Bigorexia: Masculinity and the Pursuit of Muscularity

Jasmine Peterson wonders why so many big men want to be bigger.


As a student of Psychology, I have developed a particular fascination with the gender binary, hegemonic masculinity and femininity, body image, and media representations of bodies. I spend a lot of time deconstructing images that I see in media, and deconstructing the things people say when they speak about bodies (much to the constant chagrin of everyone around me).

It seems that discussions about the pervasive objectification of the female body have become part of popular discourse; most people are at least peripherally aware of the role of media in pervasively objectifying the female body, of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and of the significant role that our Western beauty ideal plays in their development. Body dissatisfaction in females is so common that it has come to be referred to as a ‘normative discontent’. Part of my fascination with body image and constructions of gender stems from this reality – I want, through my research and studies, to find ways to fight back against this systemic attack on body image in females and males.

What doesn’t seem to be acknowledged at the cultural level is the rise in body image dissatisfaction among men over the last several decades. Men have become increasingly concerned with muscularity, the idea that they are never big enough. And, like others who struggle with body image and disordered eating, males are increasingly engaging in unhealthy behaviours – like excessive exercise and unhealthy eating behaviours – in their pursuit of muscularity.

Where does this drive to be bigger, faster, stronger come from? Internalization of body ideals happens in early childhood – young children learn through images, the toys they play with, and through social interactions about ideal bodies. Children’s action figures have bodies that have become impossibly large over the past forty years (their proportions exceed those of even the largest body builders – as untenable as Barbie’s body type); characters in children’s shows have gotten progressively (and excessively) larger over the years, and the male form in advertisements and film, much like highly unrepresentative female bodies, has become one that is attainable by only very few. Given this trend, it isn’t overly surprising that there is a rise in men’s body dissatisfaction.

But why this shift in media representations, and the hypermasculinization and hypermuscularity? I have my hypotheses about these shifts. Our knowledge about the world and about ourselves is dependent upon the social and historical contexts in which we live. We’re living in a time where women have gained privilege and power – shifting social dynamics, where we’re vying for jobs traditionally done by men; encouraging men to take over their share of household duties (my partner will laugh at this, because he’s forever after me to do my share; I’m working on it) and sharing parenting responsibilities. Manhood has come to be defined through large, active bodies; it’s a means of gender differentiation (it is particularly interesting to examine the phenomenon of male bodies taking up more space and female bodies simultaneously occupying less physical space in idealized images). Muscularity signifies male power, renounces feminine ‘weakness’, signifies attractiveness, and is associated with strength, dominance, sexual virility, and self-esteem.

My partner and I have conversed about male bodies a great deal. He enjoys working out, and he’s extremely muscular. In conversations, however, he always talks about a desire to be ‘bigger’, a need to be bigger. I haven’t been able to comprehend this need; I think he’s a large man (nearly six feet tall, he towers over my less than five foot frame), and he’s well-defined. Other men often admire his build and marvel over his definition. Yet he still talks about being not big enough.

When we were talking about muscularity just this evening he made an insightful comment – one that I hadn’t considered, and one that makes a great deal of sense. He talked about the utility of the male body: “men like me desire muscles for one reason only: utility”

For him, muscularity isn’t about aesthetics. This idea of utility is logical – when grownups talk to young boys, emphasis is placed on agency, abilities, and the utility of their bodies. Boys are described with adjectives like “strong”, “fast”, “tough”; this provides boys with the message that their bodies are utile. Perhaps this is particularly important for certain men in defining their masculinity (because masculinity is enacted differently in different circumstances – dependent on socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.). Masculinity isn’t static, but fluid, and different aspects of masculinity will be valued depending on one’s position in culture. My partner is a labourer, so he covets his muscularity for the agency it brings him, the ability to lift and move objects, and to do his job well.

I am by nature a scientist, inquisitive about natural phenomena. I am intrigued by the pursuit of ideal bodies, in the ways these body image ideals can be positive expressions of self, and the ways in which they can become pathological or detrimental to health. I am interested in both the constraints and strengths that result from gender constructions.

My conclusion thus far: there are aspects of both masculinity and femininity that are positive, and some that inhibit or constrain us. For some, the pursuit of muscularity might be harmful, and for others it might be a positive experience. For some, perhaps a mixture of both.

—Photo tinou bao/Flickr

About Jasmine Peterson

Jasmine Peterson is a feminist and an activist. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Clinical Psychology. Her research has examined social constructionism, self-objectification, and, most recently, conceptions of health and their impact on males and females.


  1. Hippie B says:

    I’m a bisexual male that enjoys being on the receiving end when being sexual with a male. Because of this I’m inclined to try to be more feminine. Yet, I still date women also, and I feel pressure to build up a bit of muscle. Even though I’m thin and it is difficult for me to build muscle, I’ve been able to build a thin athletic physique. At the moment I’m thinner, but I feel the urge to build muscle. I’m having trouble deciding.

    • That’s actually very interesting, and something I didn’t really explore in this particular article, but research has shown that there is greater pressure on homosexual males to attain a culturally sanctioned ‘attractive’ body. I’m not sure if there is research on bisexual individuals (I find that often the research in that population is greatly lacking). For me, I tend to like to do things only for myself, so if I’m feeling pressure to change the appearance of my body to attract others, I avoid that. I exercise only because it feels good, I eat because I’m hungry, and I focus on how my body feels at any given time, rather than on how others perceive it or how it looks. I rather enjoy my relationship with my body, and I find that having grown to love it unconditionally, it doesn’t matter to me what others think of my appearance. 🙂

      I, as a woman, actually really enjoy weightlifting and building muscle. I don’t think that it is the antithesis of feminine. It feels good and feminine people do, after all, also have muscles.

  2. John Anderson says:

    An episode came out recently on Nightly News about the reverse, boys and men developing anorexia.

    I was surprised that it seems to strike high achievers and then when I thought of it, it totally made sense. It’s a good thing I’m a slacker.

    • Yes, anorexia certainly impacts males, as well. Perfectionistic tendencies, for either gender, is highly associated with this disorder. The group of men with the highest prevalence of disordered eating has been horse jockeys. However, it isn’t surprising to me that males are increasingly occupied with thinness, given the current discourses on “healthy” bodies and appropriate bodies. Which is why we really need to move away from such language and body shaming, because it’s not resulting in healthier people, but rather in mental anguish and unhealthy behaviours in the pursuit of ideal bodies.

  3. You must stop putting ‘words in my mouth’, so to speak. I did not say that I have ‘felt the cold st eel against the roof of [my] mouth”. However, it is remiss to assume that I’ve not had experiences or personal knowledge of suicidality. And to be clear, I am not skirting your question; I was responding to your assertions and your misinterpretations of what I was saying.

    Also, a cursory search of the literature suggests that your ‘400%’ increase is a very exaggerated number. I’m not going to delve into an explanation of such an increase because it would be a multifaceted discussion, and it would require a great deal of literature review. It’s also not pertinent to the actual discussion at hand – masculinity and muscularity. (Not that it isn’t a worthwhile discussion; it’s just not related to this article).

    Being a feminist does not mean I am a member of the National Organization for Women. I’ve not claimed myself to be a ‘card carrying feminist’, and one doesn’t require membership to any organization to be feminist in orientation. I can’t say I’m overly familiar with NOW, other than what I’ve heard/read of it in passing. So again, you’ve made assumptions of who I am and what feminism means to me, without taking the time to perhaps ask, rather than assume.

    • “A curosy search of the literature suggests that your 400% increase is a very exaggerated number” Then check out Lauren Hales’ article right here in the GMP ‘Depression, Anger ,Suicide and Men’ . You’ll find the stats I quoted from Dr. Will Courtenay Phd. You say it’s” not pertinent”, but it’s what keeps me going to the gym. I go for 2-21/2 hours 3x a week . I go until I cant stand steady, until I almost pass out, and feel vindication for surviving. The fact that i’ve gained 20lbs. of muscle while losing 50lbs. of weight is perhaps validation for what I do. But it’s the thrill of surviving the workout that keeps me coming back. Finally, it’s been my experience there are 2 basic types of feminist , the ones who hate men (and no, I don’t think your one of them) and the ones who want to help, change, train us (which is why I suppose we are constantly being compared to dogs)

      • What a narrow, limited view that is. That would be like me saying that there are only two types of men: misogynists and anti-feminists. That would be a pretty inhibiting view of men, and doesn’t serve anyone well. I do not hate men, nor do I know feminists who do. I do not want to change men. Again, branch out from the internet if you at all want to know what feminism is really about.

  4. You’ve clearly taken my comment out of context. It was in reply to your initial concerns – and it was a commentary on how masculinity contributes (not causes) such phenomena. Also, assume nothing about me as a person/student of clinical psychology. You cannot assert that I’ve not had similar experiences given that you have no knowledge of my life circumstances. Furthermore, clinicians, whether they’ve experienced suicidality or not, actually do have a great deal of insight into the issue particularly in terms of best practice in preventing suicide with clients. So it’s a slippery slope type of argument to suggest that just because someone is in the position of ‘expert’ means that they cannot understand.

