My relationship with my body: a male perspective

Dom Lee gives a poignant account of his journey to body positivity in a movement dominated by women.

Dominic Lee
10th February 2021
Image: @polu_comics on Instagram
As a part of NUSU's body positivity and eating disorder campaign I've decided to give my perspective on my relationship with my body as a male-identifying person. This is a topic which isn't talked about a great deal so I thought it would be interesting to explore various aspects of it both in my personal life and in society.

Body positivity is not usually a phrase that you would associate with men, at least in my experience. The movement has been largely led by women and catered towards women. Indeed, pretty much all the progress related to body positivity has been focused on women. That’s fantastic! It’s brilliant that as a society we’re championing body positivity for women and celebrating all women of all body types. However, I feel, as a man, that I’ve been somewhat left behind in this positive revolution. For whatever reason, male body positivity has not only not taken off as a movement, it barely qualifies as a movement at all.

Evidence for this viewpoint is all around, you only have to turn on the TV or flick through a magazine and look at the kinds of men that are advertising the latest aftershaves and luxury watches. Muscle bound, moody looking and womanizing men are commonplace on our pages and screens. They’re depicted wandering around with an unbuttoned shirt clinging to their sculpted torsos, while hordes of scantily clad women throw themselves at them. The men in these adverts are sexualised and objectified in the same ways as women are, though obviously the discourse around this doesn’t permeate at other levels in society in the same way as is the case for women- who unfortunately suffer a great deal more from sexualisation and objectification.

Muscle bound, moody looking and womanizing men are commonplace on our pages and screens.

In much the same way as women, young men grow up with these images burned into their memories about the kind of body they’re expected to have and the kind of body that women will be attracted to. Indeed, as a young boy I suffered from this poisonous ideology myself. I had a larger body than average and was often made fun of for being “fat” or “overweight”, to the point where in my later years at primary school and early years of high school I would punch myself in the stomach in an attempt to flatten it. Much like the men in the glossy pages of fashion magazines, I would often wander round my bedroom looking at myself in the mirror, studying every inch of myself like I was preparing to sit an exam on it. Except in my case scantily clad women weren’t throwing themselves at me, rather I was being assaulted left and right by waves of self-deprecation and shame about my stomach, or my chest, or my thighs.

There is significant interplay between the idealised male body type and masculinity too. In many ways in creating an idealised male body type we have simultaneously created an idealised man. The idealised man is strong and silent. He’s financially successful with his gleaming timepieces, crisp white shirts that fit him like a glove and his flash car. Most of all, he’s dominant and irresistible to women. His body gives him power over a woman, like he’s in a James Bond film. This is the image that our young men grow up with from an early age. Yet, when we’re asked why male suicide rates are so high we all sit around twiddling our thumbs, wondering how it got to be so bad.

This binary image of the male body encourages a binary view of masculinity, which on the one hand leaves many men out in the cold who don’t fit into this singular ideology, and on the other hand encourages misogyny and toxic masculinity. That’s not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with traditional masculinity, and it’s perfectly fine to engage in traditionally masculine things such as sports. In fact, many people mistakenly think toxic masculinity is just traditional masculinity, which it isn’t. Toxic masculinity is about conformity to traditional views of masculinity, which within it encapsulates expectations of what men’s bodies should look like. Thus, toxic masculinity has a devastating effect on male self esteem relating to body type. In my life I’ve often felt inferior to other men not just in the media but in my personal life. Boys in school would tell me how girls would never like me because of my weight, sensing in themselves an air of superiority because their torso was defined while mine was round.

The hard thing about self-deprecation is that it’s like a drug, once you’ve got into a pattern of it it’s incredibly difficult to break out of. If you’re not careful you end up like me, still checking myself in the mirror and hating what I see. It’s in these moments that I’m often reminded that I’m not alone, as if that’s supposed to be some sort of comfort. “Don’t worry Dom there’s loads of people that hate themselves out there too!”. In a way I feel like we’ve become kind of conditioned with notions of what kinds of men are considered attractive. Of course, this is the case with women too, whose bodies are constantly on the tips of tongues and the pages of tabloids. However, you get the sense that inclusivity is on the rise for women. Brands are called out online when their collections feature only one female body type, meanwhile the same chiselled men are wheeled out annually for the latest Emporio Armani underwear billboards. The same kinds of men are seemingly crowned “Sexiest Man of the Year” every year. Even in fashion circles where there has been a large shift towards androgyny, lean and defined bodies are still the norm. Even with this shift towards thinner frames being idealised, and men such as Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet being hot property, there’s still not an ounce of fat in sight. However, it’s tough to even tell whether that ideal will continue or if it’s just a trend. Dad bods were hot for a minute when Chris Pratt was spotted on a beach holiday in 2019 but the discourse around them was incredibly patronising; and unsurprisingly the hype died down pretty quickly.

Being six feet tall becomes a pre-requisite for attractiveness and machoism reigns supreme across the city, as hypermasculine men jump lines at clubs and shove people on dancefloors. Not fitting in with this crowd of Renaissance statues can feel incredibly lonely.

It’s no surprise then that these notions of what it is to be an attractive man percolate at hyperlocal levels, even in a University setting. Rugby boys are simultaneously painted as the objects of desire and the symbols of toxic masculinity. Being six feet tall becomes a pre-requisite for attractiveness and machoism reigns supreme across the city, as hypermasculine men jump lines at clubs and shove people on dancefloors. Not fitting in with this crowd of Renaissance statues can feel incredibly lonely. If I may make a lazy generalisation, men are rather an individualistic bunch and we don’t do support very well. Feminism has been a huge driver of body positivity and it’s inspiring to see women coming together as one to build a more inclusive society. Men could learn a lot from women in this regard, as I often feel we lack a sense of community when it comes to male body positivity. In terms of support for each other there’s rather a lack thereof. There are some fleeting signs of change on the rise, with figures like Freddie Flintoff openly talking about his struggles with bulimia. Social media still plays a big part in body positive movements for women and there have been some advancements made by men with the likes of Stevie Blaine (@bopo.boy on Instagram) who illustrate the progressive voice of male body positivity. However, the seeds are very much still being sown.

Nonetheless, even with these positive steps I don’t feel incredibly optimistic that we’re going to be living in a society that champions male body positivity any time soon. I really would love to end this discussion of body positivity on a positive note but honestly, that’s just not how I feel at the moment. In a way I might be inserting my own personal insecurities about my body into a societal context but realistically we’re still in the very early stages on this journey, as is the case with my own personal journey as well. All we can do for now is support each other and try to be kind to ourselves, which is hard when we’ve been conditioned to conform since we first discovered our own reflections. However, we are the grass roots of change and without all of us playing our part to encourage male body positivity, we may never be able to accept ourselves.

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