Fat-Sham­ing For Guys BY PETER SAGAL

Men are not im­mune.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - BY PETER SAGAL

“To­day, Clark Gable would be play­ing the lead’s nerdy best friend.”


women’s ath­let­icwear com­pany Oiselle started a cam­paign en­cour­ag­ing women to em­brace their bod­ies, no mat­ter what their shape. This brought back a mem­ory for com­pany founder and CEO, Sally Berge­sen. She posted it on Twit­ter: “‘ Keep eat­ing like that and you’re go­ing to be a but­ter­ball’,” quot­ing a male rel­a­tive, when she was 12.

She then in­vited women to share their own sto­ries of body commentary, cut­ting and kind, us­ing the hash­tag #TheySaid. A tor­rent of re­sponses en­sued. “‘You have such a pretty face. It’s a pity you’re so fat. No man will ever marry you.’ – My mother”. “‘You’re so skinny; what could you pos­si­bly be up­set about?’ – girls at my school”. “‘When we’re done hav­ing kids, we’ll nip that, tuck that, and lift those.’ – my exhusband on the last day he ever saw me un­clothed”.

I read these with a kind of rue­ful hor­ror. While I completely un­der­stood how ter­ri­ble this all was, I wasn’t sur­prised. I live in this world, too. I have daugh­ters. I have lived with and loved women. And I have, like ev­ery­body else – in­clud­ing many women them­selves – judged them on how close their bod­ies came to an im­pos­si­ble ideal. But I’m also aware that we men are not im­mune to im­posed stan­dards of physique, ei­ther. In the pri­vacy of their bath­rooms, peo­ple of both sexes stare at mir­rors and con­tem­plate where they have fallen short – or more of­ten, ex­ceeded the al­low­able mar­gins. I won­dered: what is be­ing said to men about our bod­ies, and who is speak­ing?

Mostly, it’s not other men. Many #TheySaid re­sponses cited things said by other women, be­cause in our cul­ture, women con­stantly con­duct what aca­demic lit­er­a­ture calls ‘fat talk’, in which they cri­tique their weight, physique, diet, present fail­ures and fu­ture hopes. Men: not so much. As North­west­ern Univer­sity, US, psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Re­nee En­geln once put it: “Men talk about body dis­sat­is­fac­tion when they’re eat­ing and when they’re at the gym. Women talk about body dis­sat­is­fac­tion when they’re talk­ing.”

But that doesn’t mean men aren’t lis­ten­ing, mostly to the mega­phone of cul­ture. Women have always been com­pared to dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal ideals, vary­ing by cul­ture and era, from Peter Paul Rubens’ plump ladies to Twiggy’s bony ’ 60s style to Gal Gadot as Won­der Woman, an eter­nally shift­ing ar­ray of stan­dards sim­i­lar only in their unattain­abil­ity. For men, though, it’s only been in the last 30 years that a cul­tural bod­ily ideal has be­come fan­tas­ti­cal. In 1934’ s It Hap­pened

One Night, Clark Gable takes off his shirt to re­veal a dis­tinctly un­toned, slightly hairy chest – and far from end­ing his ca­reer, that im­age was so sex­u­ally charged that men all over Amer­ica al­legedly stopped buy­ing un­der­shirts. Fast for­ward to the 2017 movie Bay­watch, in which Zac Efron, play­ing a ‘for­mer Olympic swim­mer’, has mus­cu­lar arms, bulging pecs, and ripped abs – yet looks scrawny next to his co-star, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ John­son. To­day, Clark Gable would be play­ing the lead’s nerdy best friend.

While women are told they must be thin – with a grow­ing em­pha­sis on mus­cle tone and ath­leti­cism – for men, body anx­i­ety is far more fo­cused on mus­cu­lar­ity and size, and it starts early.

One study of male ac­tion fig­ures shows that their plas­tic physiques have pumped up over the last 35 years. My 1970s Spi­der-Man Hal­loween cos­tume was a plas­tic face mask and smock; to­day it’s a fi­bre­fill-padded torso with built-in abs and bulging bi­ceps.

For men, even if fat isn’t the mark of shame it is for women, it still says lazy, goofy, the comic re­lief rather than the hero. Even pudgy movie stars – Seth Ro­gen, Jonah Hill – even­tu­ally ap­pear in gos­sip rags show­ing off new, lean bod­ies. If the old mark of suc­cess was a Wall Street belly fill­ing out a R50 000 suit; now it’s the Sil­i­con Val­ley flat stom­ach rid­ing a R50 000 car­bon-fi­bre bike. To be a fat man is to be seen as, es­sen­tially, un­se­ri­ous.

It is a ter­ri­ble thing

to be shamed, by the cul­ture or your part­ner or your par­ent or your­self, be­cause your body does not fit some pre­pos­ter­ous ideal. But for some of us, what­ever dark rea­son we be­gan our jour­ney, we got to a bright place – be it a moun­tain top, or the fin­ish­ing chute of a marathon. To this day, I still hear an in­ter­nal voice telling me I should be big­ger, stronger, leaner. I’m re­signed to never be­ing able to shut it up. But at the same time, I’m a lot health­ier and hap­pier than when I first re­sponded to that pres­sure by start­ing to run 35 years ago. Would I be hap­pier still had I never felt the urge, how­ever in­sid­i­ous, to try to re­make my­self in the pur­suit of an im­pos­si­ble ideal?

I put it to Berge­sen: would she rather have never heard those com­ments, if that meant she never would have achieved what she has? “If body sham­ing was the only way I would find and love run­ning, then yeah, I would take the lumps,” she re­sponded. “But I don’t be­lieve they’re cause and ef­fect. For me, the big­ger draw to run­ning was the abil­ity to get healthy and re­cover from sub­stance abuse, par­tic­u­larly al­co­hol.”

In fact, she said, in­ter­nalised body dys­mor­phia – an ob­ses­sion with per­ceived im­per­fec­tions – hin­dered her in her de­ci­sion to start run­ning and re-as­sert con­trol over her life. She came to re­alise that run­ning would ben­e­fit her, for good and real rea­sons; but to get there, she had to put aside false ones.

So my pre­sumed bar­gain is, in fact, no bar­gain at all. The pur­pose of run­ning is not to be­come like any­one else – an ac­tor, a Greek statue – but to be­come a health­ier, stronger, and hap­pier ver­sion of your­self. To tell any­one – men or women or your­self – any­thing else will not help them get there. In fact, it will hold them back; be­cause to ask the im­pos­si­ble of any­one, most es­pe­cially your­self, is to guar­an­tee fail­ure.

Peter Sagal is a 3: 09 marathoner and TV host.

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