I recently came upon a photo of me that was about 10 years old or so. I didn’t think much of it, but then I took a closer look to see if I could spot the telltale signs of aging in it. It was hard. I’m a little heavier now than I was then (about 192 compared to about 185); there are more than a few gray hairs in my facial hair, but not much on top; I couldn’t see the advance of wrinkles.
Trust me. I am not Dorian Gray. But I think that guys are able to see exactly what they want to see in mirrors or photographs. A classic Canadian folk song called “Lies” is about a woman confronting her face in the mirror, with one couplet: “She shakes off the bitter web she wove / Gently puts the mirror face down by the stove.” From the outside, at least, I think women look at themselves and see flaws, while men look at themselves and see an idealized version of themselves.
I don’t think I have to argue that for many women, body image is a big problem. But I want to argue that the male tendency to ignore reality isn’t an asset. If we “can’t see” the toll that time and our choices take on our body, then men could be opening ourselves up to health issues.
I was recently part of an online discussion where a mother was talking about how quickly her daughter would look at herself and wonder if she was too fat (this in elementary school!), while the girl’s quite-average-shaped younger brother would come to his mother and demand she demonstrate awe at his huge biceps and muscles! While I suspect that everyone in adolescence is hypersensitive to body issues (why don’t my boobs look like hers, why can’t I get rid of these pimples, why am I 6’1″ and weigh under 140 — that last one was me, by the way), it’s disconcerting to think that even in early childhood, there are already seeds of dissatisfaction with who we are, and the willingness to rely on our fantasy vision of ourselves rather than to simply acknowledge reality.
Since the 1980s, when I was thin enough, as my dad used to say, “to have to run around in the shower to get wet,” I’ve put on about 55 pounds. I needed some of that. But maybe not all of that. Even my idealized eyes can see that. I’ll never be a bodybuilder, never be “musclebound.” Given the raw material, I would have to either become an utter gym rat, or I’d end up using dangerous methods like steroids to achieve some level of muscularity. And I’m not willing to risk my health for an image. I like feeling fit, I like feeling toned. But for me, the “Men’s Health” six-pack or the arms of a pro wrestler aren’t worth it.
But the question then becomes: if you recognize the need for change, then how to make that change. Next week, I’ll be talking about cosmetic surgery for men.
(photo CC-licenced by Flickr user Michele di Trani)