You will always have your body, so it’s best to love it.
I have read countless gay-dating advice articles that stress the importance of working out and developing an attractive physique in order to land a man. It’s rubbish, really, especially when you consider the growing prevalence of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and other psychological conditions that this mentality produces. Though physical health is important, I argue that mental health is more important, and if you hate your body, no diet or exercise regimen will help on its own.
Yet we men are often reluctant to share our insecurities, and thus we don’t realize just how much of a struggle body positivity can be. It’s a problem I spent years overcoming, so I’m sharing my experience here to help break the stigma and to encourage my brothers in developing a healthier, happier mindset.
My problems began where I think they started for many men who came of age in the late twentieth century: in the junior-high locker room. I had not quite hit puberty, and as I looked around at the other boys, I figured they must have hit puberty five years earlier. I was short and pasty and underweight. I was still a boy “down below,” and let’s just say that smooth skin runs in my family. My gawkiness made me an easy target for the locker-room bullies. The whole ordeal taught me that my body was weak, unmanly, inferior.
Today, all that hair I wanted on my chest is growing out of my ears, I suppose to make up for what is falling out of the top of my head. I ended up a tall man, and puberty caught up in, ahem, some areas, but I’m still pasty and gawky. The biggest difference is that now, my doctor keeps yelling at me to lose 20 pounds. In other words, I’m a fairly average, fairly dumpy, middle-aged man.
Yet throw me in a locker room, or sauna, or any other place I would need to disrobe, and off will come the clothes, no hesitation. If someone suggests skinny-dipping, I’ll be the first in the water. Clothing-optional camping? Sure, why not.
So, what changed? I have no illusions that this ugly duckling turned into a swan somewhere along the way, and the mirror tells me every day that I’m leaving my youth further and further behind. Yet none of this concerns me. The transformation had nothing to do with outward changes and everything to do with a change of heart and mind.
I was about 28 when I first realized I had a serious problem with my body image. I had started a medication that caused rapid weight gain, and along the way, it felt like I had jumped straight from underweight to overweight, bypassing what my culture had told me was a “normal” physique. Every day, after my morning shower, I’d look in the mirror and hate what I saw. A narrative ran through my head: I am socially unacceptable, and there is no way I can compete with other men. It was an awful way to begin my day.
Then I stumbled across a passage in Betty Dodson’s 1970s bestseller Sex for One. Though not the primary focus of the book, a passage on body acceptance changed my life. Dodson argued that a big reason people are sexually unfulfilled is that they think themselves unattractive, which she attributed to cultural narratives that narrow our understanding of what it means to be sexy. She stressed that everyone is attractive to someone, and that there are lots of different ways to be sexy. A slim, sprightly swimmer’s build; the sharp definition of a bodybuilder; the solidity of a sumo: each exudes its own masculinity. Dodson suggested standing nude in front of a full-length mirror in a candle-lit room. (The lighting is essential, as it blurs out blemishes we obsess over that others might not even notice, and at the same time highlights facial and muscular structure.) Then, visually explore your body, noticing what is attractive, or what someone else might find attractive.
This exercise worked like a charm for me. The candlelight diminished the stretch marks and acne that embarrassed me so. My cheekbones stood out. My legs looked more muscular than I thought them to be. I was good-looking. And I was good-looking because I was unique.
Just one afternoon in my bathroom instilled in me newfound confidence. And, I must admit that, as I lived alone, I took to dressing less often. I literally felt comfortable in my own skin, and this comfort buoyed my spirit in my day-to-day life. I gradually loved myself more, and in turn, I had more to offer others.
This wasn’t a silver-bullet solution; there were other areas of my life I also needed to work on. But it was a start. To internalize that your body as it is right now is good and acceptable and even sexy is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. You will always have your body, so it’s best to love it.
Photo: Ted Van Pelt
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