Can Male Body Obsession Become A Tool For Healing?

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

Am I perfect yet?

I was intrigued by a recent cover story in Details Magazine. The big, bold headline read: “America’s New Male Body Obsession.” And the subhead: “It’s official: The Male Gaze Has Turned Upon Itself, and American Men Are Focused on Their Physiques as Never Before.”

Among the many things the article points out, the opening statements are sobering: “… Everywhere you turn, the male form is being idealized, commodified, fetishized. On TV screens (the ripped vampires of True Blood), in Hollywood (Ryan Gosling’s toned torso lifting Crazy, Stupid, Love to the top of the box office), and on billboards (towering images of chiseled men in briefs), laptops, and smartphones (the appendages of Weiner and Favre). Now look in the mirror. (And we know you do.) We’ve all become body-conscious to the core…”

Indeed. In my last post, I reported about a recent study that noted the majority of gay men would give up a year of their life, or more, to acquire that perfect body. According to Rosi Prescott, the CEO of Central YMCA and who was interviewed by PinkNews, where the story originally ran,  the research shows that “body image anxiety is sadly much more of an issue for gay men.

“Today gay men are under enormous pressure about their bodies,” Prescott added, “and we believe that a lack of body diversity in the media, including the gay press, and a relentless focus which values people based on appearance, may in part explain why gay men are particularly susceptible to this issue. This is of concern when we know that record numbers of men are taking steroids or having unnecessary cosmetic surgery to achieve what is often an unattainable or unrealistic body image ideal.”

After sifting through both the Details’ article and the original study, I recalled one of the more potent interviews I conducted over the last few years. It was with Geneen Roth. She’s the celebrated author of “Women, Food and God” and “Lost and Found,” and quite the trailblazer when it comes to raising the level of awareness around the severity of eating disorders and body image issues. (Her books, by the way, aren’t solely for a female audiences. Many of the issues she addresses are universal and affect both women and men.)

Roth told me that she struggled with her weight most of her life, gaining and losing more than a thousand pounds since adolescence, fluctuating between dangerously overweight and severely underweight. Yet she remained committed to fully understanding herself and her motivations. And so, as is often the case with such passionate internal quests—be careful what you ask for—around 1979, she took action and did the one thing she may not have thought she ever would: Stop dieting. 

“I felt like I [was] in a living hell for so many years because I thought my pain was about my relationship to food,” Roth revealed. “I suffered hugely, having been on dozens of diets and gaining and losing every week, and feeling that what was wrong with me was the size of my body; feeling that the size of my life and the size of my body were exactly, perfectly synonymous.”

But putting a halt to dieting wasn’t so much about being overweight.
 She writes: “When I stopped dieting, it was because I glimpsed the possibility that my crazy eating was the sanest thing I’d ever done. If I didn’t reject it, try to be good or measure up to an external standard of right eating or right body size, if I was curious and open about each part of it—what I was eating, how I felt while I was eating, what happened in the moments before I suddenly found myself hacking away at frozen cake in an attempt to get the whole thing into my mouth ten minutes ago—the eating itself would lead me back to the feelings, beliefs, fears that created the addiction. Once I understood what I was using food to do, I could ask myself if there was a more direct way to have what I wanted without hurting myself in the process.”

I love that last statement because it suggests that one’s disorder—and all things that make it up, whether it be binge eating, starvation, dieting, body checking/fixation, and more—can act as the epiphany most people seem to be craving.  In other words … your food-related/body-image acts are actually an external manifestation of your inner self trying to get you to pay attention to something deeper—about you. All in an effort the heal or transform something. (It’s delicious irony if you think about it.) As Roth suggests, it’s not about “the food” … it’s more about that “thing” that makes you reach out toward food in, perhaps, an unhealthy way in the first place.

Cut back on plastic: Yo-Yo diets aren't healthy.

So, in regards to men and body image, I believe that the actions—the addictive behaviors around obtaining body “perfection”—are actually signals that something deeper is not being attended to. It’s tasty fodder and one of the reasons why I am writing this blog. As I noted before during the book tour of “Shut Up, Skinny Bitches!” I don’t have the all the answers to these curious issues, but I do believe that engaging in conversations about it—especially men and body image—is extremely helpful.

It’s 2012. When the elephant steps into the living room, it’s OK to talk about it.

In the meantime, taking a step back, and simply observing our actions around food, body image, etc., is a good first step. For when we’re able to do just that … even for one day … we begin to see a clearer picture of not only who we are (at the moment), but how we are being.

More importantly, over time, it may help us appreciate the best qualities of ourselves and re-examiner who we really want to be or become. And I propose it’s something greater than a human being who can fit into skinny jeans.

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