    President of MY organization? If by organization you mean feminism, then you’ve got a misconception right from the start about feminism – it’s not an organization; it’s a movement. I’m not a member of any organization that is headed by a president. The one organization I have been a member of had no president; it was a collective feminist organization. So I’m not sure precisely what it is you’re getting at. Rather than denouncing feminism outright, perhaps it would be more productive to listen to the things different feminists are saying. You might find the ideas are much more congruent with your own than you realize.

    • You still won’t answer my question, will you? You dance around it so i post it again. How do you explain the 400% spike in male suicides? You say that you too have felt the cold steel against the roof of your mouth. If that’s true, then you know the suffocating feeling of dispair and hopelessness. The orginization I’m reffering to is the National Orginization of Women. If your the “card carring feminist” you clain to be , I’m sure you heard of them.

  5. First off, it’s YOU who said” It is the construct of masculinity that is limlting to men and contributes to health issues like suicide.” Despite all the fancy words and phrases you throw out there, you still didn’t answer the question, why the 400% spike in male suicides? You go to class and take good notes and think youy know what it’s like to “be on the edge”. Well lady, until you sit in the dark with a .357 Python in your hand with 2 rounds (just in case the first ones a misfire) well, you know NOTHING! Oh, by the way, it’s the president of YOUR orginization who called Valarie Solanis and Andera Dworkin the cornorstones oe the feminist movement.

  6. So you claim that male suicides can be attributed to the “male construct”. So how has the “male construct”changed so radically as to cause a 400% spike in just a few short years? Your a student of Clinical Psycology, so you must know the 2 overiding factors in most suicides , despair and hopelessness. your down and out and there doesn’t look like there’s anyway up, but there is a way out(this does not come fron any “Clinical Studies” but from experience). Feminist all pay lip service to this problem(whe’re studing the problem). Meanwhile, the 2 cornerstones of N.O.W. , Solanis and Drowkin , advocated reducing the male population to “10% of current levels”. Look, I realize I’m debating with an Idealouge so let me leave you with this, I don’t know your boyfriend so I can’t say why he pumps the iron. All i know is for me, it’s theraputic, the gym is one place I’m allowed to “Be a Man”.

    • Firstly, I’ve not said that male suicides can be attributed to the male construct. Suicide (not preceded by any gender) is a complex phenomenon that is characterized by hopelessness and emotional pain; it is not about death so much about escaping pain. One cannot narrowly attribute suicide rates of either gender to one specific cause. The issue is far more nuanced than what you’ve presented here.

      I am getting really tired of anti-feminists asserting to me what feminism is about. I am a feminist. I am part of the feminist movement and I have never myself, nor heard any fellow feminists, ever suggest that decreasing the male population is a solution to anything. Just because VERY FEW people who identify as feminists might have made such absurd claims does not mean this is representative of feminism. Go beyond the internet if you want to know what feminism is about.

      I am not commenting so much on the act of working out, here. Exercise is really inherently therapeutic for most people. What the piece is getting at is the pursuit of muscularity, the drive to be bigger. This is certainly tied into constructions of masculinity.

      And just a final point – the best way to make a point is probably not by insulting someone. I am not an ideologue. I do adhere to feminist ideology, but I am not uncompromising in this; I am interested in the perspectives of others, and I actively seek out information from other ideological perspectives to inform my own position. If I were an ideologue, you wouldn’t find me on GMP at all, where I’ve encountered some serious anti-feminist sentiment and a resistance to even hearing me out by many of the commenters because of their preconceived notions of feminism.

  7. “Men have become increasingly concerned with muscularity…”
    Because masculinity is under attack, and has been for the last couple of decades. You think the rise of man-hate and metro’s, and the rise of men wanting to be bigger don’t corelate? These generations raised by women, to dislike everything “man”, will back fire big time.

    • I don’t see that masculinity has been under attack. Culture is always shifting, and there has been an increased attention to the limitations of the gender binary, but masculinity has never come under fire. You’re saying ‘metrosexuals’ are somehow attacking masculinity, or manhood, by simply existing? How is it that ‘metrosexual’ cannot also be masculine? It’s this sort of narrow thinking about what masculinity is that is highly problematic.

      And sure, men can be subject to misandry, just like women are subject to misogyny. But that isn’t the same as ‘attacking masculinity’. Masculinity is a construct; it shifts over time and across cultures. It is not static. I’ve been raised in this culture, and I’ve not seen the dislike of everything ‘male’ that you are suggesting exists. Again, there is certainly some misandry, but to suggest that it’s a wholesale attack on manhood is a generalization, and quite inaccurate. The desire for muscularity is far more nuanced than what you’re suggesting. Perhaps it is a factor for you, personally, but that doesn’t mean that it is a cultural-wide relationship between men and muscularity.

      • “I don’t see that masculinity has been under attack” Of course you don”t. Being a hard core Feminist, anything that knocks men down a peg it also advances womens’ privilage and that’s a good thing,right? As little as 3 years ago, the men to women suicide ratio was 3:1 . Now it’s estimated at 12:1. It’s estiniated that 70 men take their life every day. (I personally think that’s an undercount) Actually, there’s an article in todays New York Post (Feb. 14). It seema another N.Y.P.D. officer swallowed a round from his service gun . That makes 4 this year. All male of course so don’t expect anyone to get too upset about it. So I guess going to the gym to bulk up is a good alternative. No, it doesn’t give you anymore status in modern soceity, but at least you feel more masculine.

        • There is a difference between what you’re talking about and an attack on masculinity. It is the construct of masculinity that is limiting to men and contributes to health issues like suicide. As a student in Clinical Psychology, I am highly concerned about issues like suicidality in males.

          It seems to me that you’re asserting that men are under attack; not masculinity. I don’t see that as the case either. Masculinity contributes the issues men experience, just as constructions of femininity can be inhibiting to women. It is my concern about the manners in which the construct of masculinity is inhibiting to males – and leads to things like higher rates of suicidality, decreased health behaviours, limited emotionality, etc. – and that is why I open up conversations about masculinity as a construct and its impact on human beings.

          By the way, feminism isn’t about “knocking men down a peg”. And no, it’s decidedly not a good thing when men are torn down.

  8. Isn’t hypermuscularity on a decline? The orange colored professional bodybuilder is something from the 70s, now part of a bizarre subculture of oversized strongmen like… weightlifters. Next to them there are countless yoga-p90x practitioners which aim for a total different image. Just compare the Mr. Universe contest with the Ironman contest. Or compare toys of now and then. The redesigned “He-Man” of today looks like the macrobiotic brother of his steroid 80s counterpart.

  9. John Anderson says:

    I always felt that kick boxing was great for teaching children. They’ll understand the utility of muscles learning to balance strength and speed. They’ll develop hand eye coordination and learn timing. They’ll learn balance and develop self confidence. You might have to deal with the white to yellow/orange belt asshole phase, but after that, boys tend to avoid fighting.

    Two of the sexier women I’ve known took taekwondo. When other women found out they were surprised. How can she fight? She’s so small. Muscle has more density than fat so you can lose dress sizes and gain weight. One of the women at work is enrolling her three year old son into karate.

    Having sparred with girls and not liking it at all, if you want to suggest this route, you might want to suggest taking girls to schools, which serve only girls/women or to schools with a least a substantial number of girls/women. Don’t want to needlessly traumatize any young men.

  10. Also, just to be clear, the points you’ve suggested I’ve made are not points that I’ve made. I’ve not been nearly so black and white on the issue. It’s nuanced, as I’ve mentioned time and again throughout this conversation. I did not say that it was impossible to lose and keep off body fat. I said that research has found that dramatic weight loss is highly improbable (not that any weight loss is), and I did not say that body fat is irrelevant to health. Rather, I said that the relationship is far more complex than ‘big = bad’, and that the cultural conception of overweight as inherently unhealthy is inaccurate. I have mentioned that it doesn’t mean that overweight is always benign (which would have been addressed in my statement about the U-shaped dimension of weight and health where anyone at the extreme ends of the spectrum may be susceptible to increased health risk).

    • Read a few of the articles. Agreed that weight cycling is bad, calorie restriction is pointless and counterproductive, physical fitness can ameliorate some of the risks of obesity, and BMI is worthless. I’ve acknowledged most of these points already. I agree that conventional wisdom on how to lose weight (low fat, lots of whole grains, nonfat dairy, no animal products, lots of cardio) doesn’t work and is unhealthy. But the most generous way to view adipose tissue is as inert cells which stores fat tissue for future use. Even on that, common sense alone would dictate that carrying dead weight would have poor consequences for health.

