David Stanley used to be a racing cyclist with a body so taut that his buttoned and zipped pants would slide off off him. But he was never really satisfied with how his body looked.
Body image issues come in every size and shape. Some of us are scrawny and looking for muscles. Some of us are chunky and would love to chuck some chunk. Some of us look in the mirror, note an extra two pounds of fat just above our waists, and starve ourselves for the next 5 days whilst working out relentlessly until an arbitrary equilibrium is reached. What we share as men: Few of us like the way we look when the shirts come over the head and the pants drop.
Greg LeMond, the only US man with Tour de France titles to his name, once said about fitness on the bicycle: “When you get fit, it doesn’t get any easier. You just go faster.” Gentlemen, I’m here to tell you, one can easily paraphrase that sentence: “When you get fit, you don’t like your body any more than you did. You just look better.”
My body image issues go back to puberty, but my obsession started in college. I was a college soccer player who began racing bicycles. No group of athletes are more body fat conscious than endurance athletes; Cyclists, rowers, Nordic skiers, runners, swimmers – every such athlete who has had dreams of glory as an Olympic hopeful has gone through phases of weighing food, calculating intake vs. the day’s training output, and religiously recording every bit of food and activity. The athlete’s body is a machine, and for optimum performance, must be optimally tuned.
As a racing cyclist, I would stand naked in front of the mirror and scan myself from head to toe. I’d turn ninety degrees and eyeball myself from the side. I’d stare at problem areas. I’d pinch and tug at excess tissue and curse my genetics. I knew I was closing in on race-fitness when my buttoned and zipped pants would slide off. When a pinch of one inch’s worth of thigh flesh yielded only two transparent layers of skin rubbing together, I was almost happy. When I could see the valves inside the veins of my calves through my skin, I was nearly satisfied.
As an athlete, you cannot control your competition. You always feel that you could train a bit harder. On race days, you almost always feel as if you could have left a little bit more out on the course. So many things, as an athlete, are beyond your control.
But diet? With diet, you have complete control. You do your own portion control. No one makes you eat an extra forkful of rice. On a rare evening, when your fun gene kicks in, and you eat a child’s size scoop of ice cream, you punish yourself with an extra hard n lengthy work-out the next day.
How many elite level athletic guys love what their bodies can do, yet hate their bodies? In a Venn diagram, the overlap would be about 80%
It may seem crazy, but the subset “Athlete” amongst the male population equals any other subset in the category “loathes own physique.” Diet is a constant topic of conversation among athletes. On nearly every 60 mile or longer training ride I’ve ever done, if there is any talk at all during the last hour of the ride, it is about food. Always. But it is always about food that you will not eat.
“Nothing tastes as good as winning feels,” is the athlete’s watchword.
As I aged out of elite level competition, and moved into ‘weekend warrior’ status, by obsession should have faded into the background. After all, my races were now 20 miles long, not 50 miles. I had a full-time job with family and responsibilities. But my image issues didn’t disappear. Madly, I continued to hold myself to the same standards as I did when a full-time athlete.
As a pretty damn fit 55 year old, weekend warrior, I am still locked into an unhealthy mental image of “being fit.” When I notice an extra bit peeking out over the top of my trousers, my portions go down by half until the “problem” is rectified. It is so glaringly obvious when I do so that my wife and our twenty-year-old son whisper about it to each other. It is my issue. I accept it. But I cannot let go of it.
Gentlemen; fat, skinny, pudgy, or muscular—we get one body. We can rage at it, revel in it, despair over it—but it is our one chance to build something, entirely under our own power, with our own mind and hands.
One may say: it’s your only body. Accept it.
I am willing to accept that I have body image issues.
I say: it’s my only body. I’ll push it as hard as I can.
photo: dno1967b / flickr