I’ve spent an embarrassing portion of my life thinking there was something wrong with me. I think about this while I run. How did I become so obsessed with my body?
Mom once told me Dad was a 6’1″ beanpole when he graduated from high school. My grandpas were both pretty slim in their primes, standing 5’8″and 5’9″, respectively. By all indications, I will not be splashing out of this gene pool onto the cover of Men’s Health. I’m 5’11″ tall and weigh 160 pounds. Looking back, I’ve noticed a distinct correlation between the fittest times in my life and those two numbers. My measurements hovered there when I was in peak condition as a college soccer player, just as they do now.
I’m built to run.
Like many guys, though, I spent a lot of time trying to pack on muscle to fit the mold it seemed pretty girls wanted. The ideal male figure, I thought, was chiseled from stone to 6’2″ and 200 pounds with 4% body fat. My long arms and longer legs came up way short on that attractiveness scale, so I joined the rest of my gender in the gym. I jumped on the carousel of lifting and eating plans “guaranteed” to get me a beach-ready body (despite living eighteen hours from the nearest ocean). I was bound and determined to be able to say, “Look at me! I got all muscle-y for you! Don’t all throw your panties at once!”
Try as I might, nothing worked. I gained a pound or two, maybe even five, but never achieved the cover model body. Sadly, I have yet to be buried under an avalanche of lacy thongs from Victoria’s Secret.
What I did acquire, in lieu of the superhero physique and trailing pack of sex-crazed swimsuit models, was a distorted body image. I developed a mild case of gymnophobia – fear of being nude — thinking I wouldn’t look appealing with my clothes off. I still deal with it, on some level way inthe back of my mind, to this day.
The male ego is far more fragile than any of us would like to admit. If we were really honest, we’d acknowledge we can pinpoint trouble spots in our mirrors with almost the same speed and ease any woman can in hers. Though different and much less severe than the social pressures associated with looking like Barbie, a large portion of us struggle with being Ken (minus “the underwear issue,” of course).
This is called dysmorphia, quite literally a “state of abnormal shape.” Though body dysmorphic disorder — it’s technical name — is only diagnosed in 1-2% of the population where it becomes so crippling it can lead to depression, anxiety or social isolation, it’s safe to say most of us carry some sort of bias against ourselves. Who am I kidding? Your body issues came to mind the minute I mentioned the mirror in the last paragraph.
What I’m talking about is more subtle than simply thinking you’re fat – or knowing you’ve swelled up a bit since college. It’s more sinister. A defect, whether small or even just imagined, turns into a controlling obsession. The slightest imperfection defines your whole existence.
I’ve passed hours and hours wondering how I let one woman tear me to pieces because of it.
The Spring and Summer after I turned 25 were the most painful I can remember. For the first time in more than three years, I took up running as a regular part of my week. Having been poked at and prodded for several months about what I lacked during the Winter, I told myself it was a good time to put my life back in order and the singular therapy of a long run alone would do the trick. “I’ll be able to get away from everything,” I said, “and burn off the stress from school.” I almost believed me.
Over a few weeks, I worked up to four miles at a time, then six. At one point, I did twelve. I completely changed the way I ate, incorporating vegetables into most meals for the first time in my adult life. I dropped twenty-five pounds in four months, going from no extracurricular activity to averaging twenty-plus miles per week. “Man, I am so healthy,” I thought.
But I wasn’t.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Methinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow.” Any runner of any skill level can tell you this is the truth. It’s as if the brain, suddenly given the opportunity, allows anything and everything to bubble up to the surface.
“Is there anything you like?” I snapped. Stephanie had just spent a couple of minutes pointing at the pudge around my belly button and squeezing my slender arms.
“Your chest. Have I not said that?” She looked genuinely shocked, completely unaware how deep her “playful jokes” were cutting.
I couldn’t buy Coach purses or diamond tennis bracelets. I wouldn’t be modeling for Abercrombie and Fitch. I had transformed from a man comfortable in his own skin for the first time in his life into a quietly self-conscious wreck. She wanted more muscle and more money. (I wanted my last girlfriend.)
Only in retrospect am I able to grasp how much pressure I felt to fit into that mold.
Needless to say, running with this banshee screaming during every trip outside curbed my desire to train for a marathon. What had begun as enjoyable means to test myself became a painful slog through my psyche. I did my best to power through for months, then, after ten miles one September night, I gave up. I couldn’t handle it any more. I put my shoes in the closet and told everyone I needed that time for studying. I was really just tired of being haunted by the ghosts of relationships past. Even today, years later, I still have moments on the trail where I wonder what she’d think. That’s how deep the scar is.
My heart hardened as my self-worth deteriorated. As I began evaluating myself against her criteria and my inferences, I felt like I would always come up short. My first instinct, as I met a new woman, was I would just end up heartbroken after disappointing another one. I found outs before I was even in.
Recovery took a long time. I picked apart my physique and bank statement. I could not find anything right with myself.
People do change, of course. We grow and develop new habits but, in the end, it’s very damaging to attempt to be something we’re unable to. When actions are performed to produce the façade I think others wish to see, then I’m ultimately unsuccessful. (A lack of such self-awareness leads meatheads at the gym to keep hitting on women despite repeated denials.)
This is the road dysmorphia leads us down. Chasing those external standards long enough causes our identity to disappear. Our minds get lost in the struggle to clear a bar forever out of reach.
I am not a chest or biceps, a glittering watch or stylish haircut. Putting on forty-five pounds of muscle will require me to do something inconsistent with who I am, what I am capable of or what I wish to be. The standard was her problem, not mine. I am ashamed to admit it took more than three years for me to realize I can’t be those things. I’ve regained the confidence I had and I refuse to go back.I’ve long since lost the desire to impress a woman such that her drool ends up turning the beach into a pool of quicksand beneath her.
I’m built to run.
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