Chris Crowder: Men face body shaming, too

Monday, September 5, 2016 - 6:16pm

I was born weighing two pounds, two ounces — three months premature. I’ve been told I need more meat on my bones my whole life, probably even before I can remember.

My weight didn’t bother me as a child. I didn’t see myself as different from my classmates, and the time where I could’ve been influenced by television was spent playing sports. I thought I was normal-sized. That perspective changed leading up to middle school, when media begins to make children doubt themselves, leading to tweens pointing out flaws in each other’s awkward-stage bodies.

I can remember the first moment when I wanted to be in skin other than my own. I was playing Madden 2005 — I would have been around 9 years old and in fourth grade. I loved creating myself as a player on teams I created with the best, most cost-effective players available from a fantasy draft before the season started. I would be the quarterback and lead the fictional Desperados to a Super Bowl victory. I tried to make my player as much like myself as possible at first, matching skin tone, hair and equipment I would have liked to wear to make myself look as cool as possible if I played football. One thing I obviously couldn’t match was my weight.

I weighed about 80 pounds then, and the minimum weight you could make a player was twice my size. But I didn’t make myself weigh as little as possible to be as accurate as I could. I augmented the virtual character’s biceps to be the size of watermelons. I fantasized that in this virtual world he, really I, was feared by everybody in the NFL, wasn’t doubted by anyone as the strongest man and got any woman he wanted.

I didn’t love my body, and I began to realize how much I really didn’t as I got older. I struggled to gain weight — probably because I was so active playing tennis and baseball, and playing in the marching band, all of which kept me fit and skinny. My metabolism was also too fast for my own liking, but I’ll probably be wishing that it still was lighting quick when I’m 40. I was told that I couldn’t protect my girlfriends because I weighed less than them. I lagged behind in the weightlifting sessions during freshman gym because I struggled to bench just the bar. And television added the icing on the cake with fake and real images of the perfect man — the man that it seemed all men wanted to be, and the one women wanted — an Adonis with bulging shoulders and six-pack abs.

Women have been facing exploitation because of their bodies and unrealistic standards all of their lives. Think Barbie, supermodels and pop stars. Though their bodies are not nearly as sexualized and exploited as women’s bodies, men face pressure and body shaming as well, even though it may not be as easy to spot. Think bulked-up action figures and weightlifters on the covers of magazines and reality television. For both sexes, images are touched up so models look more “perfect.” Women are made to look skinnier and men are made to look more muscular.

Looking at these pictures, I realize I will never be able to attain the physique that is deemed the ideal, dreamed-about man. Even as I continue to work out more frequently and gain more muscle than I ever have before, I’ll never look as good as the dude on the cover of Men’s Health. Because of my weight compared to an extremely muscular body, I have dealt with the lies people tell — that I’m not enough of a man, not attractive enough and that people won’t take me seriously because of how skinny I am.

But I want to encourage my fellow skinny guys to love their bodies the best they can. You can strive for whatever physique you want, but it shouldn’t be forced upon you. We, especially younger skinny boys, need help in the media. An idea I like is how the women’s retailer Aerie decided back in 2014 not to use touched-up models, using women of different body types to model its clothing. I don’t know how this would look for men, but a start may be not using touched-up images anymore or at least revealing the truth to the public so we will not believe the majority of the pictures we see are real.

Yes, good-looking, muscular men can still be ogled over and should be allowed to feel good about themselves, but everyone shouldn’t be pushed to that standard, whether it means losing pounds or putting more on. Trust me: Every time I am told to do that, I say, “I’m trying to.” It’s possible that your brothers, friends and boyfriends are facing the same thing. Just like some women may face the struggle and pressure of losing weight to gain a skinny “model body,” men face that tension just to gain muscle. This needs to be recognized because, far too often, this body shaming of less-than-perfect male physiques is looked over. Men should not be expected to “take it on the chin” and move on or act like people teasing their body doesn’t warrant feeling insecure. I know it from experience. It’s hard to block out all the noise and voices selling drugs to help you get more jacked.

So to combat unreachable standards and my anxieties, instead of envying a desirable before and after picture, I’m making my own.

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu.