The Real World: Media, Sports, and Male Body Image

I’m 6 foot 5. I weight 185 pounds, give or take depending on how recently gobbled a burger or gone for a run. This is what I looked like yesterday:

me no shirt

Most people would say I’m in decent shape. Some people might even call me skinny. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say, because I ran track in college. Back then I weighed about 155 pounds. I looked like this:

skin and bones

I’m healthy now. Back then I was close to being an elite athlete (not going pro elite, just a middle of the road college athlete, but elite compared to the average human). But I’ve never seen many men who looked like me on TV or a movie. Mostly they either look like this:

homer

or like these dudes:

real world

We hear constantly about the unfair beauty standards women are subjected to by the media, and, to be sure, the expectation that a woman be rail-thin to be attractive is patently ridiculous and dangerous. It’s my opinion that it has resulted in a huge gap between what men generally find attractive (some curves/meat on the bones, not to mention a personality and brains), and what women think men find attractive (typically about 20 pounds too skinny in my experience). This is a problem. But there’s a problem with male body image in this country too.

For most of my life, I was terrified that I was too skinny. On more than one occasion in college and in high school, I had a friend pass along the message from a girl I had a crush on: “He’s cute, but he’s too skinny”. Hearing that never failed to be devastating. Because I knew it was true. And I knew it was true thanks to the media.

But a strange thing happened when I went to college. I was training to run as fast as possible, and to do that, you need to be as skinny as possible. Any excess weight, even muscle, makes a big difference in race times (try running a mile as fast as you can with an extra five or ten pounds strapped to you). So I had pressure to be extra skinny from my desire to perform well. At the same time I had pressure from society to be muscle bound and swole. It was a confusing place to be in, and it might have messed up my body image for the long haul.

I don’t think I’m the only man to feel this way, to feel too fat and to skinny at the same time. A lot of us played sports at some point, and are used to thinking of our bodies in a functional sense, where every muscle serves a specific purpose. Most of us move on from that at some point. I stopped having the time or desire to run 100 miles a week and I packed on a few pounds. This is a common story. The average dude doesn’t have the time or energy to sculpt his body. We’re just trying to stay healthy.

At the same time, I can go to the movies any weekend and see a supposedly “ordinary guy” in a scene where he is gratuitously and unnecessarily shirtless, displaying 6 pack abs and swollen pecs. And he’s supposed to be a lawyer or something. I’ve met some lawyers and the don’t look like that. Or I can turn on “reality TV” and see a bunch of shirtless “ordinary guys” who are obviously on steroids, complete with the requisite rage. Or I can open up Facebook at any time and see these bullshit, self congratulatory “fitspiration” memes, that are supposed to inspire you to work out. You know the quotes and pictures that somehow equate physical fitness with morality, as if doing 100 crunches makes you a better person. In reality I suspect these work as a self administered pat on the back for the person who posted it. The message men get from every form of media in this country is that we have two options: attractive, ripped dude with well defined muscles and a lot of money, or hopeless, Homer Simpson-esqe working class slob with a beer gut and a tendency to exasperate the saintly, slender, women in our lives. There’s no such thing as an “ordinary guy” in the media.

The body image pressure men get is vastly different from women. The pressure on women seems to me to be constant, straightforward, and explicit: skinnier is better. Pressure on us men is complicated, subtle, and nuanced. We’re not supposed to care about our bodies, but we’re supposed to be ripped. We’re certainly not supposed to be fat, but we’re not supposed to be skinny either. And when you add sports into the mix, it just gets messier. We all know that there’s something we’re supposed to look like, but we don’t know exactly what it is. Most of us just know that it’s not us.

Shortly after I graduated college and started what would prove to be a long break from any serious training, I met the woman who would become my wife. She would later admit that, while she was immediately attracted to me, she thought I was “grossly skinny”. Five years later we’re happily married, and she insists that she finds my body much more attractive than at that time. And I believe her, but the weird thing is that I feel gross to myself. I still vacillate between being paranoid about being “too skinny”, and feeling disgusted that I’ve gained weight. I still feel like I should have bulging biceps or well defined abs. And I know I never will.

The difference now is that when I start beating myself up about it, I force myself to go somewhere else mentally. I ask myself “how do I treat the people I care about?” “What have I done lately to make the world a fairer, more just place?” “Have I been friendly to the people I’ve come across lately?” Sometimes I can answer those questions positively, sometimes I can’t. But the answers never have anything to do with my abs or pecs.

That’s what I think men (and women) should remind themselves. It’s nice to be healthy. Exercise is great for us physically and mentally. But being physically fit does not make you a good person. Being out of shape does not make you a bad person. Let’s stop acting like there’s some connection between our abs and our morality. There’s not. And let’s stop being so paranoid about our bodies. I guarantee any potential romantic partner cares way less about your muscle definition than you think.

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