      More to the point, though, most of these articles are ignoring one of the most important points I’ve tried to make: excess body fat is a symptom, not just a cause. If you have excess body fat, particularly visceral fat, it is almost certainly because of serious hormonal problems in your body. But excess adipose tissue leads to problems of its own, like leptin resistance. Adipose tissue is endocrinologically active. This is fairly well-documented, I think. Are you arguing that this is not true?

      “no, the body is not a machine”

      Well, yeah, it really is. It’s an extraordinarily complex machine with a number of individual variations, certainly, but overall we’re not unique snowflakes. Our bodies work in mostly the same fashion. That’s why if we opened up my chest and opened up yours, we’d find almost the exact same stuff in the exact same places. If you stuck KCl in both our arms, it would stop both of our hearts. That’s just chemistry. I’m not trying to devalue the body or take away from a spiritual understanding of it, but to ignore the generally predictable ways our bodies function kills people. We don’t need to appeal to demons or angels or spirit guides or whatever to heal sickness: we can just heal it. That’s because we understand the chemistry of it. Yes there are things like TCM which appear to indicate that there is more to the body than meets the eye, but even acupuncture works along mechanistic principles.

      “health is a complex state that is related not only to individual behaviours but the environment, the social structure, and political clime”

      Obviously. But individual behaviors are the only thing you can control yourself. Obviously a healthy social life and low-toxin environment are important for physical and mental health, but you can’t control those as well.

      “illness is defined by cultures, and is not the same in every culture throughout the world, demonstrating that it is a construct and not an objective reality”

      Please explain this better. Nothing I’ve tried to write in response was charitable, and I’m assuming I must be misunderstanding you.

      • Individual behaviours you can control, but it doesn’t mean that controlling individual behaviours necessarily means you can control your body shape (it is only slightly ameliorated through behaviours). A more holistic approach to health is on that does seek to address social, cultural, and environmental factors, rather than placing the locus of control within the body.

        • Look, it’s just not true that we have very little control over our body shape. I cannot even begin to count the number of people I’ve known or known of who have lost weight and kept it off by maintaining lifestyle changes. The stuff is not fiction. Every single person I’ve ever known who had weight management issues had numerous easily-identifiable problems in their lifestyle: consumption of grains, sweeteners, legumes, or dairy and poor sleep patterns. Sedentary lifestyle was common but not as common. I’ve talked with serious coaches who’ve been responsible for long-term success in hundreds of people. I would bet anyone serious money that strict adherence to an ancestral lifestyle will net them numerous health benefits, to include a leaner and more capable body.

          Our bodies simply did not evolve for the lives we live. A return to ancestral sleep, dietary, and movement patterns will produce the lean, capable, healthy bodies we evolved to have. A human, properly fed and rested and exercised, will live a long and healthy and fit life (easily retaining most muscle function well into old age), and then die over a period of a few weeks as telomere loss shuts down bodily systems.

          Obviously, computers, electric lighting, full-time jobs, and other parts of modern life have led to many health problems as well (particularly with cortisol management), but so many issues in modern health can be nearly or totally fixed with lifestyle changes that it seems foolish and counterproductive to focus on changing things which will take years to change. I don’t understand why you think we have no control, or that the control we have is insignificant compared to environmental factors.

          Look, if you want to have a cultural shift regarding our attitudes towards food and health, I’m on board. But the shift needs to be toward personal responsibility, not away from it: eat local, wild/pastured, organic food. Have friends. Take care of each other. Be involved in your local community. Support businesses you like with your custom. Keep your body fit and functioning. We can’t effect cultural change without individual changes.

          • We evidently disagree on this matter. Given the research that I’ve seen, and the anecdotal evidence, I think it is not only fallacious to suggest that the majority of individuals can drastically change the size/shape of their bodies through behaviour, but I also think it is exactly this thinking that continues to promote non-healthful programs of weight loss and body shaming that are ineffective and lead to psychological distress (especially when people have internalized the notion that their inability to drastically alter their body shape/size is due to a personal failure).

            • Valter Viglietti says:

              Jasmine, while I agree it’s a complex matter and there can be, sometimes, medical conditions (e.g. endocrine) that make losing weight difficult, in most cases it’s mainly a question of input and output:
              – if you input more calories than you “burn”, you put on weight.
              – if you burn more calories than your input, you lose weight.
              It’s not some magic trick.

              Then, the reason why many people just can’t eat less, can be due to many factors: IMHO often there are emotional/psychological factors (a sense of void, lack of affection and self-esteem, etc.), and food becomes a substitute for love.
              In those cases, food is never enough. And willpower it’s not enough to stop overeating, because the drive is unconscious.

              • Interestingly, people often assume that those who are ‘overweight’ eat more, exercise less, and are generally not engaging in healthy behaviours. However, this is inaccurate; these judgments have been found over and over again in research.

                Set point theory is a good example of how it is far more intricate than input/output. A personal anecdote that illustrates this point: I have been a student for the past six years. When I’m a student I have relatively little time to be active – and by relatively little, I mean basically no time. However, in the summertime, I run, lift weights, and am just generally active. I always eat mostly healthy (my diet does not change throughout the year). My weight does not fluctuate between the long periods of inactivity (about seven or eight months of the year) to the periods of increased activity. If the theory that input/output were the entire explanation, it would stand to reason that I would see some serious shift in my body composition during these two periods of the year. And no, this isn’t an experimental design, but this anecdote is an example that demonstrates what has been found in studies regarding the relative stability of body weight/size.

            • Weird, because on an ancestral dietary pattern, I’ve known of people reversing Huntington’s, MS, obesity, diabetes, and I’ve heard of various psychological disorders being improved as well. People look better, feel better, and perform better. I’ve yet to meet a single person who did at least 30 days on an ancestral diet, with strict compliance, who saw no improvements to their health or body composition.

              That nonsense like calories-in-calories-out gets promoted is not something I can help, except to argue where I can. But to assume that because mainstream dietary advice is worthless, basically all dietary advice aimed at a lean physique is unhealthy, is just an enormous overreach. Epidemiological evidence is clear that societies which do not consume evolutionarily novel foods do not have cancer, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, old-age decrepitude, or obesity. All the evidence I’ve seen is quite clear that we could eradicate upwards of 90% of those lethal health problems if we switched to ancestral eating patterns. So I don’t have a lot of patience for, “Well, people feel bad if you tell them to eat differently than they’re eating, or to sleep more, or to lift heavy weights.” To me that is consigning millions of people to suffering and death in order not to hurt someone’s feelings.

              • The trouble for me with your position is simply that you’re so concrete in your thinking – it seems to you to be an either/or situation. It doesn’t account for nuances, cultural differences in weight/sizes, regional and geographical differences… among other things. I’m not saying you’re entirely incorrect, but I tend to lean toward a more holistic idea of health – one that isn’t based on moralistic evaluations and addresses health through social, environmental, psychological, cultural, and other factors. And a focus on body size does not get at a holistic approach. It’s also too reductive and simplistic.

                • Yes, people will be taller or broader based on some genetic variations. This can be observed in the size differences between people at the equator and people close to the poles. But diabetes will rot your legs off in Panama just as thoroughly as in Alaska. So I’d like to see Panamanians and Alaskans both avoid this. It turns out that most humans can do so with a very similar set of tools.

                  I’m not primarily interested in body fat by itself. I’m interested in food quality and lifestyle factors which people can use to heal their own minds and bodies. Secondary to that, I want to heal the earth and bring us into closer communion with it. The endocrinology of adipose tissue is generally bad news bears for human health. So I’m interested in fixing the root problems (insulin resistance, cortisol problems, etc.) which are largely caused by lifestyle factors (as evidenced by the fact that people can manipulate these issues in their own bodies, if they’re taught properly. If these issues are addressed (i.e. people sleep 9-10 hours/night in a pitch black room, eat an ancestral diet, lift heavy things, and make friends), I would simply be shocked if they saw no reduction in body fat. Because body fat is a symptom of the problems that these changes address.

                  I focus on lifestyle factors because 1)) people can always alter their lifestyle but can’t always alter their environment, and 2)) lifestyle factors seem to have the largest measurable impact. But as I hope I’ve made clear, I’m in favor of addressing other issues with culture and the environment as well — just not as our primary effort for health.

                  I understand that it’s frustrating to see people condemn the obese in a moral sense for some imagined moral failure, but that’s just because people are assholes.

  11. Rick, clearly you’re deeply immersed in biomedical discourse, which relies on a mechanistic view of health and of bodies (no, the body is not a machine; and health is a complex state that is related not only to individual behaviours but the environment, the social structure, and political clime – illness is defined by cultures, and is not the same in every culture throughout the world, demonstrating that it is a construct and not an objective reality).

