Men have body image is­sues too

In­ter­twined sub­jects of weight loss, food, ex­er­cise are deeply per­sonal

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - AN­DREW MEACHAM

I have lost and gained weight sev­eral times in my adult life. It wasn’t a prob­lem when I was younger and work­ing con­struc­tion. An “ideal” of­fice job 30 years ago started the yo-yo ef­fect. I don’t have any more weight to lose, but the po­ten­tial of gain­ing it back is al­ways there.

Over the past dozen years, my weight has fluc­tu­ated within a 150-pound range. I have never liked to talk about it much ei­ther way. If I was do­ing well by my stan­dards, I didn’t want to jinx it by hear­ing some­one else’s ex­pe­ri­ence. If I wasn’t, I cer­tainly didn’t want to go there.

If The Biggest Loser comes on, I can’t change the chan­nel fast enough.

My re­luc­tance to en­gage on the sub­ject has caused me to come across as cold at times or even an­ti­so­cial. I re­gret the per­cep­tion. I sup­pose it stems from a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion on my part, by which I mean not com­ing up with the right re­sponse when some­one in­vites me to com­ment on my body.

For me, the in­ter­twined sub­jects of weight loss and food — even ex­er­cise, to some ex­tent — are deeply per­sonal. They are the reg­u­la­tors by which we move closer to what we want for health and well-be­ing, or fur­ther away.

I don’t think most men talk about their bod­ies in any sig­nif­i­cant way. I don’t mean work­out rou­tines, which you’ll find in most any men’s life­style mag­a­zines. None of those mag­a­zines fea­ture a plus-sized male model on the cover. We don’t think of that, let alone talk about it.

I was more than “plus-sized.” Ten years ago my weight peaked at 333 pounds. Clothes didn’t fit, sus­penders were about 100 years out of style, and belts didn’t work. Even af­ter I found pants at the big-and-tall store, keep­ing them up was a real prob­lem. Ei­ther you’re ap­ply­ing a tourni­quet to the mid­sec­tion or it’s some­where around the hips, or it’s too loose, which de­feats the pur­pose of a belt. It’s one of a thou­sand odd facts about liv­ing with too much weight, which cu­mu­la­tively led me to re­solve to take it off.

You are not what you eat

It’s hard — im­pos­si­ble, re­ally — to talk about our re­la­tion­ship with our own bod­ies with­out talk­ing about food. Food tempts and se­duces, it be­trays and sus­tains us. It giveth and taketh away. Two things sep­a­rate prob­lems with food from other be­hav­iours that are of­ten called ad­dic­tions. One is that ab­sti­nence is not pos­si­ble. The sec­ond is the idea that these is­sues dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect women, a per­cep­tion that may be chang­ing.

“Eat­ing dis­or­ders have his­tor­i­cally been con­sid­ered among the most gen­dered of all psy­chi­atric ill­ness pre­sen­ta­tions,” be­gins an ar­ti­cle in this month’s Cur­rent Psy­chi­a­try Re­ports.

The Mayo Clinic de­fines eat­ing dis­or­ders as per­sis­tent be­hav­iours around food that neg­a­tively af­fect health, emo­tions and abil­ity to func­tion in im­por­tant ar­eas of life. For a large part of the 20th cen­tury, men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als didn’t think men suf­fered from these be­hav­iours at all. That per­cep­tion shifted to a be­lief that men com­prise one in 10 cases of eat­ing dis­or­ders, the psy­chi­a­try jour­nal states. More re­cent stud­ies show the num­ber may be closer to one in four.

“We think, ‘Oh, men don’t care about their looks, and if they do, they’re just simply be­ing whiny,’?” said J. Kevin Thomp­son, a Univer­sity of South Florida psy­chol­o­gist for 37 years and a long­time re­searcher on eat­ing dis­or­ders.

Men started show­ing up in eat­ing dis­or­der stud­ies about 15 years ago, but have since closed the gap in one cat­e­gory.

“With binge eat­ing dis­or­ders, you’re pretty much talk­ing equal rates be­tween men and women,” Thomp­son said.

