Let’s face it, men have body image issues too.
There, I said it. I am certainly not the first, a quick Google search brought back 212 million hits, and I won’t be the last.
But, at last, it is a taboo subject to talk about out loud. I really don’t understand why, except that it is perpetuated by the male stereotype that is everywhere you look. You all know the one I am talking about, the rock-hard abs and the well defined muscles of the upper and lower body. Let us not forget about the head and face too. If you don’t have everything going for you as a man, you have nothing going for you. Men wont talk about their problems because it is unmanly to do so (another stereotype). This can lead to big problems down the road. I’m talking about self-starvation, eating disorders, drug use, even severe depression. Don’t believe me, here is a story about a man’s battle with an eating disorder. Powerful Stuff, and there is a lot more out there.
Now that I have laid down the foundation about what I want to talk about; Me.
I will admit that I am pron to having body image issues. I find myself constantly comparing myself to others at the gym and out running and wondering what other people are thinking while looking at me working out. Are they judging how fast I am going while running, how much I am lifting, or what I look like. Those thoughts are always going through my head while working out. But here is the kicker, I was more self conscious of it high school and college than I am now, even though I am in the male stereotype dominated Army.
Lets break it down. There are three main body types; There are endomorph s who are the short, stocky men who gain muscle fast, but it is not well defined. Then there are the mesomorphs with a naturally athletic look and well defined muscles. Finally, there are the ectomorphs, tall, skinny, has a hard time putting on muscle, eats a lot. This is the type of body that I identity with.
While each body type has its different characteristics and traits, they are not all mutually exclusive. It is not uncommon at all to get a mixture of two of the three types, most common are ectomorph/mesomorph and mesomorph/endomorph. This leads to a wide variety of body types, shapes, and sizes. I think this is where the problem of male body image issues come from; society perpetuates the one male stereotype so much it is easy to forget that there are different body types out there. Day after day all you see is images of the perfect male body and then you see your self in a mirror and it is very, very hard not to start comparing and judging yourself.
In high school and my first three years of college I was you prototype ectomorph. 6’3″, never weighing in over 160 pounds, could spend day in and day out in the gym and not gain a single pound of muscle. I would literately eat everything I could put in my system. We’re talking at almost 8,000 calories a day at one point and I was still not putting on weight. It didn’t help that in high school, I became obsessive with working out and that it carried over into college. It is not right for a young male to be working out morning, noon, and night (and sometimes again later at night). All I wanted to do was put on some resemblance of muscle.
As I look back after a few years of breaking this unhealthy cycle, I can almost pinpoint its start. I was always a small, skinny kid growing up, but when I hit high school and hit a major growth spurt the muscle didn’t come with it as it did for most of my friends. My doctor at the time and even my parents told me it would come with time as my body started to fill out. My body never filled out.
My issues with my body image and working out only intensified when I hit college. There, I had free reign of the gym at all hours of the day thanks to being a varsity athlete and no one to keep me in check because everyone just looked at it as I just wanted to get better. No one took exception to the fact that I was on the bike before class in the morning, lifting after lunch, going to practice in the afternoon, and more often than not back on the bike or in the pool later in the evening. The image issues really became a problem when we started lifting as a team. I was one of the fastest and most in shape guy’s on the team, but almost everyone could out lift me rep for rep. Why, because they had the muscles and the body, that I didn’t. This coming from a long distance runner where the best guys in the world all look like I did.
Besides an obsession with working out, and eating everything on hand, this also lead to some pretty severe bouts of depression over how I perceived I looked and how I should look. But being a stereotypical man, I did not talk to anyone about this problem, I just withdrew into myself and let some pretty dark thought take over. Even worse, when asked about how I was doing, I would put on that tough face and tell the person asking that everything was alright.
It took joining the ROTC program and making the commitment to the Army to mostly get over these problems. In ROTC, the most important lesson I learned is that you don’t have to be the biggest or the best or even the smartest, you just have to give the problem at hand all that you can give it. I will place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade. If you can follow those four rules, no one will care who you are or what you look like, all they know is you gave everything you could and they are thankful for that. I will admit the Army was not the cure all pill that I was looking for, it has helped my mindset greatly.
I still battle with my demons every day. The most notable case was the fall of my senior year, where I hit some serious depression over how my body looked and felt while running. In truth, my body was in an injury cycle and needed time off, but I attributed all of the slowness and sluggishness I felt to my body image, I kept telling myself that I was not in shape and that I needed to work harder and for the first 8 weeks I was miserable. I hated going to practice, racing, and everything to do with running, especially if it involved being around my teammates. I didn’t want to be the leader that I was supposed to be for the team because I was so focused on my image. I think the only thing keeping this from all blowing up into a major team issue was my class schedule. I had a lot of classes that overlapped with practice time and thus only ran with my teammates on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Even then, I was still hard to approach. Eventually, I got over it but I feel like I damaged a few relationships in the process.
Even now, I still find my self wondering what other people think when they see me in the gym. I know I shouldn’t, but its hard not to. I wonder if they talk about how skinny I am (170 pounds on a good day) or how little wight I am lifting in comparison to them. I hate thinking like this, but its hard to turn to someone and talk.
Body image is a serious problem that needs some serious talking about, but no one is talking. So why don’t men talk about this issue? Why do we all pretend that it doesn’t exist? Is it because asking for help is stigmatized as a sign of weakness in men? Is it because most are afraid to admit that they are not really comfortable in their own skin? Or is it because of the male stereotype that is so prevalent in society? I believe that all three are part of the problem, and no one is talking. In fact it is almost the opposite. Almost every article I pulled up about different body types talks about how to change your body type to get those muscles and abs like everyone else has.
NEWS FLASH! Not everyone looks like that, not everyone will look like that.
Maybe Richard Simmons is doing it best; Trying to convince everyone to appreciate the body they have, not the one that they think that others think they should have. It should be up to you on what you do with your body, but don’t obsess over thinking about what others think about you.
As the National Eating Disorder Association says on this issue: “Focus on the qualities in yourself that you like that are not related to appearance. Spend time developing these capacities rather than letting your appearance define your identity and your worth.”
So men (and women), lets talk about this issue and why we don’t talk about it.
Authors Note: Please follow the links. Most are either good news articles or stories about dealing with male body image issues. I personally identify with this one the most and reading the comments helped a lot.