    I don’t read internet articles to inform my research, but I can provide some references that inform my own research:
    Saguy, A. (2007). Fat in the fire? Science, the news media, and the “obesity epidemic.” Sociological Forum, 22(4) 53-83.
    Rothblum, E. D. (1999). Contradications and confounds in coverage of obesity: Psychology journals, textbooks, and the media. Journal of Social Issues, 55(2), 355-369.
    Oliver, J. E. (2006). The politics of pathology: How obesity became an epidemic disease. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 49(4), 611-627.
    Gaesser, G. (2003). Is it necessary to be thin to be healthy? In Focus: The Obesity Epidemic, 4(2), 40-47.
    Cogan, J. C., & Ernsberger, P. (1999). Dieting, weight, and health: Reconceptualizing research and policy. Journal of Social Issues, 55(2), 187-205.
    Cogan, J. C. (1999). Reevaluating the weight-centered approach to health: The need for a paradigm shift. In J. Sobal & D. Maurer (Eds.). Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness (pp. 229-254). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
    Campos, P., Saguy, A., Ernsberger, P., Oliver, E., Gaesser, G. (2006). The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: Public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 55-60.
    Bacon, L, Keim, N. L., VanLoan, M. D., Dericotte, M., Gale, B., Kazaks, A., et al. (2002). Evaluating a “non-diet” wellness intervention for improvement of metabolic fitness, psychological well-being and eating and activity patterns. International Journal of Obesity, 26, 854-865.

    I’m not sure, but some of these might be available via Google Scholar, without access to university holdings.

  12. Valter Viglietti says:

    @Jasmine: “Genetics is an important component”
    (I’m replying to the last Jasmine’s comment here, can’t see the “Reply” button anymore up there)

    If genetics is an important component of the widespread obesity, can you explain why there were seldom obese people before 1950-60?
    Obviously, genes cannot have changed in just half of a century.

    • Actually, the shift is related to a number of factors. While many western nations are ‘wealthy’ malnutrition is certainly an important factor. But there are also shifts in the types of work we’re doing, most particularly the shift from active work to office work. However, a lot of the shift has been over-exaggerated because most of the research is done using the BMI, and the BMI itself has been changed over the years.

      The thing that I see is that people really have difficulty separating ‘size’ from ‘health’ in these conversations. It doesn’t matter if we have seen a shift in body sizes. Whether or not that is the case is irrelevant to the discussion about health. Research has shown very high genetic loadings in terms of body size, such that participants considered ‘overweight’ had a difficult time losing any dramatic amount of weight, even with increased exercise and a well-balanced diet. At the same time, people with naturally smaller bodies also don’t easily gain dramatic amounts of weight.

      Discussions of health are based on mechanistic and moralistic judgments when we start talking about health as pertaining only to a particular size of individual. What we need to be doing is discussing health in holistic terms – related to the environment, social context, psychological health, and physical health, irrespective of the size of anybody’s body. Research has also shown that when overweight individuals suffering a number of health detriments increase their physical activity, they show significant improvements in healths without coincident weight loss.

      • If we have seen a shift that is certainly relevant, because it demonstrates beyond a doubt that claims that body type is not malleable are totally false. If body type is not malleable, then there should be no statistically significant change in body weight (unless accompanied by proportionate increase in height). If we have seen statistically significant change, then clearly body type *is* malleable, and on a broad scale.

        “Discussions of health are based on mechanistic and moralistic judgments when we start talking about health as pertaining only to a particular size of individual.”

        The body is a machine. That’s how it works. Claiming that concern over body fat is too “mechanistic” is just bizarre. Would you get angry at a mechanic for suggesting your car’s oil needed to be changed? It’s not a “moralistic” judgement to say “don’t eat XYZ,” any more than it’s a moralistic judgement to say “don’t put sugar in your car’s gas tank.” It’s just the way things *are.* How we feel about them is totally irrelevant to the way the world works. We can either accept how physics and biology and chemistry work, and live accordingly, or we can ignore all that and suffer the consequences. I don’t particularly care which one people want to choose; I just get angry when people claim there are no consequences. Because those claims affect others who don’t know better.

        Jasmine, you keep making several claims. I would like you to provide any evidence — even epidemiological studies will help, though some biochemistry would be better — for the following claims:
        1. Body fat is irrelevant to health, and it’s neither a cause nor a symptom of any health problem.
        2. It’s basically impossible to lose body fat and keep it off permanently through lifestyle changes.

        You’ve referred several times to research supporting these claims. The only research cited by the HAES movement which I’ve been able to dig up has indicated that 1)) BMI is not an effective indicator of health, which I’ve stated repeatedly since BMI is a measure of weight but not body fat, and 2)) that fat people benefit from exercise even if they don’t lose weight, which is a no-brainer. So please show us the research supporting claims 1 and 2, because everything I know about biology, physiology, evolution, biochemistry, and the people around me totally contradicts those claims.

  13. Every person, male and female, should train with weights. I, like spidaman, mainly bemoan the popularity of bodybuilding over serious strength and power training (i.e. powerlifting and Olympic lifting), but otherwise think the world would be better if everyone felt the need to be bigger and stronger.

    Strength training will improve flexibility, muscular strength, ability to generate power, coordination, and balance. It will improve libido, improve metabolism, and give you self-confidence. As long as you have a decent basic grounding in safe form from a legit coach (no, the personal trainer at the local 24hour doesn’t count), there is no downside for men or women. Both men and women will look more like they probably want to look already, and they’ll feel the way they want to feel.

    “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful generally.” — Mark Rippetoe

  14. There is a difference between ‘strength training’ and ‘bodybuilding’. Strength training is a way to increase stamina and fortitude. Bodybuilding is more focused on sculpted ascetics. As mentioned by a commentator above, not all men who go to the gym will be stronger for their labor jobs. I agree with this. Not all meat heads are as strong as they look.. I prefer ‘strength training’, because it contributes to my labor efficiency and output at my job, which is mostly heavy lifting of expensive furniture. If I had never lifted a weight in my life, I would certainly not be able to carry a couch up a flight of stairs without damaging it. When I was 13, I started lifting to impress girls; who never noticed me. After I felt the initial increase in my overall strength, I no longer aimed for female attention; I was hooked on the new abilities that weight lifting afforded me.

  15. The Bad Man says:

    I’ve always been a healthy weight, tall and slender. Most women I’ve dated have always told me that they like big men, or at least men who are bigger than them. Some even told me to put on some weight, although that would put me above my ideal weight and make me less healthy.

    • I would actually problematize the idea of an ‘ideal weight’ given that ideal weights are actually based on research that was greatly flawed, and BMI measures (which are problematic in themselves).

      But, that aside, I think that is part of the problem, that the pressure is not only from idealized images and from other men, but also from women to become bigger, bulkier, and more muscular. I’ve dated several ‘scrawny’ (for lack of a better term) guys, and it never once occurred to me to ask them to be something that they were not, or to suggest that they needed to bulk up. I think that our ideas of bodies are really messed up, and are really pathological in many ways. The culture we live in creates so much discomfort with our own bodies, that people are rarely satisfied with the body they were born with. And it doesn’t help when people you love are telling you you need to change the way your body looks. We need to learn to love bodies – our own and those of our partners – with all of their imperfections (which, I would argue, are not imperfections at all; just unique characteristics).

      • @Jasmine: “never once occurred to me to ask them to be something that they were not”

        I applaud your attitude. But I’m afraid you’re more the exception than the rule.
        Your attitude sounds “healthy”, i.e. from a self-assured person, someone feeling good with herself.
        OTOH, most people dislike themselves, hence they “project” their need to be “better” onto their partners. Something unconscious like “If you would be so and so, by my side, then I would look – and feel – better”.
        Not by chance, the most “hungry for handsome men” women I met, were quite unattractive: having an handsome partner, for them, meant being “saved” from their poor look.

        Thus yes, I agree with you that “We need to learn to love bodies”, beginning with our own.
        Then, others’ bodies (and their “imperfections”) aren’t much of an issue anymore.

        • I would agree that I am an exception. And that is why I actively work at breaking down these types of ideas, in the hopes that perhaps I can inspire others to think differently as well. Because I don’t think anybody should be made to feel that their body is somehow not good enough.

          I’m not sure that I agree that being dissatisfied with one’s look leads to an increased desire for a more attractive partner. But that’s just not been my experience or observation. At the same time though, there may be something to what you’re saying. I’m very body confident, there is not a single part of my body that I don’t love, even after the tremendous changes that come with bearing a child. And perhaps this ability to love myself stems from the same place that my ability to reject cultural stereotypes that tell me what I’m supposed to find attractive stems from and instead define attraction for myself.

          • @Jasmine: “I’m not sure that I agree that being dissatisfied with one’s look leads to an increased desire for a more attractive partner.”
            It doesn’t always work that way: sometime it does, and usually that happens with people in denial about themselves.

            @Jasmine: “And perhaps this ability to love myself stems from…”
            I think that, when we love and accept ourselves (like you do), we are much more appreciative and accepting towards others. We don’t feel the need to criticize anymore.

