This originally appeared on Eat The Damn Cake. Republished here with permission.
People think body image is only about girls and women. When I say I write about body image, sometimes people say, “Oh, women’s issues.”
And they are right. And they are wrong.
We have imagined these big immigration fences around so many issues, as though no women can get out and no men can get in. A friend of mine who works for a domestic violence prevention organization, discussing Steubenville, pointed out that so often we talk about saving women but we don’t talk about educating men. We talk about ourselves as though we are born into separate camps and then stay there, sometimes harmed for practically inexplicable reasons by the people in the other camp, sometimes simply dealing with issues that don’t affect them, that they can’t really comprehend.
I don’t think we should ever turn a conversation about rape survivors into one that focuses exclusively on boys and men (unless we’re talking exclusively about boys and men who have been raped), and it’s perfectly clear to me that beauty rules are stricter and beauty expectations higher for girls and women. But the story definitely doesn’t stop there, and when we act like it does we perpetuate that notion of separate, fenced-off camps. I’ve always liked to climb, though.
Girls and women are able to talk about body image concerns in louder voices, in more public spaces, and guys are often just not supposed to care, so they keep quiet. Girls and women are actually not supposed to care, too, but when we do, it seems to be more forgivable. But boys and men are also struggling with the way beauty works in our world. Especially, I’ve noticed, with the way fat is demonized. But also with the other specific requirements of physical attractiveness that so many of us learn to believe in as fiercely and automatically as we believe in God or scientific fact.
I could tell you a story about a boy who was always small and thin, and he felt invisible inside his baggy clothes, and he retreated, shoulders hunched protectively forward, making incessant jokes about his own “wimpiness.” There was no magical electrode machine waiting in a shiny lab somewhere to pump him up and set him free.
And what about the boy who was teased for being chubby and how he always wore a shirt when he went swimming, and how he felt that he didn’t look “smart,” because “fat kids are supposed to be dumb”? He later locked himself in the gym every day with such ferocious dedication that everyone was impressed. And when he emerged, after eating nothing except for a can of tuna every day and working out for hours, lightheaded, big-armed, slim-waisted, everyone praised him and praised him for looking so good. For taking charge of his life. For manning up.
People are always so happy for someone who loses a lot of weight. But it is more complicated than that. I could tell you about how he looks at his body hatefully, even now, years later. He is embarrassed of what he was—it seems unforgivable that he was so “lazy,” and he is always afraid of slipping. Of sliding backwards into the dark hole of softness, when he was fairly certain that no girl would ever want him, when he felt people’s eyes on him, judging, constantly. When he thought he needed to hide his body.
I could tell you these stories, but they would only be the beginning. When you listen carefully, the stories appear everywhere, vivid and almost indistinguishable from one another. There are variations and slight deviations of the plot, but for the most part, there is that incessant sense of guilt, of self-loathing, and that addicted desire to improve one’s life by changing the way one looks.
A friend of mine who is in therapy to cope with an eating disorder whispered to me over coffee about her boyfriend, who won’t go to therapy, but he also won’t eat. He exercises for hours every day. If he doesn’t make it to the gym, he feels disgusting, he feels like a failure. He works all day, and he is dizzy, always on his feet, but he says he’s fine, he’s fine, he knows what he’s doing. He’s challenging himself. He’s getting in shape. He explains, he used to be fat. He can never go back there. What is she supposed to do, she asks. She doesn’t know what to do about it.
I know guys who have fainted. I have dated them and not caught on for a surprisingly long time.
I know guys who make constant self-deprecating remarks about their bodies. Manly men, cocky dudes, bros who are obsessing over their waist fat, over their biceps, over whether or not they’re finally OK.
“Totally manorexic,” I’ve heard guys tease each other. But it’s a joke! It’s totally a joke! That stuff is for girls. Obviously.
It feels ironic to me, sometimes. Because, you know, I write about this stuff. I write about my own body insecurities, and the ways that women are pressured to look a certain way, and perform a certain look, and the ways that women are censored by beauty. But sometimes it’s the boys and men in my life who seem to need the most encouragement, where body image is concerned. And I think a big part of the reason is because even as they’re experiencing these feelings, they’re not really allowed to talk about them.
I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that “body image concerns” always means “eating disorders.” Eating disorders are just an unavoidable, painful example of the way lessons about what matters about the way we look can get applied to our every day. And they get applied this way for boys and men, too. I wonder sometimes if the unrelenting, cruel logic of eating disorder thinking might appeal especially to the men who struggle with the way their bodies look. I have heard guys talk in such black and white terms about their decisions. Something is wrong. They’re supposed to take charge. If there’s a problem, it needs to be fixed. Weight needs to be lost, muscle needs to be gained, it’s that straightforward. I have listened to women frantically treading water from the vortex of an eating disorder, and they have told me about trying to think their way out, trying to reason, trying to look at it from another angle, trying to find some way to love themselves from the depths of crushing negativity.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” guys have told me. “Either I look good or I look like shit.”
I wonder if boys are educated in so many subtle ways to avoid subtlety, while girls are expected to dive into detail. Not that everyone falls neatly into any category, of course (no camps! tear the fences down!), but I’ve seen this as a striking difference between the way that men and women address their body image struggles.
And troublingly, the most virulent strains of body-hatred insist, “There is no other way to look at it. You are disgusting.”
It’s critical, in the face of this, that we all learn to talk back. And that might be even harder when you’ve learned not to talk about it at all.
I have also wanted to fix myself. To take a transformative surgical knife and cut away the parts that marred me. I used to imagine a world where people were made of this moldable clay substance and they would all rearrange their bodies and their faces constantly, so that they could look however they wanted to that day. I told myself it was an allegorical short story that I would one day write. At the same time, I fantasized about my own face after my nose had been shaved down to something nonthreatening and acceptable. I used to sometimes shave it down to a tantalizing sliver, using Photoshop.
Either you look good or you look like shit.
But it’s not that straightforward. It’s a subtle, long-fingered ghost, that kind of shame and disgust toward your own body, and it reaches into your future and stirs things up and idly plays with your ideas about who you are. Whether you’re worthy. Whether you’re good.
I think we need to stop blithely praising guys for getting ripped when there are signs that more is going on. We need to recognize a wide variety of masculine beauty. I know that I, for one, am and always have been attracted to guys who are softer. I know that most people are attracted to a lot of different looks and body types. There’s room here for differences, just as there is and always has been for women, even as we fight to whittle ourselves down to a specific model of attractiveness.
I think we need to somehow let men talk. I honestly don’t know where this starts. I didn’t know what to tell my friend over coffee, when she confided in me about her boyfriend.
I’m not trying to speak for boys and men myself, here. But because there are a few I love a lot, I can’t not say anything.
Kate Fridkis blogs at Eat the Damn Cake. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Tablet, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn, where it’s not totally weird to be as obsessed with sandwiches as she is. You can follow her on Twitter here.