Gentlemen, the ladies do not hold a monopoly on weight obsession. Us guys engage in diet talk and body shaming, too. You know that, right? Maybe not, actually, as such talk is so casual and commonplace that you might not even be aware (consciously, anyway) of its pervasiveness. Consider the interaction I had yesterday evening at the gym with a male acquaintance we will call “Brad,” whom I had not seen in a long while.
Brad walked past me as I was warming up on the Arc Trainer prior to a tennis match. He had just finished a spin class and stopped to say hello. Brad and I first met 16 years ago while taking a core-strengthening class together, but the only place I had seen him in recent years was when we occasionally bumped into each other at the local pub where he eats dinner every Friday.
“You’re in nutrition. What do you order when you go there?” Brad asked with a smirk. Although he did not specifically say so, I knew exactly what he was getting at: He wanted to know if I follow a strict diet or eat freely like a perceived hypocrite, hence the mention of my profession.
Pausing, I considered the various replies at my disposal. On one hand, this was an opportunity to reeducate Brad regarding both the nature of my work and the problems with a good/bad food dichotomy. On the other hand, this was also my free time, and really I just wanted a few minutes to myself to get loose before heading out to the court, not an obligation to broach complex topics when I had neither the time nor inclination to do them justice.
“I order what I want,” I finally told him. “I order what feels like the best choice for my body at the time,” and specifically cited the pizza and nachos, which are my salty favorites to replenish the sodium I lose during long runs. (Note: By no means am I implying that one needs to exercise in order to “earn” these menu items or any other food.)
Then I asked him if he has seen our mutual friend (Let’s call him “Gary.”) who resumed exercising earlier this year after a long absence. “He’s down 40 or 50 pounds,” Brad responded, “He looks great!” Again, I paused and internally debated my next move. At the very least, I knew there was no way I would echo Brad’s praise for weight loss, as I know the damage such extolment causes, especially without fully knowing how or why someone lost weight.
“Weight loss aside, I’m just glad he is taking the time to care for himself again,” I told Brad. Like me, Gary was an avid exerciser, which is how he and I met at the gym soon after I graduated from college, but the burden of his caretaking duties increased as the health of his parents deteriorated and he no longer felt up to working out. His mother and father subsequently passed away in quick succession, which left Gary to settle their estate and figure out what to do with his own life. After everything Gary had been through, I was just happy to see him caring for himself again and returning to the activities he enjoys, including exercise, regardless of his weight.
Unfortunately, Brad did not seem to follow the gist of my sentiments and continued talking about Gary’s weight loss, adding that he has seen Gary do this at least a few times before. By “this,” Brad was referencing Gary’s history of weight cycling: alternating periods of weight loss and subsequent regain. “But not like you have to worry about that yourself,” Brad offered, looking down at my abdomen. “You’re always in great shape.”
Great shape? One of the problems with judging people for their exteriors is that we probably have no idea about the makeup of their interiors, both metaphorically and literally. Too taken aback by Brad’s comment to say anything out loud, I silently reflected upon everything I have been through over the last three years and specifically turned my thoughts to the titanium screws and rods, artifacts from my third back surgery, buried deep inside the midsection of which Brad is apparently so envious.
As is the case for everybody, my size and shape are influenced by many factors, the most significant of which are out of my hands. Among those that are at least somewhat in my control though is my history of never having tried to lose weight, which would have put me on a path most likely to end at, ironically enough, weight gain. In that sense, part of the reason I do not have a “weight problem” is because I never viewed my weight as a problem.
Think about the diet talk and various mentions of body shape and weight that Brad crammed into a casual conversation that lasted just a few minutes. Comments and discussions along these lines are so prevalent that I overhear men talking this way at the health club on a daily basis. Another recent incident comes to mind in which some of my fellow tennis players – adults, no less – bullied another player for the size of his stomach.
The problems with such talk are numerous, including: the reinforcement of the ridiculous, offensive, and dangerous notion that people of certain sizes and weights are more deserving of respect than others; the exacerbation of bullying and unequal treatment that spills well beyond health clubs and into our homes, businesses, classrooms, government initiatives, and doctor’s offices; and the pressure to pursue weight-loss endeavors that most often result in weight gain and worsened health.
Guys, this kind of talk has to stop, and the first steps toward putting it to rest are acknowledging its existence and realizing the harm we are doing to each other through our words.