            More often than not, criticizing is – again – a projection of own unhappiness/discomfort.
            That’s akin to say “Beauty – or the lack of it – is in the eye of the beholder”.

            • “I think that, when we love and accept ourselves (like you do), we are much more appreciative and accepting towards others.”

              Yes!! I think that statement is pretty accurate, and representative of my own experience. This is why I open up these conversations with people about body image as often as possible, in the hopes of providing individuals a new way of thinking about their bodies, and providing them a lens through which to critique the media images that tell us all that our bodies are all wrong, in need of makeup, diet pills, and gym memberships. Perhaps if self-love were the norm (rather than the pervasive body image issues that are so normal they’ve been labeled ‘normative discontent’) perhaps we would all he better able to accept others as they are as well.

      • The reality is that for many women they want a male that is big enough to make them feel safe. And usually taller. For us males that inherited ab fat it is a struggle to get to muscular health. We don’t like looking 6 mos pregnant!

      • John Anderson says:

        I’m not sure about an ideal weight, but if you’re thinking along terms of utility, there is a concept among boxers of an ideal fighting weight. The concept is best illustrated by the career of Manny Pacquiao. He started out boxing at just over 100 pounds. As he gained weight and strength he actually got faster. This was due to having been undernourished. He started to progress to increasingly higher weight classes winning 8 titles, but most people believe that he’s done changing weight classes, because now he has gone past his ideal fighting weight and is getting slower if he continues to gain weight.

        Boxers will have an ideal fighting weight if you consider your utility component, but his ideal fighting weight was not determined by his height, but by whether he was getting slower. I will agree that a person’s ideal weight most likely doesn’t match an arbitrary number, but I do believe that a person has an ideal weight range. A guy at work knew he was past his ideal weight range when bones in his feet started fracturing due to his weight. There are different ways to tell. Listen to your body.

        • That is actually a really wonderful point – DO listen to your body. i threw out the scales years ago. I haven’t known my weight in years, because it is really irrelevant. Instead, I listen to my body. How I feel is irrespective of a number on a scale. I think this is often a much healthier approach to health than the obsession with a number on a scale.

    • John Anderson says:

      @Bad Man

      A woman I dated told me that she liked physically bigger guys because she felt safe in their arms when they held her. Some women want a man they feel could protect them.

  16. John Anderson says:

    I understand that your main concern for men is the health effects of exercise and diet. I know from experience that the stuff I was taking made me hyper aggressive. I didn’t feel punches. I should have known something was wrong when I could walk out in the dead of winter in a spring jacket and didn’t feel the cold. I do wonder though if part of the concern is a fear of male sexuality.
    I’ve always wondered why as I gain closeness with a female friend in a platonic relationship, I have less of a desire to see her nude. It borders on trepidation, but from her perspective things seem to go in reverse.

    Unless the women I know are an anomalies, when they consider you a friend they become more sexually free. I have female friends who go to a female impersonator cabaret bar on girl’s night out. I made a joke about getting a part time job at a strip club (there was one male strip club in town, that went coed, and later featured women) and they got excited asking me when I was performing, what costume I’d wear, etc.

    Conversely, five of us guys were drinking with two lady friends. One was passed out drunk. The other just kept saying “I need to pee. I need to pee.” None of us wanted to take her. We’d known each other for about 12 years at the time and it just felt like we were violating her. We made her ex-boyfriend take her because we figured that he’d seen it already. When she found out the next day, she got mad at us accusing us of wanting her to pee herself. I told her that even had I taken her, I wasn’t going to wipe. She’d need to deal with the UTI later. That started another “conversation”. The other woman suggested that we should have all taken her so that nothing would happen. So we’d all violate her privacy?

    Feminism may have solved that puzzle for me. Women fear guys they don’t know so they avoid sexual situations even strip clubs, but they are more likely to lose the inhibition with guys they know. It’s telling that they picked a place where the men look like women. It’s sad to think that someone might not be enjoying a strip club because they’re afraid of the stripper.

    Had you considered that you might be looking at things through that lens, a fear of male sexual power?

    • I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not saying that muscularity is either bad nor good. I don’t fear men the way most women are taught to. Sure, I occasionally get uncomfortable in situations in which males are persistently pursuing me, or if I happen to get a weird vibe off of a man I don’t know, but I don’t fear all men, and I don’t fear male sexuality – probably because I don’t believe the culturally pervasive myth of male sexuality as being always on the ready, insatiable, and uncontrollable.

      I’m not sure where this question stems from, though. I don’t think I’ve implied that striving to be muscular is a bad thing, or that working out is negative, or that striving to be ‘bigger’ is inherently bad. The reason I am concerned with this obsession with becoming larger is mainly because of the research I’ve done on the subject which suggests that many males feel like they’re too small and engage in unhealthy behaviours in their attempts to attain a body image that is not necessarily healthy psychologically or physically. So just as I am concerned with behaviours that many women engage in that are detrimental to their health in their pursuit of thinness, it concerns me that males are suffering similar body image issues.

      • John Anderson says:

        Mt initial reaction is that anything done to extremes is dangerous. As I thought about it, I didn’t see anything inherently wrong with getting bigger except for the eating disorder part or the taking of dangerous dietary supplements. In the old days it was a candy bar and glass of milk. The candy bar was to carb load prior to exercise. The milk was the protein used to rebuild muscle after the work out.

        In the old days we also understood the difference between size and definition. I was always taught that if you wanted to build size, you lifted larger amounts of weight and did fewer reps. If you wanted to increase definition, you cut the amount of weight and increased the reps. In my mind, I equated lifting for definition with lower impact exercises like running. When you think about utility, you’re only considering the ability to lift things not to survive things. Men have walked away from automobile accidents because their muscle mass protected their internal organs from damage.

        As a former kick boxer, I understood the trade off between size and speed. Once you reached your optimal fighting weight, more size reduced your speed, but you still wanted to maintain strength. In my day, most weight lifters did a mixture of exercises for size and definition. Body building contests take into consideration definition.

        I was having difficulty determining if your post cautioned against over exercise or was concerned simply with exercise that made you bigger. Small highly defined guys are probably less threatening than big guys especially depending on what they wear. That was the root of the question.

        • My concern stems less from the actual size a person attains and more from when it becomes an unhealthy pursuit – both psychological and physical. So, given that I study Psychology, I’m coming from a place of internalizing body ideals that lead to an unhealthy body image and, consequently, to people pursuing an ideal image through means that are dangerous.

          I’m still not sure how virility or male sexuality plays into your question, though?

          • John Anderson says:

            I know you’re a feminist. I looked at feminism before deciding that I was an MRA. I learned a lot from feminists, but I also developed a mistrust of feminists especially when they advocate for men in relation to women’s issues. It was probably silly, but when I read that it was a “systematic attack on body image in females and males”, it trigger my what’s the real purpose suspicion. The new FBI rape definition in the US was lauded by feminists as the first time men will be recognized as rape victims. Feminists (at least the organizations pushing for the change) never pointed out that this definition of rape ignores nearly all instances of female perpetrated rape (against either males or females) as it does not include forced to penetrate or envelopment. It is an improved definition, but it is highly suspicious when feminists support a change in the rape definition that genders rape to the point that men are almost exclusively perpetrators and females are almost exclusively victims.

            When I looked at street harassment, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I’ve been propositioned, remarked too and on rare occasions groped. It wasn’t right, but it didn’t seem that bad, except for once, which I won’t get into. My experience with street harassment was different than women’s. When I read their stories, I could see how they would be significantly more concerned with street harassment. I’ve recently been looking at articles concerning women’s fear of strange men. One woman asked how you would feel if you were trapped in an elevator with someone who could do whatever they wanted with you.

            When I read your concern with men getting bigger and it wasn’t clear to me that it was a general concern with over exercise and related behaviors (I always felt that boxers or gymnasts had the best bodies), I guess I was looking for what was in it for women. I also dated a girl who didn’t want a boyfriend who was big enough to pummel her. That relationship didn’t last long. Given my personal experience and what I read, it seemed that smaller guys are less threatening so cautioning against getting bigger would also make men less threatening. I was unsure whether at some level that factored into the concern.

            I believe in making people feel comfortable. When I wore my taekwondo jacket, I knew it was intimidating (I feel men have the right to wear what they’d like also), but I was more aware of my behavior. Don’t look at someone longer than three seconds. Don’t raise your voice or sound angry. Always appear calm.

            • Actually, I wrote an article as soon as the new definition came out about exactly how it ignored men as victims of women in sexual assault. And about how it was an improvement, but not enough!

              And I think it’s great that you have become aware of your behaviour. I don’t spend a lot of time being afraid of men. And it doesn’t make much difference if men are big or small to me. However, street harassment DOES increase my discomfort (only because I’ve experienced some very scary situations… again, size of the man doesn’t play into this). I must just say, though, that I really appreciate that you have moderated your behaviour, because for many women these things make a huge difference!

