On a trip to Cancun, Mexico in 2004 Matt White arrived excited. Having barely settled in, he already had a drink in his hand, tore off his shirt and got ready to jump in the pool. That’s when it came – the feeling that he was the most out-of-shape person there.
“There was me showing up with my big white belly hanging out,” he said reliving the moment.
“I felt like a whale.”
What causes this sharp decline in self-perception? It’s a self-imposed negative body image according to Dr. Gary Worrell, associate professor in sport and exercise psychology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.
“Body image is a term we use for how we perceive ourselves especially in an environment when we’re always being socially compared with other human beings,” said Worrell.
People used to think it was mostly women worrying about how they look in the mirror. From magazines to movies, changes in society’s view of what a man should look like are sparking negative self-images that are plaguing men just the same. Issues about weight have men looking at themselves in a whole new light – a light that only they can see.
Looking back on his tropical vacation, White, a Goodlife Fitness manager, says in reality he was a six or seven on the fitness scale – which is pretty fit – but he felt like a four or a five. He’s now 32 and in better shape than most his age.
He played sports for a big part of his life. At one point he was accepted to the Canadian rugby team. He declined in favour of becoming an officer in the reserves.
Somewhere along the way White says his body image went from one extreme to the other. In his mind he became fat.
Looking back he says he was still in good shape. He just wasn’t good enough by his own standards.
“I felt like I was huge, but nobody would have said that guy’s out of shape,” he said.
“My body fat percentage was probably 25 or 26. I like to be at 12 or 15.”
His body fat percentage is now 18, but even though he’s very close to his ideal condition he has other worries. Being a manager at a fitness club doesn’t help White’s situation. He feels the need to be the example.
This is a common pressure that people in the fitness or athletic world put on themselves, according to Worrell.
There’s a standard for most males specifically,” Worrell said.
“When they play sports they have to be as tough as can be. They have to be fit. They have to train hard. Athletes typically have a higher sense of perfectionism.”
White believes that despite what many people think about women being the most concerned about their image, men feel it just as much.
“They don’t realize that sometimes when we look at ourselves we feel like shit,” he said.
During soccer tryouts in the seventh grade, Jeremy Chiasson remembers being made fun of when having to take his shirt off as part of the ‘skins’ team in a shirts versus skins match. People made fun of his moobs – a combination of the words ‘man’ and ‘boobs’ – and this stuck with him.
“The point is it stopped me from functioning,” said the second-year St. Thomas University student, adding that after the practice, he never went back.
The discomfort with his own body image has caused Chiasson over the years to adopt a comedic outlook on it. It’s a self-admitted coping method. While not fat by any means he’s unhappy with his current condition.
“You kind of have to joke about it. You’re not left with any choice. There’s not really any way you can positively embrace it and be like, ‘I’m curvy. I’m voluptuous,’” he said jokingly.
What society perceives as manly has stopped him from sharing his feelings. This kind of societal pressure has the same affect on many other people too, Worrell said.
“In North American society we want our males to be young, virile, tough and have a sense of that they’re always in control of their person,” he said.
Chiasson said there were times where girls would roll their eyes when he would talk about his insecurities.
“Guys are conditioned not to complain,” he said.
But what option does that leave for males who struggle with insecurity? Chiasson once again turns to humour to show his true feelings.
“I sure would like to go swimming if it wasn’t for my crippling insecurity,” he said.
“I guess I shouldn’t phrase it like that, but it’s true.”
The unflattering light an individual sees themselves in is only visible to their own eyes, according to Worrell.
Nobody is safe from this – not even who society sees as the most beautiful, or most physically fit.
“That’s the problem with body image,” said Worrell.
“It’s purely in the view of the person who is suffering from a condition where if you have a negative body image you’ll go to extreme lengths.”
While some strive to change their bodies, others try to cope. Worrell makes the point to say most people suffer from this.
“Most of us are somewhere in between.”
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