Dillan DiGiovanni explores the impact of stigmatizing mens’ bodies.
I ran into one of my favorite cafes the other day and saw this tall and rather lanky guy in front of me.
Took me a few seconds to realize it was my friend and I blurted out, “Hey! I wondered who this string bean was in front of me!”
We laughed, but then I instantly felt a tremor pass through me. Intuition was talking to me, again. We made some more small talk about the rain and our relative plans and then I went to go place my order. I stood there, waiting for my mocha and scone to be wrapped up, and felt horrible. I had made a comment about his body, and had no idea how that made him feel. After giving it some thought, I finally walked back over to my pal.
I said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for calling you a string bean.”
“No way, it’s cool,” he said, automatically trying to smooth things over. “People say things like that to me all the time.”
I explained that I had no doubt they did, but it wasn’t right for me to comment on his physical appearance because, in truth, I have no idea how he feels about his body. I also don’t know how it affects his sense of being a man. It could have meant any number of things to him and it just isn’t cool to stigmatize people.
He looked at me, paused and then he said, “Yeah, you know, people say it to me all the time in fact. And it bugs me. It’s different coming from you. I appreciate you saying something. People call me super skinny all the time and I think to myself, would you call me super fat, if the roles were reversed?”
He made such a great point. We do have this double-standard, it seems, when it comes to men and our bodies. My friend and I chatted a bit more and I felt better about owning my insensitivity. And I thought more about it for the rest of the day.
In this country we have many, many body types but I think they fall into basically three camps, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: small, medium and large. We have average-sized people and they are off the radar of being stigmatized, for the most part, at least as far as their bodies are concerned. Then, we have small and/or skinny guys and then really tall and/or larger men, whom we sometimes lovingly refer to as ‘big boys’, like “yeah, he’s certainly a fan of meat and potatoes, he’s a big boy”. And, like my friend said, we assign a value and make comments about physical appearance. We can deliver it like a joke, the way I did, but the impact is still felt. It’s a comment about how someone looks that may seem to have a value judgment added.
From talks with friends, I get that there are the seemingly benign yet extremely annoying comments. The ones heard all the time.
“Hey! You’re super tall! Damn! What’s it like bumping your head on doorways all the time?”
“Hey! You’re so little, I thought you were a kid.”
“You should work out more. Bulk up a little.”
(I am 5’5″ and get called young man or boy quite often. It’s really weird considering I’m neither.)
And then there are the comments that aren’t so benign. The ones that are blatantly cruel and unkind.
Depending on the context and the person, we may appear to value skinny guys more–there’s certainly a preference for the lanky, slim frame as well as the well-built, muscular body in the modeling industry. We value big boys as being great for football or for wearing flannel, drinking beer and fashioning excellent beards. We use words like “teddy bear-like” to describe these men…is it because their bodies resemble the cushiony comfort of stuffed animals? I’m not sure.
In other contexts, skinny guys experience frequent beatings or bullying because they are perceived to be weak and easy targets. And larger boys are often teased ruthlessly for having bodies on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Are casual comments about someone’s appearance wrong? It really depends on the person, I suppose, and their experiences. It certainly mattered to my friend, when I pressed on with my apology. He tried to make it ok, and when I said it wasn’t, he realized he had some real feelings about other people making comments about him and his skinniness. And he graciously shared those with me.
I have another friend, a larger guy, who made countless comments about his size during a weekend together. Here I was, feeling self-conscious about my body for certain reasons, and I felt nothing but compassion for him as we all slid into the jacuzzi several times over the course of a few days. My own issues with my body paled when I heard his self-depricating comments and I sympathized with how he must have felt.
And I never asked him how he felt, point-blank, of course. Because of that awkward avoidance thing we do around bodies and stigma and othering people.
I didn’t feel good about that, so that’s why I did something different with my friend at the cafe. In that case, I’d said something I wanted to apologize for saying. I wanted to acknowledge any potential impact of my commenting on his physical appearance. And as it turns out, I am really glad I did.
What might have been an innocent comment that I could have considered a joke or general observation actually had an impact. And was one of many comments that had had such an impact.
We need to stop stigmatizing mens’ bodies and we need to consider what it does to men and their sexuality when we make comments about their bodies. We need to focus on health and balance for all men, making sure they are taking care of themselves, eating and exercising for fitness and long, healthy lives, not so they can look a certain way to avoid being teased or harassed in some way. We should comment on the merits of their character, not point out their physical appearance without considering underlying insecurities they may have about it.
In general, we need to honor that people come in all shapes and sizes and stop making that rhetoric we all claim to know and subscribe to yet don’t practice nearly enough.
And I’ll start. In fact, I did by apologizing to my friend. And I’ll be more mindful from now on.
—Photo Australian National Maritime Museum/Flickr
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