  17. It’s also very important that someone asks themselves about their lifting goals. Getting stronger and getting bigger are two different things. Rep ranges stimulate the body differently, and muscles have different muscle fiber compositions. Form also changes stimulus as well.

  18. “men like me desire muscles for one reason only: utility”

    Mhh, I’m doubtful: if he’s a labourer, muscles should be a consequence of his job.
    When I worked in a factory, I didn’t worry about muscles; muscles came on their own.

    When someone talks about being “not big enough” (and he’s big already), I wonder if the issue is him feeling “not enough” in himself; when the issue is such, it’s never “enough”.

    • I agree with you, Valter. I actually had to pare down this piece, so I did mention originally that I don’t think it’s the whole picture. His muscles are mostly a result of his job, but he does enjoy working out… And the consequent increased strength that results. So utility may not be the whole picture, but I do see how it contributes to his desire for muscularity.

  19. “You might have problems finding a one size fits all explanation because the reasons guys do it may change in their lifetimes.”

    Absolutely! There is no one reason males (or females) weight lift, and it would be expected to differ for each individual, as well as across their life span.

  20. John Anderson says:

    For me, it was first utility. I wanted to kick box and the muscle mass allowed me to absorb strikes and delivery them. Because my friends joined the dojang when I did, the weight training and muscular development became just another competition. At some point, I started liking the way I looked and worked out for me. I would measure my muscles not just chart the amount of weight, sets and reps I was doing for each exercise. I don’t remember ever considering or caring whether women would like it, but either they appreciated it or they were attracted to the added confidence it brought.
    We used to put on Mr. Body competitions. It was probably more for us, but our lady friends were the judges and seemed to enjoy it at least initially, but it seemed the more I liked my body, the more the women who were closest to me disapproved. They thought I was getting conceited. It’s weird how it attracted strangers and pushed away the people I cared about. I’m blaming it on the dietary supplements (ie the juice).

    At some point other things became more important. I haven’t been in a fight in almost 25 years. My last serious attempt at weightlifting lasted about a month and was about 15 years ago. Will I take it up again? I don’t know, but I have friends that still lift. Most of them don’t. I haven’t felt any pressure to resume. You might have problems finding a one size fits all explanation because the reasons guys do it may change in their lifetimes.

  21. Thank you for your comment, and for your personal anecdote! I am certainly not suggesting that the desire for muscularity is a solely intra-male issue. I did briefly mention attractiveness as one of the motivating factors. It is also why I mention media representations – because they impact not only what we think we should aspire to look like, but also what we think we should be attracted to. I appreciate a wide variety of male physiques. However, as with many other things, I may be an outlier in this, as I don’t permit culture to influence what I find attractive. I think that the pursuit of muscularity is an extremely nuances phenomenon that is influenced by a,number of factors, and depending upon a male’s position in our culture.

  22. Dear Jasmine,

    I am delighted to see that you´ve taken up this matter as it is still underpresented, particularly in female discourse. As a man who is hitting the gym three times a week and who has been struggling with his body for 25 years now, I know that there is one particular reason why men work out more. The reason is that women want and desire muscular bodies – even if they do not say it. Of course, they do not want Ronny Coleman-like guys. But the problem is that many, many women do not understand how hard it is to actually build up muscle, and therefore have a twisted image of what is muscular. In my experience, what my female friends would call “slightly muscular” or “toned” is already the result of 5% body fat and a serious amount of muscle mass. I am not saying that this is malevolent intent, quite the contrary. I rather think that it is a result of ignorance about what working out really means. This is of course connected with the way women work out, i.e. hardly or just focused on cardio which is much less strenuous. So my bottom line is, please do not construe the need to be bigger as a purely intra-male, male-caused desire, because it is not.

    (I don´t know if you actually are, but it sounded like it.)

    • John Anderson says:

      That’s only initial attraction. Trust me, if you know how to talk with women (I don’t so don’t bother asking, but I’ve seen multiple examples of it), you don’t need to be the best built or greatest looking guy in the world. I’ve been hit on because I wore my taekwondo jacket, the bad boy syndrome. I’ve also had a girl tell me she was attracted to me, which I would later find out was because she thought that I was attracted to her (I think she was between boyfriends and just liked the idea of having a man). What women find attractive is hard to explain, but since I find kindness to be particularly attractive, I’m probably not someone who should criticize them.

  23. I see! I lift weights but don’t know the technical language, so I thought you were encouraging people to disregard their back health. I just wish we could all be happy in the bodies we’re born in, rather than always feeling the need to be bigger (or smaller, for most women). Me, I like where I’m at, and I exercise only for psychological and health purposes, and not in an attempt to tailor my body to any specific ideal.

  24. “deadlift to redeem yourself, don’t worry about your back” Please lift safely, and DO worry about your back!! Healthfulness is far more important than musculature!

    • spidaman3 says:

      It was more of a thing to people who scare themselves from the lift (these same people don’t mind destroying their shoulders for more benching). I don’t think “I will hurt my back” is a good excuse to not do the lift (for those who don’t have back problems yet from desk work). Stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors and activate your glutes and thoracic spine and you will be fine (throw some soft tissue work in as well)

  25. I don’t know what it is either, I care more about being strong then being big (though I do need to get bigger and then cut the fat). It feels really good to me, I remember once I lifted and carried my friend who probably weighed about 140-150 lbs and thinking “wow this woman is very light” (her breasts and butt are huge, her hips are pretty wide), then thinking “maybe it’s more that I am strong”. Still I want to get stronger (I am stronger than I was then). Ass to ground squats of 315 lbs is real cool, but I want to try for 350. Bench pressing 215 is great, but I want to get to 275. Still I am a little upset about being one of the few people who honestly wants to get stronger. It pains me to see guys who put 400 on a bar and then do a quarter squat (it’s too dishonest); it hurts when guys are on the bench and their friends put their hands on the bar and say “all you man; also the most unforgivable thing a person can do in the gym: bicep curls at the squat rack. That’s a great way to show that the gym isn’t serious to you I don’t care how big you are (deadlift to redeem yourself, don’t worry about your back)

    • John Anderson says:

      On the other hand, there was a guy in high school who took a lot of ridicule because he could only bench the bar and one ten pound weight on each end. They might be beginners who are afraid that other guys will laugh at them.

      • I think this is a serious issue where gender policing comes in. Lifting weights is considered masculine; having defined musculature has become almost an imperative in being considered a ‘real man’. So when some young men don’t live up to this standard, it is painful, and a potential site for being bullied or demeaned for not living up to the ideas of masculinity that abound. What often isn’t recognized in discourses of masculinity is that not all men are naturally muscular; bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary tremendously. Male bodies that don’t live up to the masculine ideal are often positioned as feminine bodies.

        • Both men and women should have fit, healthy, muscular bodies. I’m not into bashing or humiliating people who don’t have them, but I’m also not going to tell someone they’re just as useful to society if they refuse to be fit, or that they have a different, equally wonderful body type, or whatever. There’s a difference between choosing not to attack people for making a different life choice which happens to be foolish or unhealthy, and telling them that choice is awesome and equally healthful. It’s not. We can choose not to be jerks without endorsing people’s self-destructive behavior.

    • Spidaman, great post and agreed on all counts — especially on curls in the squat rack!

  26. The utility argument is obviously bullshit since there is no utility to muscles for most men. There are several reasons:

    1. Many men think muscles are what women find particularly attractive. This explains why the vast majority of men go to the gym. Men do a lot for the sake of women and they cover it up with bullshit explanations like utility because admitting the truth sounds pathetic.

    2. Status – men are equipped to ascend status hierarchies. More money, stronger, hotter girlfriend => better. Muscles are just a status hierarchy that men try to ascend.

    3. Health, Mood and other benefits from weight-lifting. Exercise is a potent anti-depressant.

    • 1. Strong muscles make you able to move heavy stuff easier (furniture, smaller people, whatever).

      2. Strong muscles make you less likely to be a target for interpersonal aggression, and (all things being equal) more able to to defend a friend or yourself in the event of such aggression.

      3. More muscle is an indicator of higher testosterone levels and makes it less likely you’ll gain body fat.

      4. Stronger muscles, properly balanced in development, keep you fit, active, and durable throughout your life. I can take a worse fall than someone flabby or weak because most of my fitness and health ducks are in a row, so my body is primed to heal itself.

      5. In an emergency, the ability to move objects and your body can save your own life or someone else’s.

      Now if you hate being active and healthy and safe, yeah, I can see why muscles would seem stupid. But there is no downside to being lean and strong.

