I was always big for my age. When I was a very young child the doctor told my mom I would be well over 6’4”. She scoffed at this given that my dad, who is 5’11”, is the tallest in his family and has a sister who is 4’11” — and my mom is a pretty average 5’7”. My dad took this and ran with it, giving me man-sized portions and threatening to call the ‘Manners Police’ if I didn’t finish all the food on my plate. He, of course, wanted a “big, strong son”. This eventually morphed into me cleaning my plate and my sister’s plate and snacking uncontrollably. At 17 I maxed out at 6’7” and at the time I probably weighed 285-300 lbs — but it’s impossible to know for certain because I didn’t weigh myself. Despite being overweight, I carried myself well, was athletic, and reasonably popular. I was captain of the basketball team. I got recruited to play football at university. I did well in school. I had girlfriends. I was outwardly confident. But I wasn’t happy.
Of course I got called fat as a kid and was told I had ‘nice tits’ on more than a few occasions, but generally I could come up with a come-back that would hurt worse than the obvious physical stuff about me. My dad, who I only saw once a year for a couple weeks at a time, eventually switched from encouraging me to eat to trying to get me to get in shape by commenting on my food choices. Despite telling me I shouldn’t be so overweight, he still bragged about my size and told me he was proud of how tall I was, while saying he only wanted the best for me and explaining that getting in shape would help me get girls and be a better athlete. My mom tried to be nice about it but mentioned that I shouldn’t have stretch marks considering I was a teenage boy. As a single mother she tried her best, but we often ate fast food for dinner after she rushed home from work to pick us up from daycare. We were often the last kids being picked up, and my sister and I both had sports and extracurricular activities to attend — so it was strictly about convenience. When I was old enough to stay home by myself, she would have me cook dinner for the family. But at 13 I wasn’t necessarily preparing healthy gourmet meals — it was mostly Shake‘n‘Bake chicken and homemade pizza on English muffins.
When I left home to go to university I decided I wanted to lose weight. I turned down the offer to play football because they wanted me to stay big to play offensive line. I started working out religiously, and for the first time ever I thought about what I ate. I actually took the weight off pretty easily. I got down to around 240 lbs. People started to make positive comments. I noticed I was treated differently. Girls smiled at me more. Sales associates at stores were friendlier. I became obsessed with weighing myself and would base my workouts on the number on the scale. If it was high I would punish myself and run until I sweat it all out. If it was low, I would reward myself with a weight lifting session. I weighed myself before and after running to keep track of progress. If I drank too much booze or ate too much pizza at a dorm party and felt sick, I wasn’t opposed to ‘helping myself along’ with a couple fingers down the throat to encourage vomiting. I didn’t view that as a problem, but rather a way around binge-drinking and eating. In my second year of university I became severely depressed and skipped class, preferring to sleep-in, get up to work out, and then stay up all night. I was essentially agoraphobic — except for the gym.
After not getting a co-op job due to my general lack of interest, I went to Australia for the term instead of working as part of my Environment and Business program. No one there knew me as formerly fat Connor. I met a cute girl. I ran on the beach. I felt better than I had in months. I decided to move to Australia to pursue a degree in music, something I had been dabbling in to fill the time at night when insomnia wouldn’t let me sleep. Living on my own and miles away from family, I got more into controlling my diet and ensuring a strict routine. I always wanted to be progressing to a new unattainable goal. I played the best basketball of my life living in Sydney and playing for the defending Under-21 State Champion, Manly Sea Eagles. I could dunk with ease and was still strong and powerful.
Eventually, I got down to about 215 lbs, which for someone who is 6’7” with a big frame is getting kind of light. Despite this, I became more and more fixated on the number. I wanted to get below 200 lbs. It didn’t take long, and eventually my walk-around weight was about 195-198 lbs. (For context, the average height in the NBA is 6’7”, and the average weight is around 225 lbs — and NBA players aren’t known for being bulky.)
