The body image issues that women face is a well-trodden subject. One that I am neither qualified nor interested in talking about.
But the body image issues that men deal with is something I think about a lot but rarely hear discussed. Male body image issues is a complicated subject and I think the best way to explain it would be to describe my personal experiences.
I’m a gay dude and I’ve been overweight since puberty. I’ve basically weighed around 250 lb since high school. And I knew about “bears” since like six months after I knew I was gay. So I wasn’t too concerned with how I looked in high school or college. When I finished school (or rather “was done with school”) and moved to New York City, I found myself in a long term relationship very quickly.
We moved to LA together and had a few good years. When that relationship was over I was 23 and essentially on the market for the first time ever. But the break up came with a few months of depression, as they often do, and when I moved back to NYC I had ballooned up to 275 lb. I knew what I wanted out of my next relationship and I knew the kind of person I wanted to be with. But it took me a while to realize how much my physical appearance impacted my potential to be happy with someone else.
I’d often be head over heels with someone and they would just not be into me. Which is just a normal part of dating. There were times where the other person would be interested in me, but be physically unattracted to me. The absolute worst instance of this was when I was dating a guy who was literally perfect; he was close to my age and had a good job as a programmer and we were able to talk for hours about video games and movies and stuff. We dated for about two months, then he broke up with me because he couldn’t get past how unattracted he was to me.
I knew this break-up rationale was genuine, because the dude was a giant body builder. He told me he went from wearing size XXL clothes to size L after spending 3 years intensely dieting and exercising. Losing weight was something I was interested in, from a health standpoint, so we talked about it a lot. On our third date he showed me how to do a bunch of exercises with free-weights and how to maintain a low carb / high protein diet. It was actually pretty easy, so I kept it up, and in the first two months that I knew him I went from around 260 lb to 245 lb.
But this transformation was not happening fast enough for him. I knew he wasn’t just being a shallow jerk, and that he was actually fighting back some pretty visceral disgust at my body. Which was both endearing and humiliating. Whenever he touched me his hand would always go for the few firm spots, like the side of my ribs. And if I ever touched a ‘soft’ area on him, like his naval area (which is pretty hard to ever fully tone up after being overweight) he would flinch or even push my hand away and tell me not to touch him there. It was weird.
So when we broke up, I wasn’t THAT mad. I was upset, sure, but I was surprised he held out as long as he did. Over the course of the next year I continued not only my endless search for a stable relationship, but the diet and exercise routine that this body builder guy had taught me. The two were initially unrelated; I was dieting and exercising for health reasons, and I couldn’t even really see the impact that it had on my appearance. Until I got down to around 200 lb, and realized it was time to update my wardrobe.
With the help of my ironically more-fashionable straight best friend, I was able to update not only my wardrobe but my tastes in clothing. This also coincided with a few other grown up milestones, like learning how to drink socially, enforcing a regular haircut schedule, and buying an adult-sized bed. It may have just been the transition from 23 to 25, but I was getting shot down a lot less often.
But I also found myself being the one saying ‘no’ to guys that I would have happily dated two years ago. I realized that the “gay bear community”, which I was only ever a member of out of necessity, is mostly gross losers with an aversion to self improvement. Dating a geek who worked at GameStop was no longer appealing, because I was easily scoring dates with geeks who were molecular biologists. No, I don’t want your number, and I don’t want to give you mine. No scrubs.
But then a funny thing happened. I realized I had become that body builder ex. Well, not quite, but I felt like I was in the early stages of re-living his origin story. There are very few parts of my own body that I’m not grossed out by and I can understand how he got to the point where he was. I never asked why he decided to lose weight; I just assumed it was health reasons. But now I can only imagine it was from the same vicious cycle of rejection and self-improvement that I have been going through recently.
I’m still exercising and I’m still motivated by being healthy, which I think is the best way to go. I’ve spoken to guys on gay dating sites who, after exchanging a ‘hello’, will immediately ask for shirtless torso pics, see mine, say ‘thank you’, and end the conversation. I know I’ll never be able to meet their standard, so I try not to think about it. I imagine most of the people reading this post are not gay, and what I’m describing may be a gay-specific problem. But I’m sure there are some universal truths.
One interesting thing about this issue is how it mostly affects women and gay men, because, I’d imagine, it comes from striving to meet the standards of men. I don’t think women care as much about their mate’s appearances as men do. Straight men can have body issues too, but it’s usually not an insane arms race that drives them to become weird sex doll monsters like Courtney Stodden or Chris Crocker. In fact, I think that most of the pressure on straight men to look good comes from other straight men. That kind of peer pressure is the basic idea behind magazines like GQ. But maybe I’m wrong, who knows, I’m far from an authority on the subject of issues specific to straight people.
We all want to look good, and we all want to attract somebody that we’re also attracted to. I think the only true way out of the cycle of self improvement and raising your standards to always be chasing after people who are slightly out of your league is to – not do that. It’s very rare that you’ll find someone you think is out of your league who ALSO thinks they’re out of yours. Try not to be petty. Don’t go chasing waterfalls! Stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to!
It’ll take a great deal of psychological gumption but you’re probably better off suppressing the “what others think of my appearance” part of your brain. And, karmically, it makes more sense to apply the same leniency to others; I know it’s tempting to trust your knee-jerk reaction to immediately dismiss anyone who has a chain wallet, but you probably shouldn’t. One man’s chain wallet is another man’s Metalica hoodie. Maybe he just didn’t get the memo about chain wallets. It’s not really as indicative of loserish personality traits as you might think. Just give people a chance until they give you solid reasons to write them off. Like being a flake or always talking about anime. Those are legitimate reasons to not like someone! But extrapolating potential problems based on their appearance is probably not wise.
But, you know, you don’t have to hang out with losers either. I’m just saying you shouldn’t dismiss someone over superficial issues like a few extra pounds or quoting TLC. You’ll probably develop a lot more meaningful relationships if you cull people based on relevant criteria rather than their appearance. So, basically, a healthy philosophy on relationships lies somewhere between “no scrubs” and “don’t go chasing waterfalls.”