Body image, Men, and an Auto-Biographical Tale

I would like to note before I start: This is not an MRA essay about how feminists are causing men to hate themselves and their bodies. There are plenty of those already. If that's what you're into, first of all what is wrong with you, and second of all, go somewhere else.

I want to start this off with a little autobiography about myself and my relationship with my body, as a case study of sorts.

Me, Myself, and my Biceps

This coming fall will mark my 3rd year of consistent weight lifting(has it been that long? Damn) and it's been a hell of a ride. It began my junior year of high school when I asked a friend who had taken our school's intro weight lifting class to show me the ropes. After his first little tutorial, I was hooked. Every day after school I tried to go to our school's little weight room before cross country practice. Admittedly this resulted in some pretty lackluster race performance, but you win some you lose some right? At home I started trying to eat better, tracking macros, using my fitness pal to track my caloric intake. I was into it

That initial zeal may have faded, but ever since I've been lifting 6 days a week for the last 3 years or so. Therefore I think I'm in a pretty good position to talk about body image. Mostly because, for most of my junior and senior years of high school, I'd wake up, get out of bed, look in the mirror and say to myself

"Damn, son, you look small"

Over the last year and a half these feelings have almost completely faded, only occasionally cropping up now. But looking back I think they stemmed from two main things; the pump, and social media

I'll explain these in order, starting with "The Pump," which tends to be the hardest thing to explain to people who have never worked out. 

The Pump

In pure physiological terms, a pump is when(after exercise) blood rushes to your muscles causing them to appear larger than normal. Very exciting, I know. 

But in subjective, personal terms, it's the best damn feeling in the world. A really good pump has an almost animalistic, primal quality to it. It lets you see the best your body can be, and then some. Your muscles have more definition than at any other time, and you feel cocky and arrogant and as confident as can be. And that's the problem.

For most people, the pump is almost a portal into the future, say six or eight months from now. What I mean by that is it shows you what you'll one day look like if you keep lifting heavy weights and eating right. And while that's fine, it also shows you that you're not that now, that you're less than you can possibly be.

As you can imagine, having a reminder like that at the end of every workout can be incredibly demoralizing.

Social Media

Like everyone else my age, I use social media. And like everyone else, when I start a hobby, I tend to find a bunch of stuff about that hobby on social media. And that's great! For just about everything except fitness. Social media is full of contradicting information about lifting, regardless of what your workout or diet is, I promise you're doing it wrong.

How many grams of protein per pound of body weight should you eat? Should you eat carbs? Does your body differentiate between complex and simple carbs? Is PPL the best program? What about starting strength? Should you arch your back while benching? How far apart should your feet be when you squat? How much of a caloric surplus should you maintain to gain muscle? What about losing weight without losing muscle? 

These questions go on and on, and eventually the constant pounding and worry that you're doing something wrong gets to you. Best case scenario this results in what one of my friends affectionately called "fuckaroundtitis" where you change your diet and workout every week. For me, it resulted in this constant niggling fear in the back of my mind that I was doing something wrong, and that since I was doing something wrong, I'd never get as muscular as I wanted to and I'd hurt my back and die while squatting. Or something.

Further compounding the problem are people who post heavily edited pictures on instagram and claim to be natty(not on steroids) but clearly aren't. You've seen plenty of these and already can anticipate the effects, so I won't waste time telling you why they're bad.

Well That's Cool and all, but how Widespread is This?

Here are some fun facts for you
  • About 28% of men are "extremely dissatisfied" with their bodies
  • Only 24% of men are "satisfied" or "extremely satisfied" with their bodies
  • Roughly 6% of men, or 1 in 18, in the US will use steroids in their lifetime
So moderately widespread. 

What can be Done About This?

First of all: talk to your kids about body image issues if they start weightlifting. Hell, even if they don't lift talk to them about it. Just cuz they're guys doesn't mean they're immune to insecurity

Reinforce the message that you aren't competing against anyone but yourself, and that as long as you're physically healthy, it doesn't matter what you look like.

For teenage boys, dispel the myth that women will only like you if you're shredded. Believe it or not, most male sex icons aren't, we should emphasize that more. Broader fiction seems to have created a narrative that only jacked guys get girls. Push back on that.

If you are someone struggling with these issues: Stop looking at social media and stop reading about weight lifting. Find your workout, do it, go home and eat healthy. Keep it simple stupid. It's not that hard and thinking about it too much will only make you needlessly anxious.

And finally, be kind to men who have these issues. A lot of guys(myself included) aren't super emotionally open, and admitting that we struggle with insecurity can be a bit of an issue. So don't be a jerk about it.

Nobody deserves to feel bad about their bodies, and I hope one day we live in a world where nobody does.


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