I continued the reward-based workout and eating system but would often forgo buying food in favour of buying weed, which I thought helped me write music. I liked the idea of being a literal starving artist. If I ate too much one day, I would skip meals the next. I rarely ate at work, subsisting instead on Coke Zero. At my lightest I was 185 lbs. I could feel all my ribs and needed a belt to keep up a size 32 skinny jean. I wore a medium t-shirt comfortably. This was a long way from my baggy 3XL high school basketball hoodie and size 40 uniform pants. I was over-confident at this point, bordering on cocky. I was the frontman in a band that played shows around the city. I wanted to be a rockstar and I looked the part. I was long and emaciated, and still not happy despite my newfound arrogance. In my last year of university I took acid and had a psychotic episode. I didn’t eat or sleep for a week after the trip, and eventually was so distraught I asked to be taken to the hospital. I was hospitalized on suicide watch and they put me on anti-psychotic medication. It caused weight gain. I went home for a trip to Canada and quickly got back up to 230 lbs. This is an objectively better weight for my height than 185 lbs, but it didn’t stop people from making negative comments. When I got back to Australia, my friend said, ‘Damn you got big. Were you working out or just eating American fast food?’. My colleague at work who was a woman in her 40s said, ‘You’ve gained some weight.’ I asked, ‘Is that good or bad’ knowing that I had been given shit for being too skinny on multiple occasions in the same workplace. She replied with, ‘I’m not sure, it’s just an observation.’ Another co-worker would pinch my side and shake her finger.
After struggling with depression and acid flashbacks for the last few months of university, I decided to move back to Canada. I hadn’t been working out at all. I chain-smoked cigarettes. I would smoke weed and binge-eat candy. I hated my hospital-mandated therapy sessions, and my medication made me numb. I had zero sex drive. I didn’t write a single decent lyric in over 3 months. I had zero will to live and just existing felt like an excruciating chore. When I moved back to Canada, I quit cigarettes and my medication cold turkey. I got back into shape quickly. Instead of 235 lbs of medicated weight gain, I got down to 225 lbs of lean muscle. I got a job. The comments about being slim, or too skinny, or not ever putting on weight started again. They called me Stretch. I liked comments about being underweight far more than comments about being overweight. In fact, they fuelled me. I went right back into unrealistic exercise and restrictive food choices 95% of the time, and binge-drinking beer and eating pizza the other 5%.
As I became more successful at my job, I had less time to focus on exercising. I was stressed over hitting my sales targets. I started drinking more casually. Around 2012 or 2013 I got close to 300 lbs again. I was right back where I was in high school. A male cousin told me: ‘You need to get a handle on this. You used to be the hot cousin and you’re starting to look like the old Connor again’. Male colleagues would tell me I had gotten fat or put on weight saying, ‘I guess no one can stay skinny forever’. People started to joke that being a ‘gravy-sucking salesman’ had caught up with me. Female sales associates were no longer as friendly with me. A random stranger at the bar said, ‘Jeez you’re a big guy. How much do you weigh?”. I replied, ‘I don’t know, 250?’, as I hadn’t weighed myself in some time. He wasn’t having it. ‘No way, you’re closer to three hundred.’ I got angry and said, ‘I don’t fucking know man, if I’m that big maybe you should leave me alone before I get angry?’. I still exercised but being in my late 20s I couldn’t keep weight off as easily.
Over the last couple years I’ve gotten a better handle on my diet. I try to eat healthy, within reason, without bingeing. I gave up meat about 5 years ago and eat fish only occasionally. I try to exercise as much as I can, and I average about 5 days a week. I exercise much more intelligently than I ever have. I stretch. I actually do leg day. I’m 250 lbs, but have a good amount of muscle mass, and I am probably in the best shape of my life, all things considered. Despite being 34, I am as flexible as I’ve ever been, and can lift more. I typically run 10 km at least once a week. I have cut way back on drinking, often taking months off of it entirely.
For the most part I think I look good. Despite this, I still struggle with body image. I have a habit of pinching my sides and touching my stomach to feel for fat build-up. I often do it without noticing. I have a problem with thinking 250 lbs is objectively too high a number and not factoring in my height, muscle mass, or the size of my frame. Occasionally I still weigh myself before and after exercising or look at standard body-weight charts and think that I’m obese, forgetting they don’t really work well for athletic builds or anyone above a certain height. I definitely still use a reward-based system for food. If I take more than 2 days off of exercise in a row I get stressed out and assume I am going to quickly devolve into a fat mess. I am scared of getting injured because it might mean a week away from the gym. I think about my weight a lot. I plan out the next day’s exercise and meals in my head to help me relax at night before bed. I fantasize about waking up as a completely different person, in a completely different body, almost every day.
