As a relatively self-assured woman, negotiating my unwavering belief in body positivity with a quiet, self-inflicted scrutiny is tough. Most days my struggle with weight feels distant, like a different life. Then there are the few hours every so often when judgment and insecurity gnaw at my insides like hunger or nausea. And believe me, that's progress.
The thing is, I've had the last decade of my life to work through my own toxic delusions—never once feeling uncomfortable about expressing those thoughts. Not everyone gets that opportunity. You see, the intense pressure women are placed under—in the media, in regards to the male gaze, and the infinite amount of other unfair double standards that exist in this country and worldwide—allows us to form camaraderie around our struggle. It's all but expected that we'll encounter disordered eating and dysmorphic thoughts, so it's less taboo to talk about them.
Men, on the other hand, have a different type of pressure. Hegemonic masculinity is unconsciously (and, often, very consciously) enforced from birth and deep-seated gender norms dictate that men are not "supposed" to feel insecure about their bodies. It's so damaging to try and understand those thoughts alone. Don't get me wrong, I'm not out here feeling sorry for men and their lack of media-enforced scrutiny. But the deviation in the way self-doubt is discussed between genders can be toxic on both sides. Below, four men describe their own experience with body image and insecurity and what it's like navigating a life drenched with traditional masculinity.
"When I moved to New York for college, the combination of walking a lot and not being able to afford much food made me shed pounds pretty rapidly. By the end of freshman year, I was the thinnest I'd ever been as an adult, but I couldn't see a difference when I looked in the mirror. My self-image was somehow even more skewed than usual. I continued wearing long-sleeve shirts in 80-degree weather because layers have always made me feel less anxious about my body; the more covered up I am, the less vulnerable I feel. I've since gained back most of the weight I lost, and when I look at pictures from that time the difference is clear to me, and I'm like, Damn, I wish I still looked like that! But I distinctly remember getting compliments on the weight loss from people and not fully grasping it myself; looking at my reflection I saw only imperfections — and I still do.
"Being single and queer on dating and hookup apps doesn't exactly inspire confidence either. Sadly, toxic masculinity is just as pervasive (if not more so) within the queer community as it is outside of it. Frequently you'll see bios littered with messages like 'no fats' and 'no femmes,' not to mention all the racist diatribe. It's disheartening enough that the average guy's body type is hardly represented in fashion, ads, TV, or film, but to have that seep into real-life dating too? It feels like a losing battle.
"In my experience, almost across the board, the guys who show off their six-packs and fit bods in photos also assert a hypermasculine energy that makes the other person feel inferior. They come off as needlessly aggressive in a way that's demeaning and toxic overall; it feeds into the same antiquated, tired, stereotypical masculine vs. non-masculine dichotomy that has existed for centuries, and it not only encourages other men to behave in a similar manner, but it also reinforces negativity regarding body image and self-worth."
In my experience, almost across the board, the guys who show off their six-packs and fit bods in photos also assert a hypermasculine energy that makes the other person feel inferior.
"I strive to be a positive voice among the nonsense and to practice thinking healthy thoughts, but just passing through everyday life makes it a constant struggle."
"One of the primary problems with having insecurities or issues with your body as a man is that you’re not supposed to talk about them. Doing so makes you 'unmanly.' So you don't talk about it. You just sit in the skin you were given and pretend everything feels okay for, you know, your whole life. And pretending everything is okay when everything is not okay can often turn you into a mean person—to others (usually women), or, in my case, to myself.
"When I did hit puberty, I just became a rail-thin and (I’ve been repeatedly told) 'effeminate-looking' guy. So since I was around 13, I've felt deformed. And I haven't been able to get rid of that feeling ever since. Even when I’ve been told I’m (ugh) 'relatively good looking.' Even when I’ve been able to convince (that’s how it felt) very pretty women that it might be a good experience to kiss me—which should mean that I was worthy of not hating my body for a few hours—I still felt deformed.
"The problem is men usually struggle with body insecurity entirely by themselves. This is, of course, pretty much the worst way to struggle with anything. What I’m trying to say here is: Talk about how you feel bad that your hairline is receding, guys. You're allowed to. It will make it easier."
"Rock icons have had a positive impact on my concept of the 'ideal' male body. Traditional patriarchal media taught me as a kid that being muscular was most desirable. However, artists such as Bowie, Lennon (see Two Virgins album cover), Dylan, Lou Reed, and others made being skinny, hairless, and toneless sexy. They were my first examples of bodies outside of the patriarchal ideal, and they gave me confidence that I could achieve the same desirability without having the same genetics and dedication to fitness as more traditional male sex symbols."
Traditional patriarchal media taught me as a kid that being muscular was most desirable.
"My body has always been a constant—a source of confidence that I've never had to maintain. I got lucky in that my genetics have allowed me to eat what I want and still look fit. Having a 'good body' is entangled in my personality and certainly plays a role in the way I approach dating and sex.
"Recently, though, I've noticed some extra weight around my stomach—too many late-night milkshakes, I guess. It's made me wonder if other people look at me differently than they used to, and it's affected how freely I remove my shirt and even how I dress. This feeling, body self-consciousness, is admittedly foreign to me, and I find myself talking about it more than I expected with my close friends. I feel this cataclysmic, and quite honestly, really surprising concern for how I appear to others. I don't feel boxed in by the traditional masculinity tropes per se, but I do feel like I have to live up to the reputation I've built for myself. It's my ego more than anything. Maybe that's the same thing. I'm not sure."
Next up: What is the "right" advice for moms with daughters struggling with body image?