      • What you’re failing to consider is that there are differing busy types. Some people are naturally leaner and more easily build muscle, while others are naturally less muscular or less lean. Part if the issue in bogged image is that it’ not just media idealizing thin bodies, but also promulgatong the inaccurate notion that lean is inherently healthy and fat is inherently unhealthy. However, there is a great deal of research that problematizes this view and gas demonstrated that the relationship is far more complex. “Fat” visits can be healthy bodies, but we live in a culture thaf shames people who don’t fit a specific type by using moralistic terms and the medical discourse to reprise their non-co.firming bodies. It’s shameful.

        • My phone just rendered my comment basically incomprehensible.

        • Sure. Some dudes are naturally just big and jacked and lean, lucky them. That means they don’t have to work hard to achieve a good, healthy level of fitness and body composition (though, as you correctly point out, they may have other health problems). So what? Some men and women will have to work somewhat harder to become strong and fit. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it, just that it’s more challenging. There are also people who find it harder than others to be faithful in relationships. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it; it just means it’s harder. (Understand that I use the term lean to refer to low body fat, not being thin. A dude who is 5’10 and 200 lbs could be very lean, but obviously he would not be thin at all.)

          Body fat over about 8-10% for men and, oh, maybe 15-20% or so for women is just not necessary. Higher body fat generates all sorts of problems of its own, but it’s also a symptom of other issues: cortisol disregulation, insulin resistance, etc. Of the hundreds of high-body-fat people I’ve known and been around, none of them has ever been living a healthy lifestyle. That’s fine and it’s their right, but I’m not going to claim they’re just as healthy as they would be leaner.

          Now I agree with you that the media’s viewpoints on this are nonsense. Women don’t get bulky without years of training, working out should be about function not just form, “cardio” usually makes you fatter, lifting weights will make you leaner (not necessarily skinnier), BMI is worthless, being skinny doesn’t make you healthy or “in shape,” highly-cushioned running shoes damage your joints, milk is usually bad for you, “portion control” is borderline nonsense, etc.

          But it remains true that, all things being equal, the person with higher body fat will be less healthy than the person with lower body fat. The person with more useable muscle will, all things being equal, be fitter than the person with less. Now obviously there are people with low body fat who are less fit or less healthy than people with higher body fat, but the latter person would probably be healthier than they are if they had lower body fat. No one is healthier simply because they’re fat, even if as a fat person they’re healthier than some skinny people. We should not be endorsing fat bodies or weak bodies as equally healthy or fit, because they’re just not.

          And telling people it’s just the way they’re made costs lives. People die because of crap like that: they get told there’s nothing they can do and it’s just genetics, even though there are lifestyle changes they could make which would save their lives…but, hey, HAES is too busy telling these people it’s just the way they are to allow that. That’s the huge issue I have with fat acceptance stuff: they’ll kill people if we just let that movement continue unmoderated. Again, I don’t care if people want to kill themselves off, but there are plenty of people (I would say the overwhelming majority of people) who would be happier and healthier if they were leaner.

          • Valter Viglietti says:

            @Rick: “they get told there’s nothing they can do and it’s just genetics”

            Ugh. Don’t get me started on “genetics”. Human beings have been (more or less) lean for million years, and now in just 50 years their genes have become “fatty”?!?
            What a pile of BS! It’s just a pretty way to excuse laziness and bad choices (“Hey, it’s not my fault, it’s my genes!”).

            Oh, and you forgot that obesity (and bad health in general) not only costs lives, but it costs lots of (public, tax) money as well.

            • @Valter, agreed. I’ve met people who had been told their whole lives that they were “just this way” and that’s just it. I think for some it’s a convenient excuse, but for others they just don’t know better. The weight loss advice they’ve been given is crap so when that doesn’t work and someone else tells them it’s genetically impossible for them to be lean, they assume that’s the end of it.

              • Being lean is not the equivalent of being healthy. You can be lean and very unhealthy indeed. Medical research has demonstrated in a number of studies that it is NOT that size of the body that indicates health status. Unfortunately, this is the model of health most often disseminated through popular media, causing people to think that thinness = healthfulness. This just isn’t a very nuanced conception of health, and it’s been demonstrated, through scientific inquiry, to be false. It’s really hard for many of us to imagine that body size doesn’t indicate health, though, because we’ve been so inculcated to believe it for so long, even from within the medical profession.

                • “Being lean is not the equivalent of being healthy. You can be lean and very unhealthy indeed.”

                  I acknowledged this in my response to you. But saying that leanness is not sufficient for optimum health is not the same as it not being necessary for optimum health. For any given person to be the healthiest they can be, they need to be lean. But just because they’re lean we can’t assume they’re healthy. Do you see the difference between these two ideas? Lean is part of being healthy; it’s not the whole story. Large amounts of body fat always compromise health.

                  “Medical research has demonstrated in a number of studies that it is NOT that size of the body that indicates health status.”

                  Right. It’s body fat levels, not size. I’ve been well into the overweight category in BMI terms with body fat well under 15%. I’ve never heard of any epidemiological study which claimed to find no correlation between body fat and health. Perhaps you could point me to some.

            • Actually, Valter, although obesity has been positioned as a public health “epidemic” and as a drain on tax dollars and the health care system, there is a growing body of research that problematizes this view and demonstrates that it’s based on a particular body of knowledge that isn’t entirely objective. Obesity is not by necessity a health detriment.

              • Yes, it is a health detriment. One might be relatively healthy in spite of being obese, but one will always be healthier if one is not obese. (High body fat, again, not just high BMI.)

              • Valter Viglietti says:

                @Jasmine: “Obesity is not by necessity a health detriment.”

                Perhaps it depends on what we mean with “obese”.
                It seems to me you’re so well meaned to stop discrimination (a noble intent), you might lose objectivity and border on denial.
                An obese body is straining the skeletal system, the heart, the joints, etc. These are facts, not moral judgments. You cannot define that “healthy”.

                I’m not loathing overweight people; rather, I worry for their well-being.
                I respect their freedom of choice, but I cannot honestly says “It’s ok” (meant in a functional, not moral, sense).
                It’s like smoking: I respect the freedom to smoke, but I think it’s a bad life choice.

                • Valter, I can appreciate why it might seem that my desire for body acceptance may influence my position on overweight as not being inherently unhealthy, but it’s not the reason I make these assertions. I’ve actually been steeped in the medical literature and research on the subject for the past several months (it’s the basis for my thesis). While at the cultural level there is the pervasive belief that a state of thinness is necessary for a state of healthfulness, this assumption has been demonstrated, through research, to be inaccurate. Overweight doesn’t make one inherently unhealthy, and it has been shown that, as you’ve alluded to, that some fat is not not entirely unhealthy, but can be important and a protective factor for an individual’s health (for example, as women and men age, part of the reason that their fat increases naturally is because this fat serves as a protective factor).

                  Also, the obesity ‘epidemic’ as a phenomenon has actually been created through medical discourse (moral panics are a method of social control that are highly effective). That’s not to say that obesity is always benign, but that it is not always unhealthy. We speak of overweight in moralistic terms, but as Julie has mentioned, it’s far more complicated than an individual being lazy or eating too much of the wrong thing. There is also some indication that it isn’t necessarily that people are much larger than they once were (there has been a shift, but it’s far more subtle than we’re led to believe), but our discussions about bodies have evolved so that body fat has become a locus of social control (I’m getting a bit Foucauldian here, so forgive me if I’m sounding a bit esoteric). I understand that to consider this perspective, counter to the messages of weight and health that we’re bombarded with from the time that we’re small, can create resistance and cognitive dissonance, but it’s just much more complicated than saying: fat = bad/unhealthy.

            • Julie Gillis says:

              Wow. You don’t know much about the newest research around metabolism and such do you? I am not, nor have ever been overweight, but I’ve had overweight relatives and I’ve watched them work. Hard. Very hard. Painfully hard to do the “eat less, exercise more” thing and it never worked. There are studies about hormones, leptin, aging and set points, not to mention some folks are bulkier genetically. Not to mention that the food in the US on average is crap. High in fats, artificial preservatives and sodium, it’s no wonder our culture has gained as a whole. We don’t do health well in this country.

              I am worried about obesity rates in kids and adults as well, but it’s truly not so easy as to say, “Oh they are just lazy.” That’s what makes it see moralistic.

              • Julie Gillis says:

                I’ve also seen my mother (not overweight) not exercise and eat plenty and not gain. So……? Some of this is based on cultural shifts and foods, yes. Some of it is though genetic and I see no reason to put additional body shaming onto people who can do amazing physical things just because they might look heavier.

                I for one, was a dancer and wound up with serious disordered eating and still to this day have to work very hard to eat normally. It’s horrible. Health should be the goal, at any size and I mean real health of course, not McDonalds binging.

                • @Julie — not sure who you were talking about, so I’ll just assume me. I’m quite familiar with the role of hormones in excessive body fat and I’ve been at pains to express the uselessness of conventional wisdom about this. High body fat is a symptom of cortisol disregulation and insulin insensitivity. As you note, there are also often issues with leptin function as well.

