Body Shame, Toxic Masculinity, & American Waistlines

(an excerpt from the upcoming book, Journey to the Ecstatic Self)

My husband and I were traveling in Germany and wanted to experience some local culture. There, nudity is a social pastime—the Germans enjoy getting naked at beaches, in the woods, and at government-run bathing complexes. We were advised to patron one of Munich’s state-sponsored bathhouses—and when we arrived, we were greeted by fully-nude men and women lounging in saunas, sweating in steam rooms, and wading through thermal pools. 

Neither he nor I had ever been in a coed nude environment. Seeing men and women socializing together in the buff was shocking in a few ways. First, the more obvious surprise was, being gay men, neither of us had spent much time around disrobed women. It was strange and foreign for us to see uncovered lady-parts. But the second and more remarkable takeaway was that we were seeing bodies that looked unaltered—as if they were the way that nature intended them. 

In America, our bodies reflect our culture and social mores. We are a nation of excess, of consumerism. We do nothing half-heartedly—everything is either the “best” or the “worst.” And this psychological tendency is reflected in people’s physiques. At one end of the spectrum, we have people who struggle with obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly forty-three percent of Americans in 2018 are considered obese—and almost ten percent are morbidly obese. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the fanatical fitness junkies—those who are unhealthfully pumped, plumped, injected, or sculpted.

Having scoped out the views at spas and locker rooms at home, I can report that it is rare to find someone who looks naturally fit, unaltered, and with an appropriate height to weight ratio. It is rare to see a body that reflects the way nature would have designed it to be with no artificial intervention.

At this spa in Germany, by contrast, there was hardly anyone who appeared overly worked-out, unnaturally thin, or notably overweight. There were none with artificial tans, fake boobs, or obvious cosmetic procedures. No one seemed to be surgically-altered in the slightest—heck, only one person out of the dozens even had tattoos. There was a range of body types and shapes, but exceedingly few would have fallen into the category of obesity. It was such a consciousness-altering experience to see bodies that accurately reflected human potential—and it was a stark contrast to my domestic experiences.

Growing up, I was fascinated by fitness models. I thought their curves and bulges were beautiful and hypnotic. I would have given anything to look like them. When I was fourteen, my parents got me my first personal trainer. Despite how much effort I put in at the gym, I was dismayed to find that my body wasn’t sculpting itself into the shapes I saw in glossy magazines. 

It wasn’t until my early thirties that I realized the extent to which steroids and growth hormones are utilized by the fitness and beauty industry. I was shocked to consult with individuals who made the study of this topic their life’s work, to learn that almost everyone was using something to attain those physiques. We have developed a warped notion of what is natural and what is attainable. It’s not what we think it is.

When was the last time that you encountered someone who appeared to take the middle-road regarding their appearance? So many individuals are obsessed with their bodies—they aren’t thin-enough, young-enough, buff-enough. We exist in a culture where “wellness” and “fitness” personalities sell us products we don’t need and prey on our insecurities—and meanwhile they’re discreetly taking illegal supplements. I cannot name a single friend who hasn’t dieted at some point, had cosmetic work done, or gone to some lengths to attain more “idealized” proportions. While working for greater health, wellbeing, and longevity are absolutely worthy goals and admirable—we have taken the pursuit of perfection to unhealthy extremes. 

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.”

—Mary Schmich, journalist and writer

It is surprising that, for as much energy as we put into thinking about our bodies, America is a remarkably prudish culture. We no longer swim naked or even undress comfortably in front of our friends. I have watched countless men in locker rooms doing the “towel dance”—awkwardly shimmying out of their undergarments while wrapped in an undersized scrap of terry-cloth—so as never to be fully exposed. The absurdity of actively choosing to dress in such an uncomfortable manner highlights the immense shame we actually feel about our bodies and our selves. 

Too many of us treat our physical forms as if they were disgraceful, something to hide or control. A dangerous force that must be protected and kept in check at all times. In order for us to supposedly feel body-positive, we are expected to attain unimaginable standards that do not reflect physiology. Men are not biologically meant to constantly live at eight-percent body fat with pectorals plumped to the size of twenty-ounce steaks. Women are not meant to have twig-thin arms and bowling ball butts and bosoms.

Since most of the naked bodies we see now come from advertisements—which are notoriously skewed—we get a perverted idea of what a human body is actually like. For a time, I lived with a lingerie designer in Los Angeles—and she would show me how editors photoshopped the (already stunning) models to make them even more appealing. They elongated their legs by several inches, cinched their waists, and doubled the size of their eyes. By the time the editors were done, many of the women were no longer recognizable—yet, a consumer would look at the packaging and not be able to discern how dishonest their depictions actually were. Their mind would remember and compare the advertisements to their own self-images—and they would walk away feeling less-positive about themself. 

Without other, real, naked bodies to compare ourselves to in casual social interactions (like public bathing facilities), we are left to study the highly surgicalized, makeuped, steroided, and photoshopped figures in media. In consequence, we feel diminished. We chastise ourselves for not being good enough—when in reality, we might be exactly as we are meant to be. No other creature on the planet shames themself for their God-given appearance—no cheetah longs for spots that are darker or spaced further apart. No elephant wishes that their trunk were longer and slimmer. 