For all intents and purposes, I come across as confident. I don’t question my intelligence or ability to create a successful life for myself nearly as much as I judge myself for my physical appearance. I look in the mirror and lift my shirt, seeing stretch marks and loose skin. I touch my sides to check for fat. I repeat this process obsessively. I don’t talk about this with my friends. I barely talk about this with my family. I share as much as I can with my partner, Britney, who is exceptionally supportive, but there is a lot I keep to myself.
There are no straight, cis male body positivity role models. When companies put out campaigns about toxic masculinity and male body image they are ridiculed by men and women alike. The same media publications that put out daily female body positivity content and articles from a feminist perspective, share click-bait posts about Big Dick Energy, and how hot the ripped star of the new action movie looks compared to a normal human being who doesn’t have 8 hours a day to work out with a personal trainer. We don’t stop to think that Big Dick Energy is transphobic, equates power with the very definition of maleness, and is body-shaming men. No, no, even women can have big dick energy! Click here to read how! We don’t question the fact that there are exactly zero famous plus-sized male models, and the ‘fat sidekick’ trope is just as rampant in popular culture as many harmful female-directed stereotypes. We laugh at the ‘what Jonah Hill body shape is going to be in this movie?’ articles without irony while heralding Ashley Graham for going ‘au naturelle’ and showing off her stretch marks. Short men being less desirable is one of the more popular memes in the collective conscious, and this doesn’t raise any red flags to so-called progressive media sources who cancel people swiftly and follow trends shrewdly. (This one doesn’t personally affect me at 6’7”, but to me it’s crazy to think that someone can share a ‘short men don’t deserve to live’ meme alongside a ‘real men love curves’ meme without acknowledging the incongruency, and then blame ‘short man syndrome’ or a ‘Napoleon complex’ when someone lashes out.)
The female body positivity movement is very, very important, and still a recent thing. Women’s bodies are policed with far more scrutiny and regularity than men. We live in a patriarchy where women are infantilized until they are sexualized until they are ‘used up and devoid of appearance-based value’. If a woman allows her body-hair to grow naturally she is viewed as disgusting. The very act of existing as a woman in her natural state, complete with body hair and cellulite, is a form of rebellion and is either greeted with anger and rage by the ignorant masses or heralded as an amazing accomplishment. These are all facts and speak to a very sheltered, judgemental, and hateful society with corporations constantly preying on every insecurity they can for monetary benefit whether via positive reinforcement or negative criticism.
Straight, cis men don’t really have a place in the body positivity movement, and this kind of makes sense. It isn’t the job of female activists and body positivity influencers to stand up for men when they are only getting a voice for themselves for the first time. It isn’t fair to expect that women who have had their bodies commodified and critiqued in a male-dominated society make it a goal to include men in their conversation. A lot of men would react aggressively or ignorantly if a woman who said it was okay to have body hair and stretch marks said that it was also okay for men to be vulnerable and have issues with their own body image too. That is the sad truth. We would rather ridicule than rethink our own place in the world.
To acknowledge that we are affected by the unrealistic expectations our patriarchal society places on us, we first have to acknowledge we live in a patriarchy. Many of us would rather drown insecurities with drugs and alcohol or put our head down and work. Some of us would prefer to act out of anger and hatred. Some of us would rather kill ourselves than seek help. Men are two times as likely to binge drink than women. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2017 in the United States men died from suicide 3.54 times more often than women. In fact, white males accounted for nearly 70% of all suicide deaths in the United States in 2017. White men are also disproportionately far more likely than anyone else to become a mass shooter. We have seen countless examples of this lately.
You might be asking how we got to speaking about mass shootings from my personal struggles with body image. It is a bit of a leap, but is it so hard to believe that in a society dominated by white men who will do anything to uphold their power, men struggle to find an outlet for their feelings of insecurity or ineptitude? Is it crazy to think that there are young men who turn insecurity into anger, and then turn that rage outwards due to an inability to look within? Is it crazy to think that in a society where white privilege and male privilege are a reality, but class privilege and wealth trump everything, there are those who can’t understand the socioeconomic nuance of their place in the world and lash out with violence?
I don’t really know what the solution is, but I do know that we live in a society where men are not encouraged to talk about their feelings. We aren’t encouraged to have healthy relationships with women or ourselves. We aren’t encouraged to think realistically about our bodies, or our accomplishments. We aren’t taught to nurture or take care of our children softly. We aren’t taught to be mindful of our feelings or the feelings of other people. We are taught to be ‘men’. To be as big and strong as possible. To take criticism and use it as fuel. To protect. To watch-over. To make money, and reproduce with the best looking and most subservient woman.
