Looking in the mirror

So, last night while I was hanging out at a friend’s place and eating as many snacks as everyone else put together, I was whining how I can’t gain weight.  That comment usually gets nasty looks from people who lack absurdly accelerated metabolisms, especially when I say it while piling triple-cream French cheese on a hunk of baguette.  It’s true, though — I eat like a horse and can’t seem to put on the weight.  There was a time when I weighed a good ten kilos more than I do now (a reasonably muscular ten kilos, that looked good on me; not, like, a ten-kilo dangly belly that hung past my junk), and I look back at the body I had then with an exaggerated, unrealistic fondness that nonetheless has an effect on how I see myself today.  Of course, it took nearly 5000 calories a day (and, yes, I actually measured my caloric intake for a month, and that was the average) to keep me at that weight, but the enormous cost of food aside it seemed worth it.

It’s interesting how a title like “Looking in the mirror” immediately conjures a metaphor of personal reflection and evaluation of character.  But, I’m literally thinking about what I see when I look in the mirror: me, standing there.  As a rule I don’t much care for what’s there.

Body-image issues — unreasonable image ideals in media, emotional damage from unhealthy body perceptions, medical harm from eating disorders — tend to be discussed mostly in the context of women.  Men aren’t forgotten, exactly, but we don’t get the same level of support or acceptance for similar concerns.  Women tend to diminish a man’s insecurities with the implication that we don’t know how tough it can be, and men tend to respond with a simple, “Stop whining and be a man!”  It’s certainly true that a man has more socially-acceptable options for his personal aesthetic style.  If I can’t pull off “handsome devil” (or at least “skinny pretty-boy”) then I can always go with “hilarious fat guy” or “endearing like an awkward ugly dog” or “Fuck yeah, I’m rich!”  Young women, on the other hand, tend to get either “attractive young woman” or “not attractive young woman.”

So, yeah, women do get hosed when it comes to cultural expectations about their appearance.  But, just because it’s more socially-acceptable for a man to be unattractive than a women (and, look any sitcom couple for abundant evidence of this), that doesn’t necessarily mean that a guy has to be happier with himself.  I’m not blind — I can see attractive, fit people on the cover of magazines too, and dislike myself for not looking like that.

So, when I look in a mirror, I feel the weight of all my expectations about my own body, and it sucks.  I see someone who is scrawny, underweight, awkward, and ungainly.  It doesn’t help that there was a time when I weighed more and was in better shape.  However, objectively, I know that even when I had the extra weight, muscle, and tone, I still wasn’t happy with how I looked.  Perhaps my expectations are lowering as I become resigned to being further from my ideal, but I’m also aware that I wasn’t really any happier when I was closer to it.

The interesting thing about the male western beauty ideal is that it is attainable, at least for a majority of men.  A woman can be too short, or proportioned wrong, or have naturally small (or large) breasts, or be physically changed by childbirth, and of course even the “perfect” women can’t photoshop herself like a cover-girl as she walks around.  Most guys, though, if they really work at diet and excercise, can have the body of a movie star.  When it comes right down to it, the ideal male body is mostly the result of body fat percentage, and muscle size and tone.  These are things we can actually control, if we really work at it.

I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse for men.  A woman who buys into the beauty myth is chasing an impossible dream, but at least a clever or cynical woman can realise that she’s comparing herself  to an unattainable ideal and take some comfort in a more reasonable evaluation of her own body.  A guy, on the other hand, just has to walk into a gym to see a whole lot of other guys with much better, and perfectly attainable, bodies.  What defeats us is knowing full well that with enough effort and willpower, we could be where we want to be, but also knowing that we’ll never do it — however much we want it, it’s just too much work.  “If only I’d been going to the gym diligently for years, like these guys, I’d be in good shape.  But, now catching up would take forever, so it’s never going to happen.”

And, to be honest, society is simply a lot more forgiving of imperfect male beauty.  A good suit will cover your flaws and exaggerate your assets (or provide them outright, if you had few or none to start with).  Male fashion tends to involve layers and coverage, while female fashion tends to involve tasteful ways to show skin.  I went to a film release party a few weeks ago, and wore a nice suit — only my head and hands showed.  My date, on the other hand, wore a tiny black dress, strappy high heels, a little handbag, and a thong.  Less of her body shows when she comes out of the shower in a towel than at a formal party.  However, I could have an enormous belly, a hunch-back, and three arms, and I’d still look fine in a good suit.

All of that should really make it easier for men, right?  And, I suppose it does.  But, that doesn’t change the fact that there is an ideal of male beauty out there, it is pervasive, and it does drive men into spirals of self-loathing and despair that we cannot have the bodies we want.   I do 100 push-ups every morning; I could do 200 if I really wanted to.  I hate crunches, but I’d definitely have much nicer tummy muscles if I did more of them.  I have the cardiovascular system of a 90-year-old man, but there’s nothing stopping me from jogging every day.  I could do more, and when I don’t it feels pretty sucky, because I’ve got no-one  to blame but myself and my lack of impetus and willpower.

On top of all that, though, is the objective knowledge that having the body I want probably wouldn’t make me happy, just as I wasn’t magically happier when I was in better shape than I am now.  But, knowing that somehow doesn’t make a difference — I still look in the mirror and get all self-critical.  I strongly suspect that a lot of guys do, probably as many as women, which is to say almost all of us.  As much as women get a crap deal when it comes to the beauty ideal, at least women get to talk about it.  Men, even though I’m almost certain we feel the same way, have to stifle the insecurity because, well, it’s not manly.  We may have less social pressure (and I cheerfully concede that this is probably true), but we also have less of an outlet for that pressure.

So, what choice do I have?

I wake up and do push-ups, every day, not because I have the slightest care about my pectoral strength, but because I want to look a little better.  I know perfectly well that I’m not going to magically accept who I am any time soon (and, would I want to?  Is the drive to improve always unhealthy?), so I at least do something, so that I don’t feel like I’m doing nothing.  I honestly can’t tell if that’s a realistic and practical approach, or if it just means I’ve given up on having a healthy self-image.

The day they invent steroids that don’t make your junk rot off, I am so there.

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