A reflection on how poor body image can affect men and their partners.
I woke up today realizing that I have always struggled with body issues but now my wife suffers the consequences. How unfair is that. It makes me wonder just how many other men out there, as well as their partners, are suffering the same fate.
I have carried body image issues for a lifetime. And from what I can see throughout our culture, on TV, at the gym, or in the way that men hold and carry themselves and emulate others, a lot of men also suffer silently, stoically with their own issues regarding the shape, size and strength of their bodies.
When I was a young man, I used to joke that my greatest fear was becoming skinny fat. I am very skinny for a man, or at least that is how I perceive myself, and have lived much of my life in shame. Over the passing years and decades, I have contorted my body into shapes and postures to accent the positives and conceal the negatives. Now I am paying for it daily with new pains and chronic issues that cannot easily be addressed. I have brought them all on myself.
Yet, still, I persevere. I would have thought that finally getting happily married at 40, not to mention just reaching a wise old age, would have brought some relief. Finally, or so the theory goes, I could breathe and let my stomach pop out to its normal proportions, thus realizing the skinny fat model of imperfection that I have always dreaded.
But, no, I cannot.
Although finally safe with an amazing, loving, supportive wife, somewhere inside I still feel I must constantly work to keep her satisfied and attracted. Not to mention keeping all the unnamed public interested as well in order to feel somehow whole inside. As if anyone even notices an aging self-conscious narcissist and his persistent body issues.
To add insult to injury, our own insecurities often translate into criticism of others based on our own perceived deficiencies. As hard as I was on myself, I also developed a keen sense of what was acceptable and, more importantly, not, in my partners or prospective partners. If I was afraid of becoming overweight then there was no way in hell I could possibly accept a reflection of those fears in a partner. Skinny would suit me just fine, fat would never do. A superficial evaluation of love and partnership firmly took hold of my outlook on attraction.
Growing up as a tiny, underdeveloped boy who always looked at least 5 years younger than my actual age, a real problem in the teens and early 20s, I developed a keen sense of myself as different. And not in a good way. It didn’t help that I was still a boy in all the places that count until I was about 17 or 18. My fear and shame was acute and, over time, became chronic. I learned at a young age to hide a myriad of bodily secrets through various obfuscations and contortions.
Now, as an adult, the subsequent infection emerges. The insidious virus of impossible expectations. And it is highly contagious. I sometimes catch myself trying to infect my lovely wife with my illness. Much like a liar who sees everyone as dishonest or a person with poor dental hygiene who notices teeth first, my focus is often on her physicality rather than the infinite beauty that she embodies. Luckily, she has a very strong sense of balance and rarely pays heed to my unwarranted comments or shameful belly glances. But this is not what she signed up for or what I ever hoped to become; the obnoxious husband telling his lovely wife that she is not quite good enough physically.
The reality is that she is absolutely a much better partner than I ever imagined possible and a much better person than I am allowing myself to be. She is intelligent, happy, grounded, and yes, beautiful perhaps beyond what I deserve, fool that I am. And she shares more with me than I have ever known with another. She is much more of an adult than I have become and her love is eternally supportive and unconditional. Everything that I ever dreamed of becoming as a partner, she embodies. She has become my mentor for a life beyond self-imposed inadequacy.
I know sometimes it seems impossible to grow up into the man that your wife, your family, and your community really need, with our own pervasive issues and an unprecedented proliferation of stylized beauty images and pornographic fantasy invading every possible space. It’s little wonder that we struggle to see people as perfection beyond mere appearances. Model images of strength or beauty will never be attainable reality for most, and for the minute percentage of those physically blessed, they won’t be reality for very long. We all age, our bodies change over time, whether we like it or not, whether we fight it or not with this gimmick or that diet, and soon all we are left with is what we have nurtured inside.
And so, really, in the end, all that truly matters for ourselves and our relationships, is how well we treat ourselves and one another, how deeply we can connect and share, building trust, affection, and mutual support. No single body in the world can hold your attention forever without a depth of mutual care and understanding. This is the only place that true beauty can exist continuously. This is love. And that is all that really matters in the end. I have been blessed with an incredible partner who challenges me, lovingly, patiently and sometimes unknowingly, on all fronts. I owe it to her, if not myself, to get over my shit and get on with the real stuff of life. Perhaps it is not my profile I need to be working on, but, instead, all that baggage I am carrying around.
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Image: Dominic’s pics/Flickr