Today’s post is brought to you by a friend of mine from my days at the University of Toronto, Russell Moore. Like me, his experiences in the health world as a personal trainer catalyzed his passion for mental health, and he’s now interested in becoming a social worker. Russell holds a dear place in my feminist heart due to his dedication to questioning and changing gender norms to figure out how we can make the world a more comfortable place for all genders.
The atmosphere of a weight room is a funny thing. Dominated by men, this space is filled with crashes, grunts, flexes, and the ever-present awareness of other men.
“Is he bigger than me?”
“My triceps are definitely more developed than his.”
“Ugh, I feel so fat today...why did I eat that burger?”
“Oh wow, look at that girl… Yeah, of course she’s talking to that guy.”
Internal monologues like these fuel the deep insecurities that plague many guys in the gym. While intended to be a space for self-improvement—an environment to encourage moving better and becoming stronger and healthier—the gym can be a fantastically intimidating space. Oftentimes, it reminds men that they are too fat/small/weak/frail—a.k.a. not enough of a man. And while self-doubt and insecurity undoubtedly affect women in the gym too, I’m writing about men because:
1. I am a man (with experience as a personal trainer)
2. “Real man” approaches to training and eating can be brutally dangerous and unhealthy
3. Men live by the overriding yet incredibly harmful guidance to “be a man,” “man up,” and “don’t be a bitch.” In other words, don’t feel self-conscious about your body—and if you do, sure as shit don’t talk about it.
Ideas about how "real men" train (beast mode!) and how "real men" eat (crushing 4 dozen wings and hell yeah I want the fiery buffalo kind!) and how "real men" recover (wtf is stretching?) has a real impact on how our bodies progress and hold up over time.
When I walk through the gym floor, it’s incredibly likely that I’ll see a man attempting to lift a dangerously excessive amount of weight, while the exact opposite problem exists for women; instead, women may feel more inclined to stick to pastel-coloured weights due to a fear of “bulking up.” But men need to be strong. No pain no gain, bro. Get it off the floor by any means necessary. Unfortunately, while this constant overload may very well result in glistening biceps, it more often than not leaves us in a chronic state of injury that becomes debilitating throughout our lives.
To make matters worse, men are typically far less receptive to any critique of their technique/form than women and take it much more personally. Conversations typically go like this:
Me: Hey man, can I show you a thing or two to help out with your deadlift? (so you don’t herniate every L-disc in existence)
Man: Uhh I guess so
Me: Well you might have to go a little lighter to clean up your form…*takes 200lbs off the bar and demonstrates deadlift*
Man: But I can lift way heavier than that. And I want to be strong.
Me: I get that. But probably better to go a little lighter for now so you don’t hurt your back in the long run.
Man: Okay, thanks bro *puts 200lbs back on the bar and goes beastmode*
How Ideas of Manliness Affect Our Diet
The narrow and windy road of being a man also wriggles its way into the realm of eating and nutrition. Food takes on a notably masculine and competitive edge: I would crush a pizza right now. You wanna pound some beers, bro? Dude, you’re ordering a salad? What even is that chick food?
And much like those dangerous deadlifts we do with horrible form, our eating decisions take a toll on our bodies. While eating 50 buffalo wings might win us some “man points,” our GI tracts might not be so impressed later on.
Now I’m not so naive as to tell men to completely put an end to these displays of manliness. This performance of being a man—and it very much is a performance—is wildly important in our social lives and in developing a sense of community and bonding with other men. But if we can start to become more comfortable making slightly healthier decisions and recognizing that these decisions won’t make us less of a man, then we’ll be moving in the right direction. And hey, we may even shake up some cultural pillars in the process…cool.
At the very least, let’s support our friends who are trying to be healthier. And let me clarify: “Man up, bro’ is not a sign of support; it’s a phrase that should be shunned out of existence.
Let’s acknowledge the amount of body dissatisfaction amongst men. I know it’s a taboo topic, but let’s go there.
Guys, I see you inspecting your love handles in the gym mirrors, casting your eyes down as one of those ALPHA-BRO dudes with the bulletproof pecs stride past you. I do it, too. The problem isn’t necessarily this constant comparison (well, maybe it is actually but let’s focus on one thing at a time). The problem is that we are terrified to vocalize these feelings to other people, especially other men. Because being a man the way you’re “supposed” to is a complete contradiction. It means being a chiseled Adonis yet also having no concerns about throwing back 14 beers. It means sitting down to smash a whole pizza, sleeping for 3 hours, yet doing a Navy Seal Hardcore Intense Bootcamp Obstacle Training in the morning. Oh, and it definitely means staying silent, stoic, and carrying yourself as a man ought to.
But this leads to isolation.
And why should we isolate ourselves when so many of us feel this way? How do we build and maintain our relationships with other men without killing ourselves in the process? Without the binge drinking, and the burger slamming, and the death-by-Crossfit workouts? How do we create real human connection when there is such a fear of letting our man-guards down? Some ideas…
Invite a guy friend over to cook a healthy dinner together
Go for a hike with another guy
Get a coffee together
Take that yoga class together (that you both so desperately need)
Basically—and this phrasing might scare some of the more *ahem* traditional folks reading this—go on a date. Get to know your friend on a deeper level than football and wings. Find out what he really cares about in life. Find out what are his insecurities. They’re probably a lot like your own. Build trust by expressing concern and becoming vulnerable. Talk about those things in life that make you scared. Don’t let your ideas of being a man and keeping your cards close to your vest hold you back from developing authentic relationships.
You Tell Me!
How have ideas of "manliness" or "femininity" affected you? Let me know in the comments below!
About the Author
Russell Moore is a certified strength and conditioning coach who tries his damndest to help people make healthful decisions in their lives. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in equity studies and sociology and loooves to mess with societal norms. He believes the most important thing in life is building connection with other people.