                  Part of the problem with most research around body weight (different from body fat) is that it relies on BMI and does not account for body composition. (And any research who uses BMI as a serious tool for evaluating health is so clueless about health anything else they say should probably be dismissed.) So a very muscular guy and a very fat guy will both look equally obese under BMI, which is presposterous. One guy has a lot of weight which is useable and keeps his metabolism up. The other is carrying dead weight which will store toxins and causes its own rounds of terrible hormonal problems.

                  I’ve had friends who worked hard at things and failed. Because they weren’t doing the right things. They might have been *told* they were doing the right thing, but I could tell they weren’t (or I know now that they weren’t). Medical science is not baloney, but most doctors are very poorly informed on the latest research.

                  I don’t think having high body fat is immoral. But the evidence does not support that being fat is equally healthy. Pretty much any fat person, if they lose fat in a healthy fashion, will be healthier with less fat. Evolutionary biology by itself should make it obvious that being fat is not just normal variations in genetics.

                • But, Julie, if you’ve seen research showing that body fat is essentially irrelevant to health or may even be protective, I’d like to see it.

                  • Julie Gillis says:

                    I was commenting/responding to Valter. I may have placed it in the wrong place. I’m not promoting obesity, but yes many of the studies showing insulin resistance etc etc. We’ve created a trap in our own nation by mass producing foods that do not support healthy weights nor do we support a culture of limits, only taking a pill for things after problems have happened, supersize me etc. If you blow out your ability to manage insulin etc you are screwed for the most part and yes doctors don’t know how to direct patients other than the ever mentioned eat less exercise more.
                    Until there is a culture shift, all the chastising in the world isn’t going to help people who may want to lose weight but don’t seem to be able to do so.

                    • Type II diabetes appears to be reversible in at least one small study. Even the ADA has acknowledged that low-carb diets are beneficial for diabetes, but refuses to recommend them because the ADA thinks that would be hard for some people to follow. That’s the kind of rounded-edges nonsense that enrages me. We could literally save lives and dramatically improve the quality-of-life for millions, but the powers that be (and their enablers in HAES and similar movements) refuse to do that because someone might feel bad or might have to give up their favorite food along the way.

                      The cultural shift won’t happen until we persuade people to start eating variations on an ancestral diet. I don’t consider that chastising them, just informing them. The people I chastise are the ones who insist that this is just a matter of genetics/fate and that we’re all powerless before it. I don’t care if someone wants to be helpless, but I cannot abide people trying to keep others helpless as well.

                    • Part of the problem is that the mechanistic Western view of health and the body has permeated popular discourse, which leads us to believe that the size of one’s body is malleable, if only they work hard enough, and results in the moralistic judgments against those who don’t meet the thin body ideal. There is a growing body of research that gas largely problematized this conception of health, and demonstrated that body size is only minimally changeable through health behaviours, like eating well and being active. Genetics is an important component; this doesn’t suggest helplessness or futility In terms of achieving health, but it does refute the widely accepted (but not well-supported) idea that one can drastically change the size of their body by simply changing what they eat and their activity levels.

                      In fact, research on health implications of overweight have found that it is not weight loss that is associated with improved health, but changes in activity levels. So shaming large bodies is not only problematic, but it’s ineffective.

          • Actually, there is a great deal of research that suggests that there is a U-shaped relationship between body size and health – that being that those who are at either extreme of the spectrum (BMI less than 18 or over 39) are more susceptible to a number of health risks, but that body fat itself is not a health detriment. However, there are social values about ideal bodies that are infused in to the medical discourse which promulgates this notion that fat = bad, which is just fallacious. The research relating overweight to health risks has been highly problematic, with a number of methodological issues and issues with uncontrolled for confounding variables.

            To say that muscular bodies are the only healthy bodies is not accurate. Perhaps for you, you feel happier and healthier when you’re lean and when you’re building your muscle, but it doesn’t mean that that is the case for all human beings. I’m perfectly happy in my not-so-muscular frame. I don’t work out with any intention of being any certain body shape or size, but to make myself feel good. So with exercise doesn’t actually necessarily come weight loss (and research on that has actually shown that most bodies are pretty stable in their weight and size, such that increased activity doesn’t necessitate weight loss, and if it does it’s typically not more than a few pounds, and certainly not the dramatic weight loss that is often shown on television programs).

            We need to stop telling people what kind of bodies they SHOULD have, stop monitoring people’s bodies and suggesting that there is any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ body type. It’s these sorts of judgments that leave people feeling never quite good enough.

            • BMI is garbage and has no place in serious discussions about health. There are many people with low BMI who are desperately unhealthy, and many people with high BMIs who are quite healthy. Body fat and BMI are not related concepts. Fat is bad. You are conflating lack of evidence supporting BMI with lack of evidence supporting the obvious notion that fat is deleterious to health. Being fat is a *symptom* of health problems. If you are fat, you have health problems by definition. Health problems cause fatness, which then exacerbates the health problems.

              “To say that muscular bodies are the only healthy bodies is not accurate.”

              They’re the only optimally healthy bodies. If you had more useable muscle, you would almost certainly be healthier — and, more to the point, you would be *fitter*. How is being able to do more stuff safely *not* an indicator of better health, durability, and fitness? It’s your right not to have muscle if you don’t want it or don’t care about it, but I’m not going to concede that your lack of interest translates into equal physical health.

              “So with exercise doesn’t actually necessarily come weight loss…”

              Right. Because losing fat (not the same thing as losing weight) is 90% nutrition. People fail to lose weight not because they are just fated to be chubby and weak, but because everything about our modern lives sets them up for failure: awful nutrition, terrible sleep patterns, high stress, and crappy levels of activity. If you are eating an optimal diet (some variation on paleo/primal), sleeping 9-10 hours a night, moderating stress in your life, and doing some strength training and walking, you will become lean and stay lean. Just consider evolution: if we had huge genetic populations designed to just get fat and stay fat, they would have died off because they would’ve been killed by critters or been unable to get food for themselves. Humans evolved to be lean. There’s not much selection advantage to a body which is incapable of doing things for itself.

              “It’s these sorts of judgments that leave people feeling never quite good enough.”

              And it’s false equivocations between lifestyles as equally healthy which kill people. I will accept any fat person who wants to be accepted. I will *not* accept them claiming that their life is equally healthy to that of someone lean and fit. Look, I drink beer. It’s bad for me and I accept that fact. I don’t need to pretend that I’m fated to drink alcohol to feel good about myself. I acknowledge that I’m making a life choice which is less healthy because I enjoy it. I would never ask someone to pat me on the butt and tell me it’s just as healthy as abstaining. It’s not. That’s OK. I have too many fat friends who’ve been told their whole lives that they should feel helpless about their weight and nutrition because it’s not possible for them to change or become healthier, and it’s just bollocks.

              • Valter Viglietti says:

                @Rick: “Fat is bad.”

                Rick, maybe your judging of fat is a bit extremist (or maybe it’s about language).
                “Fat” in itself is not bad. Hey, without some fat our body couldn’t work! 🙂
                The problem is when there’s too much fat (“too much” of something is usually a bad thing).

                I think having like 5 kg more than average is totally ok (BTW, I like curvy women 🙂 ).
                OTOH, I presume that being 1.5 times your “ideal” weight (like being 120 kg if you should be 80 kg, and that 40 kg in excess being fat) is a serious health risk.

                • Yes, some body fat is necessary and helpful. But men don’t *need* more than, oh, 5-8%. I don’t know what women’s needs are, but I’d guess in the low teens. Add another 5-8% or so on top of that and you’ll still be perfectly healthy, I’d say, with relatively minor consequences to fitness and other stuff. But once you get too much more than that (high teens or more for men, mid 20s or so for women) you’re likely to have more serious health problems. It’s just dead weight which you carry all the time. And, like I said elsewhere, excess fat is a symptom of health problems: usually some combination of insulin and cortisol, both of which are linked to other, more severe issues.

    • Isn’t hypermuscularity on a decline? The orange colored professional bodybuilder is something from the 70s, now part of a bizarre subculture of oversized strongmen like… weightlifters. Next to them there are countless yoga-p90x practitioners which aim for a total different image. Just compare the Mr. Universe contest with the Ironman contest. Or compare toys of now and then. The redesigned “He-Man” of today looks like the macrobiotic brother of his steroid 80s counterpart.

  27. Yes, there are certainly different ways in which the pursuit of muscularity is reflected in individuals, often varying according to the type of masculinity that they are performing. Body builders are just one subgroup, and often the one that has been examined in research in regards to this phenomenon.

  28. Utility is not completely the answer. The muscles a man builds from physical labour are different than the ones made in a gym. Men who only do bodybuilding in a gym (exclusive of labour or sports) do not end up with bodies that are good at labour or sports, and are generally not capable of a full day of labour in the same way as a man who makes his muscles by labour.

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