You can witness this shift toward relishing unrealistic extremes by how children’s play figurines have changed dimensions over the decades. Much has been written about how Barbie attained impossible proportions in the latter part of the twentieth century—legs, waists, and busts that could not structurally support themselves—inspiring a generation of girls into believing that they were never good enough. Less reported, but similar, has been the unrealistic expectations being sold to boys. When the original Star Wars movies came out, the play figurines closely matched the physiques of the actors on screen. A little over a decade later, by the late nineteen-eighties, the same figurines had suddenly bulked up with dozens of pounds of muscle. The dolls now looked more like Hulk Hogan than Han Solo.

Growing up, I learned that the ideal male body-type was that of the Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe figurines. I understood that a man’s upper arms were supposed to be bigger than his waist; his pecs were supposed to be meatier than his thighs. Combined with the fitness magazine covers showing steroided men, I felt horribly deficient and too thin. I learned to be ashamed of my normal body proportions. I couldn’t understand that these Schwarzenegger-like attributes were thoroughly artificial and unattainable. 

We so often talk about body dysmorphia in women—and for a good reason. The societal pressure for women to appear perpetually twenty-three, a size two, doe-eyed, and still somehow buxom, is crushing. We have equated the achievement of a thigh-gap with the bliss of nirvana. Americans have come to recognize the persistent and damaging health-effects of advertising on girls and women—and also persons of color. For much of the Westernized world, pale skin and European proportions have been held as an ideal over duskier skin hues and non-Western shapes. 

Thankfully, work is being done to combat this bias—but there is still much room to change. Campaigns by Dove USA have opened up awareness and frank conversations—hiring models of color and untraditional beauty or gender identity has been helpful—but there is still a great deal work to be done. We need to embrace beauty in all its forms.

An equally important, but not as well-recognized, issue is the parallel struggle underway for men. Many men feel immense pressure to conform to physiological standards that are likewise unachievable. Self-reported studies conducted with high school students found that up to five percent (of all students, including women) admit to using steroids. If we look at gay men specifically, one in seven admit to using them in just the past yearalone.

The ads and movies have convinced men that their worth is in the thickness of their arms. We are told that if you are insufficiently beefy, then you are insufficiently manly. This is one of the puzzle pieces in the rise of toxic masculinity over the past decades (amongst many other stressors, like the loss of the ability to support a household on a single income, well-paid blue- and white-collar jobs, etc.)—men have been repeatedly told that they aren’t man-enough for being the way they are. We are supposed to attain impossible standards to be considered sufficient. 

Many young men use the performance of hyper-masculinity as a way to survive in a world that does not hold space for men to express affection, tenderness, or empathy. Many communities in America demand that men present as being extraordinarily masculine and women demonstrably feminine. In doing so, people are forced to deny any parts of themselves that do not fit within these narrow and constraining stereotypes. Forcing men to subjugate aspects of themselves can inspire anger, confusion, and emotional repression. It then becomes a short trip from demonstrating hyper-masculinity to the dangerous land of enacting toxic masculinity. 

Toxic masculinity is the performance of maleness to such a degree that one viciously attacks anyone or anything that challenges or doubts a man’s credentials. It is infused with rage—a fear of being found out or for lacking requisite power—and it often shows its nastiest sides when the man interacts with those who can be easily dominated. If a woman isn’t deferring enough—shut her down. If a man shows any form of vulnerability—break him down. Perform macho-ness, perform entitlement—hide anything that reveals weakness or perceived femininity.

The reality is that all humans possess both masculine and feminine aspects. In fact, some of the most well-adjusted, masculine-presenting men I’ve known have been immensely kind, compassionate, and tender. Instead of teaching boys that masculinity means titanium-like strength, we need to teach them that it also means flexibility and a willingness to listen and learn. Instead of teaching that being a man means rugged individualism, we need to prove that it can also mean connection to community, artistic expression, and empathy. Enacting maleness can require breaking, smashing, and destroying—but it can also demand times of building, cultivating, and caregiving. Our goal needs to be the attainment of wholeness—a coming into acceptance with all of our attributes, not just one side.

In the Western world, men have to defend their maleness in a way than women do not—they have to show that they are “man enough,” tough, and rugged—and disavow any actions that might discredit those labels. I will argue that anyone living in a state of self-protection will not be at home in themselves. Any man or woman who has to be “on guard” will subsequently be ill-at-ease. They will likely make an insufficient lover, spouse, or parent because they will be afraid to express themselves in their entirety.

We have to let go of the notion that some external goal will fulfill us. You could be one of the most beautiful and fittest people on your block, but you could still feel ugly enough to be afraid of leaving your house. No amount of external striving will provide you with a lasting sensation of sufficiency. If you are reliant on an arbitrary tape measurement or scale reading to give you permission to accept yourself—you will forever be in terror of relapsing.

The advertising of the modern world barrages us with unrealistic body expectations. There are the scantily-clad and anorexically-thin models on billboards, the chemically-chiseled actors on television with their impossible abs, and the artfully lounging influencers with their skin-tone buffed out in Photoshop. None of them reflect what humans actually look like. Each of us has to cultivate genuine gratitude for the bodies we have been given—for they are the only ones we are going to get in this lifetime.

…If you enjoyed this, please check out Journey to the Ecstatic Self today!

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