weight, anything to get the blood flowing a little bit. And if you do choose to work out more regularly and rigorously, it is important to remember that putting yourself through pain is not an effective way of truly building a satisfying relationship with your body and yourself.
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 are 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 to you making up for the many years you have spent feeling bad about your body, and that is exactly the kind of radical self love that you owe yourself.
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[Feature image: Individual with dark skin sits indoors wearing a whit t-shirt and baseball cap as they stare with a slight grin into the camera. They have a low fade cut and beard.]