Genes might in­flu­ence who de­vel­ops eat­ing dis­or­ders, ex­perts say. Re­gard­less of the cause, in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers can make prob­lems dra­mat­i­cally worse, as demon­strated in the sui­cides of teenagers who have been teased.

“If you talk to teach­ers, they un­der­stand that body image is­sues af­fect boys, maybe not as much as girls but it’s a real prob­lem,” Thomp­son said. The term “body image” bears vir­tu­ally no re­la­tion to a per­son’s ap­pear­ance, so much as per­cep­tions about ap­pear­ance.

I had a va­ri­ety of cam­ou­flages that were sup­posed to dis­guise the way I felt about the way I looked. Triple-X shirts with the shirt­tail out. Sweat­pants. This image of pre­tend­ing to not care about my ap­pear­ance was it­self a pose.

Push some­thing down enough, you can al­most make it go away. But some­times, real­ity breaks through.

One evening in my above-300-pounds pe­riod, as I was pre­par­ing to step on a gro­cery store scale, I slipped off my shoes, as al­ways.

Just then, a cou­ple leav­ing the store no­ticed me re­mov­ing my shoes. They nudged each other, whis­pered and laughed. To them it was good clean hu­mour — per­haps even to be shared with me, en­joyed by me — the fat man tak­ing off his shoes so he wouldn’t weigh quite so much. A Nor­man Rock­well mo­ment, a won­der­ful gift.

Highs and lows

I’ll ac­knowl­edge yo-yo di­et­ing. Heck, I’m a text­book case. I was some­where in the 290pound range in 2010 when I got pneu­mo­nia. A week in the hospi­tal took off 30 pounds. I kept go­ing as I re­cov­ered, pick­ing up Nutrisys­tem and spin­ning.

I stopped at around 210 pounds, which for me at 6 feet 3 was fine. A de­ci­sion to stop spin classes to save cost led to weight gain, to 270.

I took some off, gained some back, then re­dou­bled my ef­forts. Now I’m at about 190 and have been for months. I spin or run, some­thing I can do again with less weight to carry. I still eat Nutrisys­tem on oc­ca­sion. When I go out, I eat what I want.

The bizarre thing is what hap­pens when you take weight off. I felt great. The pounds were go­ing away, I was buy­ing new clothes and start­ing to like what I saw in the mir­ror.

But the ob­ses­sion with body — mine or any­one else’s — does not dis­ap­pear with the weight.

Other than a trainer with whom I worked out for six years, I’ve never had nor sought much ad­vice. It comes my way just the same. Lately, peo­ple tell me I’m too thin, I’m anorexic and I should gain weight. I ig­nore al­most all of it.

I ig­nore it be­cause I feel good now and don’t want to go back to feel­ing bad. By feel­ing bad I am re­fer­ring to short­ness of breath, knee and lower back pain, high blood pres­sure, sleep ap­nea and putting my­self at risk for Type 2 di­a­betes.

Yet this is no vic­tory story. “Re­cov­ery” is ten­u­ous, and rav­en­ous eat­ing never feels far away. Crav­ings are un­nerv­ing.

In so­cial sit­u­a­tions, I’m torn about which ques­tions to an­swer. What is there to ex­plain? I feel good in my clothes — and the fact that I am even in­ter­ested in clothes. I walk with­out pain and no longer have sleep ap­nea. Even­tu­ally I’ll hit the weights again.

Even be­ing asked for sum­mary com­ment can be dis­con­cert­ing. That’s not sur­pris­ing, given the ev­i­dence that com­ments of oth­ers in­flu­ence how we feel about our bod­ies.

In past stud­ies, Thomp­son and col­leagues have de­vel­oped a scale of sub­jects’ re­sponses to pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive com­men­tary. Ex­am­ples might be “You’ve put on weight” or “You look good to­day.”

“Neg­a­tive com­men­tary made peo­ple feel more body-image con­scious,” Thomp­son said.


Men started show­ing up in eat­ing dis­or­der stud­ies about 15 years ago.

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