Starting a Conversation on Male Body Image
March 28, 2017
I allow myself to eat a little more — whether that be an extra scoop of ice cream or another slice of pizza — before debate tournaments because I know I’ll lose a pound or two during the weekend. It might be because tournaments are busy and there isn’t much time to eat or because we have to walk across giant college campuses, but I can always rest assured that along with losing a few debate rounds I’ll also lose weight.
This isn’t the only trick I use to make sure I’m right at the average (or even better, below) BMI for my age group. Sure I exercise and try to eat healthy, but more than this, it’s become evident to me that losing weight is more of a mental contest against my expectations rather than something rooted in reality. That is, I’ll find ways to convince myself I’m fit, such as weighing myself before and after I jog to feel good about the 0.7 pounds I lost.
It’s about convincing others as well. Whenever I go out to dinner with friends, I always start by suggesting the local salad bar or typical Silicon Valley vegan-cafe. And when my friends groan in response, I feel a sense of satisfaction because I really never did want to go eat salad or some gluten-free, fat-free, everything-free sandwich. I just wanted to show my friends that I did. More than just suggesting places to eat, I often express my frustration about not running for a few weeks or eating too much not because they reflect my true feelings — rather, they let me implicitly say that I’m just as healthy as anyone else.
Personally, however, this contest of perception swings both ways: I may try to convince myself that I’m not overweight, but often times the other side wins. I criticize myself for gaining even a fraction of a fraction of a pound. I religiously look at myself before I sleep not out of ego, but out of my brain’s constant desire to recognize where I may look unfit and find some way to hide or fix it. When my mom tells me, “You’ve lost too much weight,” I just tell myself she said that because she’s my mother and has to say that. And when my friends tell me, “You’re not fat,” it’s because they’re my friends and they have to say that.
These feelings may be rooted in being overweight throughout elementary and middle school, or because with increasing age comes increasing doubts and insecurities, but body image has become an increasingly perceptual competition.
And so, when one of my friends at a debate tournament said he was going to go workout, he unknowingly challenged me. Not only him, but my own mind as well dared me; the only way to convince my friends and myself that I was healthy was to accept.
My relationship with food is paradoxical. At home, I urge my parents to buy less snacks — please, no chocolate, no Cheez-Its, no muffins. When those hazards nonetheless arrive on the kitchen counter, well, they don’t last long. At restaurants with friends, I try to eat the least. Then I reverse the day’s effort toward cutting down my consumption when I get home. In every case, fighting my body’s urges for food feels like wasted effort.
It’s funny how little of my obsession with body-image translates into actual knowledge about nutritional health. I watch my caloric intake without knowing the number of calories I need. I’m conscious about my weight without knowing my BMI. I eat “less” without knowing what a healthy portion looks like. The house I live in doesn’t have a scale — I just watch the arch of my stomach to check whether or not I’ve been eating well. If I sought to be healthy, I’d probably have resolved these issues by now. But seeking a healthy body and seeking a healthy-looking body are very different desires.
The growth of my self-conscious body image seems inevitable. We face pressures from all facets of our environment — the media, friends, even family. Yet when the topic manifests in conversations with others, rhetoric often underplays and misrepresents how I feel. In conversation, I’ll hear phrases such as “I need to get fit” or “I need to work out.” But I never hear, and I never say, “I want to look fit” or “I want to look like I work out.”
The dichotomy between “need” and “want” plays an important role for me in the honesty and vulnerability of discussion. When I say “need,” I’m giving away control over my desire to look healthy. My decisions no longer are mine, and they become reflections of the molds manufactured by society, or at least my best estimate of what that might be.
I speak from the privilege of not actually being unhealthy or overweight. I speak from the privilege of facing society’s sculpting hand but never the physical threat of weight or diet-related disorders. Yet the stigma against honesty, especially for guys, is overwhelming. It’s the mixture of isolation and secrecy that restrains dialogue and maintains a warped body image’s potent destructive force.
I don’t know whether the majority of guys face this issue, and I hadn’t broached the subject with any of my friends until recently. The first and only time I ever heard a friend address the issue — and no, it wasn’t me who had the courage to bring it up — its seemingly untouchable, taboo atmosphere still staved off any real discussion besides acknowledgement. Like we had wandered too close to the outer boundary of truth, saw it, then ran away. In fact, that reaction was quite literal. When my friend, at a debate tournament, said he was going to workout, I had to join.
The two of us ended up on treadmills: one of us bare-foot, and one of us in jeans. Our other friend was lifting weights in a dress shirt. We had not thought to bring work-out clothes to a debate tournament. Yet, here we were, running instead of prepping for tomorrow’s debate rounds or getting more than the few hours of sleep we get at tournaments. The absurdity of our situation only seemed to reflect the absurdity of our mindsets. No longer satisfied with actually being healthy, we continue to compete with ourselves and others in an effort to seem fit. Yet we still ran, waiting for someone else to stop first.