I have been in a love-hate relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. This piece is not about that, but let me quickly bring you up to speed on my stuff. I had a growth spurt before most of my classmates in elementary school did, and I towered over them in class pictures. I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I responded by developing a deep, rich hatred for my body. I wanted to punish it for being different. I was obsessed with the idea of making myself smaller, and unluckily, there was (and is) an entire industry devoted to that obsession. I learned about dieting by watching my mum and reading her books when she wasn’t looking. This left me dining on fruit and cottage cheese as an 8-year-old. I kept obsessive food diaries. I spent my summers "reducing" and tried to blend in with what the other kids were eating during the school year. I would try to only eat half a container of yogurt at a time, only to be so hungry a few hours later that I would down half a container of Pringles quickly, without thinking. I worked out to Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons and Denise Austin and Susan Powter and all the other '80s gurus who wore leotards and manically did aerobics on TV. I studied magazines like they were textbooks. I looked at the outfits girls wore on TV and wondered how those would look on me. This went on for about two decades — insanely restrictive dieting, seeing my body through a funhouse mirror, overeating, putting on weight, refusing to exercise, self-loathing, dating boys who didn’t value me (since I didn’t value myself), loathing the culture that encouraged my self-loathing, repeat. Where I landed — after a lot of therapy, a health scare, some education, and some self-reflection — is a place of respect for my body as an instrument. I do my best to exercise regularly because my body needs exercise, and not to lose weight. I don’t push my body further than it needs to go in an effort to punish it, because it isn’t an "it" — it’s me. I eat healthy, because my body likes healthy food, but I don’t obsess so much that I can’t indulge when I’m out with my guy friends and they order a pyramid of cheeseburgers. At least, it used to be like that — until about five years ago, when I started noticing something different about my male friends. They were ordering fewer mac-and-cheese bites. They were drinking less. They started seeing trainers. "Did you know," one of them whispered to me at a Thai restaurant, "that rice is actually pretty bad for you?" I gave him a look of faux shock. Then, I replied "Yeah, motherfucker, I’ve known that since fourth grade." And so began the newest phase of my life: my guy friends catching up to where I’ve been for decades, because suddenly they’re just as obsessed with how their bodies look as I used to be.
I started noticing something different about my guy friends. They were ordering fewer mac-and-cheese bites. They were drinking less.
It’s been eye-opening for me to watch these men become hyper-aware of their bodies. My own body issues were brought on by the realisation, at a very young age, that I was no longer just a kid; rather, I was becoming a girl kid, and getting a glimpse at the amount of baggage that comes with being a girl was overwhelming for me. But I wasn’t alone in that. Though I felt alone, when I talk to other women, even women with whom I grew up, it turns out they all felt off as well. We all felt wrong, somehow. I've bonded with women over the horrifying childhood rituals we enacted in the hopes of looking "perfect." The guys I’m friends with now went through childhood feeling mostly okay (though I recognise that plenty of men did have body issues as kids). But now that these guys are firmly settled into their late 20s and early 30s, it’s creeping up on them. When I ask what happened, they say something about feeling their virility being sapped by time. They are scared of going from being a man to being an older man — viewed as a sexless piece of furniture by the rest of the world. They say they’re starting to see their appearances and their value as linked in a very real way. And this is jarring — to them, and to me. These men go on hikes, they get facials, they find new ways to fix their hair (yes, I live in L.A.), and over brunches, they talk to me about not feeling good enough. They use a lot of the same words that I’ve used in my diary, with my girlfriends, and even in this essay. They feel helpless, and angry that they feel helpless. They feel upset that they can’t have pancakes. I can only sympathise. It’s helped me understand that the great "not good enough" hits us all — maybe at different times, and maybe from different directions. But none of us are immune. So I try to talk to my male friends about accepting themselves as they are and appreciating what their bodies can do, rather than focusing on all the things their bodies are not doing. We empathise with each other and trade ideas for healthy snacks that don’t taste terrible. When I hang with my women friends, however, we talk about movies, ideas for businesses, and relationship stuff — because we’ve moved on from such banal talk as body image. What my guy friends’ struggles have done for me is helped me to realise that this whole thing really is a ferris wheel of never-ending need. We are all together in this. Cultural expectations, self-esteem, the process of ageing...there are a million things that make us feel not okay. And it’s our job as people to find ways to fight back against those things — to like ourselves despite the onslaught. Last week, I watched my guy friend watch a bunch of young men skateboarding on the sidewalk near the cafe where we were eating. The boys were young, carefree, foul-mouthed, and gorgeous in their slouched insolence. They pulled up their shirts to wipe the sweat from their faces, showing us their tiny abs. My friend watched them sadly. Then, he looked down and pushed away the rest of his brunch. I patted him consolingly. I knew exactly how he was feeling.