It took me a very long time to acknowledge that I have an eating disorder. As I kid I would binge eat compulsively, often to the point of vomiting, and as an adult I starved myself for years and continue to withhold food as a mechanism of control. It isn’t a stretch in the slightest to frame this as an eating disorder, but it’s only been the last 6 months or so that I’ve wrapped my head around that. It has only been in the last year that I have been able to view my issues with body image in concrete terms. I haven’t been diagnosed, but I would say I also suffer from body dysmorphic disorder which is inextricably linked to my relationship with food, and manifests as intense anxiety when I don’t feel like I have exercised enough to progress. When I was at my skinniest I thought I looked good, and part of me still feels like it was acceptable to be that underweight. Part of me still wants to get skinnier and get my weight to an arbitrary figure that I feel is good enough. When my sister came to visit me in Australia, I was at my lightest and she was shocked by my gaunt, emaciated appearance. For every five people who told me I needed to make sure I was eating enough, there was one person who said I looked good and I would take that as gospel. On the flip side, when I put weight on, for every five people who told me I looked healthy, if there was one person who made a negative comment, I would focus on that obsessively. This is textbook behaviour. So why did it take me until I was in my early 30s to acknowledge this?
I have said for years, ‘when I lived in Australia I was basically anorexic’ but I didn’t really believe it, and always had to preface the anorexic with ‘basically’ or some other modifier to denote that I was not being serious. For me, an eating disorder is not something a ‘man’ deals with. Body dysmorphia is not something I am allowed to have. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, males actually have Body Dysmorphic Disorder slightly more than females (2.5% and 2.2% of the population, respectively). So why, then, has it been so difficult for me to acknowledge this in myself? Why has no one around me sat me down and talked to me about eating disorders or body dysmorphia? It’s probably the same reason people have always felt comfortable commenting on my body. I am a tall, broad-shouldered man who comes across as confident and affable. I joke around often. I stand up straight and make eye contact. I am athletic.
I participated in sports where my size was a benefit to me. As a high school basketball player I could out-rebound anyone on the floor with a combination of mass and athletic ability. I only played football for one season and was immediately recruited. My size was never seen as a real issue to anyone but me. Sure, there were times when family members would tell me I needed to watch what I ate, but they would also say, ‘you’re a big guy, you can handle it’ when heaping second and third helpings on to my plate to avoid leftovers. Sure, people would talk shit and call me fat, but as soon as I stood up tall and got in their face, the threat of physical confrontation would be enough to stifle their words. I went away this past weekend with a group of my closest male friends and I realized I have never fully verbalized this to any of them. I thought about it and I realized I have never broken this down and discussed it in full with my partner. I have never really fully come to terms with this myself. When my parents separated it was my dad’s decision. He dropped us off at the airport and put his wedding band in my hand and said, ‘you’re the man of the house now — Take care of your little sister’. That is a lot of pressure for a five-year-old. I have always been told I need to be a leader, and more responsible because of my size. People look up to me literally and figuratively. There are certainly benefits that come with being tall or larger in stature in our society. I don’t feel unsafe walking alone at night. I don’t worry about the threat of physical violence. But I also don’t feel comfortable in my own body.
I’m not sure what the fix is, but I am sure we need to look at things holistically and involve everyone in a solution that allows for happier, healthier and more well-rounded people. I don’t see any straight, cis male role models in this sphere. I don’t hear nuance in mainstream media. I don’t see men sharing their feelings and opening up about their struggles or speaking out when their peers act questionably toward women. In light of this, I have decided to use my ability to communicate to try my best to change this. I figured I would start here. It’s a far more complicated thing than one person or 4000 words can fix, but I am sharing this to open myself up and speak about these issues with more honesty. I don’t want to hate myself. I don’t want to wish I was another person entirely. I don’t want people to have to grow up being judged and feeling insecure. I don’t want to drown my feelings in drugs or alcohol or hide my cries for help in lyrical metaphor. I am here to talk and to share. I am here to try to change what it means to be a man. I didn’t have my dad around to be a role model when I was a kid. I don’t see a role model for what I continue to struggle with. I am here to try to be that role model. There will be backlash, and that is okay. I have broad shoulders. I am a big, strong man after all.