There is no comparison when it comes to pressures about weight and body image issues—women have it tougher than men. It’s not fair and it’s not right.
But while much has (rightly) been said and written about the heightened pressures that women face, we tend to forget that men have issues of their own.
I grew up playing, loving and excelling at organized sports. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I was 6’3’’ and weighed 250 pounds. My size and quickness enabled me to do things in games that others could not. My stature gave me confidence and was a point of pride.
I ate whatever I wanted, exercised daily, and could add or lose weight with ease depending on the season and the sport. At the age of twenty-two I had the opportunity to participate in a sport at the collegiate level and was in the best shape of my life. I never thought about my body image or lifestyle choices unless such things somehow impacted my play on the field—but they rarely, if ever, did.
But then life happens. You graduate and those daily trips to the Student Center gym are replaced with grad school, internships and/or a real job. The seemingly limitless number of always-available tennis partners and pick-up hoops participants dwindle to a handful of people who live much further away than “down the hall” or “in the off-campus apartment below.” You still don’t eat in a healthy manner, but you are young and there’s enough free time throughout the week to allow for some workout sessions and maybe entry into a Men’s Park District Basketball League.
At this point in my personal story, I may have gained a few pounds, but not enough to worry about. It was nothing a few crash diets couldn’t fix. In my mind, I was still a calorie-burning, high-octane machine.
Fast-forward a few years and now you’re in your late twenties and you’ve met a special lady friend who deserves a ring and wedding. You start your lives together and all you want to do is leave each other affectionate notes around the apartment and eat your way through the city you now live in together as man and wife. Trips to the gym dwindle. Your single guy friends from the Men’s Basketball League don’t hear from you for awhile. And your focus switches to pursuing that new position at work that pays more and will allow the two of you to move out of the one-bedroom closet you call an apartment.
The pounds begin to add up. You make declarations that you and your wife are going to start hiking more and not eating out at restaurants as much. You reactivate your gym membership and send each other articles on how bad diet soda is for the human body and “What You Should Be Eating for Breakfast.”
For me, by this point, my once well-oiled machine looked and ran more like a broken-down Zamboni. But my brain was still that of a fit twenty-two-year-old man who could run a six-minute mile. The mirror didn’t reflect that, of course, but in my heart I “knew” that I was merely a few tweaks away from regaining the top form I used to enjoy and be so proud of.
Multiple back injuries and pant sizes later, a baby arrives and all of the “life changes” you thought mattered fade as the excitement (and terror) of your new reality sets in—there’s a helpless human being counting on you to be there.
But change isn’t easy. Now you’re over thirty and have developed poor habits that you’ve been practicing for many years. If you’re like me, you might live in a too-cool, hipster-friendly city like the westside of Los Angeles, where every member of your peer group is wearing skinny jeans that belong on a pre-teen Swedish boy and surviving by eating some combination of farm-to-table kale, cage-free smoothies and the latest album from The National.
And it’s not just adult men who are feeling the pressure to look like they’re in a band and on heroin. Earlier this year at a coffee shop in my neighborhood I overheard two extremely thin male students from a high school lamenting that they were eating too many carbs and “felt fat.”
What changed things for me this year and what has (finally) put me on a trajectory to take back the way I eat and think about health and fitness is watching my (amazing) wife go through childbirth and the recovery—both physically and emotionally—that follows. That once confident voice in the back of my head telling me that I look great and am simply a few jumping jacks and shuttle runs away from impressing everyone with my athletic prowess had been suffocated by the copious amounts of buffalo wings and corn dogs I was still eating.
So forget fad diets and trendy exercise routines. Any of us (of either sex) who want to overcome the body image-obsessed culture we live in and get healthy need to find someone to overcome it with. Find a friend. Tell your significant other how you’re feeling. Designate a co-worker as your “gym buddy.” Plan out meals and exercise plans together. Ask for help from someone else you know who is looking to make a change and be there for each other.
Self-loathing is only conquered by partnership and fellowship, not quick fixes. Find your fitness buddy and get moving.