When six-pack abs aren’t enough

‘Body Positivity’—two words that have gained a lot of traction in our vernacular of late and have encouraged countless women across the world to have a healthier outlook towards their own bodies. Even within our own society, the body positivity and self love movement has taken root and continues to challenge traditional norms of physical beauty. In fact, several corporations and design houses that cater to females have become strong proponents of the philosophy, executing campaigns in support of body positivity and self love. Although the impact of this movement is widespread and continues to grow due to the influence of social media, it rarely touches upon another demographic: males.

While women endeavour to support each other against body shaming, it seems as if men continue to drown out voices that speak up on their behalf. In my opinion, this behaviour can be relegated to the heteronormative behaviour expected of men. The largely patriarchal social structures of South Asia continue to propound ideals that are now being dubbed “toxic masculinity.” A quick look at social media debates on this topic demonstrates this clearly: men are quick to judge others for calling out toxic masculine behaviour and deride its implications. Such toxicity does not only lend itself to the behaviour of men, but also to their physical appearance. Just as women have been expected to fit a certain mould to be desirable, so have men. Where women are told to be nothing short of Milo’s Venus, men are expected to be the spitting image of a Greek god. Having struggled with my own body, and being the occasional target of a jab, I decided to look into this further.

I have always been shorter than those around me and for a large part of my life I was underweight. Only recently, after active effort, have I reached what is considered to be the “normal” BMI for someone of my stature and age. However, while I was lucky enough to develop confidence to combat any body shaming I faced, I realise now that many others can’t or haven’t.

“Most importantly,  we need to give space for men to express their insecurities. A shift from our heteronormative expectations of men that are debilitating for mental health, can be the start”

Delving into the debate on body disorders I quickly found out that Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is more serious than I previously thought. It has been classified as a mental illness by many global psychiatric professionals and organisations. However, this perception rarely transfers over to our daily lives. Even though BDD is on the extreme end, modern day gym culture and the constant bombardment of an Adonis-like male physique through advertisements and media portrayals of “perfect men” continue to put many men on the risk spectrum. According to one American study, the percentage of men that are unhappy with their bodies has tripled in the past twenty-five years—a drastic increase indeed1.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that fitness is unimportant or should be neglected. I myself felt like a whole new person once I began working out and was able to experience firsthand the positive effects that exercise can have on the mind, body and self-esteem. But as with anything, an unhealthy obsession has negative consequences. To understand this better I reached out to body activist Musa Hayat, who is currently based in London and is a strong proponent of having a healthy relationship with one’s body.

Musa echoed my sentiments regarding the reason behind why South Asian men in particular might be unwilling to discuss body positivity. According to him, the alpha-male mindset that is so embedded in our society, discourages men from openly addressing their insecurities and hence gives way to dissatisfaction. This in turn can lead to a range of mental health issues from anxiety to BDD.

What fascinated me the most during my research was how those we deem to have the “perfect” body are also victim to this phenomenon. Reading up on the blogs and Instagram captions of several international fitness models, I observed something peculiar: men with the much sought after physique were equally dissatisfied with their appearance. This was troubling for me; while I struggle to maintain a normal BMI, those with chiseled abs and “Superman biceps” – the Holy Grail of fitness if you may – want more. Having six-pack abs isn’t enough for them; they continue to want lower body-fat percentages and more defined physiques. This is not altogether a foreign concept in Pakistan either. To get further insight into this I spoke to Sameer Malik, a fitness trainer and the entrepreneur behind Iron Box in Lahore.

Speaking to him, I found out that most men aim for a muscular, bulky body that resembles that of fitness models, athletes or movie stars. Regarding why those with the “perfect” body continue to be dissatisfied, he suggested it’s because of the general need of humans to want more. Once again, it is about perception. If one wants to challenge their body to improve for health reasons, I’m all for it. But those who have an unhealthy obsession, where the goal of their life is to achieve unattainable, unsustainable body-fat percentages or cuts, that’s where the problem comes in.  Sameer further admitted that there are negatives when people buy into the online myth of constantly having a perfect body, but also stated that social media has made fitness a lot more accessible to people.

In conclusion, having spoken to body activists, trainers and friends, it boils down to what I assumed was the problem all along. Men in our society are conditioned to bottle their feelings, to always be better than the man next to them and to increase their manliness constantly. When it comes to the physical, this takes form in the never-ending quest of a perfect body. This constant dissatisfaction, spurred on by social media, can for many create an unhealthy obsession. Fitness is important, but using it negatively, like anything else, is dangerous. We need to focus on fitness from a health perspective and understand that not all bodies are the same.

Most importantly, we need to give space for men to express their insecurities. A shift from our heteronormative expectations of men that are debilitating for mental health, can be the start.

Notes:  1. Pope HG, Phillips KA, Olivardia R. The Adonis complex: the secret crisis of male body obsession. New York: Free Press; 2000.

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