With Pride and the approach of summer, our thoughts turn once more to getting our bodies in shape. The term “in shape" has so many meanings, ranging from being fit and feeling healthy, to being buffed and big.
Of course, none of us want to look like a parody of walnuts stuffed in a condom, but for many of us, there is that part of our physique we aren’t happy with and want to change. We want a broader back, more definition in our shoulders, a bigger chest or legs that don’t resemble ski poles. For myself, while mentally I accept I am dangerously close to the age where everything starts to slide south like a slow mud slide, my vanity is such that I am not prepared to gracefully accept the inevitable just yet. So, I also keep pumping iron to try and stay “in shape”.
Our desire to stay “in shape” can easily feed into some unhealthy practices and beliefs that affect our mental health. Many of us have complex relationships with our bodies. Our bodies are often the site for the expression of our shame growing up. The shame of being different, of not being masculine enough or feminine enough. Our sense of awkwardness is reflected in how we carry ourselves and often where we hold tension in our bodies.
As older men our bodies can continue to be a source of shame. We remember fondly when we had a six pack and could fit into, well, whatever it was we fitted into. Now we never take our shirt off and when we do have sex, the lights are definitely out.
Yet our bodies are also the site of our pleasure. The sense of closeness, of intimacy, are all felt through our bodies and the sensation of touch. The pleasure of orgasm is often experienced in the site of our shame. Shame can blunt our emotions and our sexual experience, which can lead to potentially unsafe practices as we attempt to heighten our sense of pleasure and experience freedom in sexual expression.
There is also the fact that as men, visual cues play an important part of our sexual drive. Whether we are gay or straight, the visual impact of the physicality of other bodies influences our sexual drive. It is easy when we don’t feel “in shape” or “fit” to feel others won’t find us attractive. Feeling unattractive, we withdraw from social situations and isolate ourselves. The sense of loneliness and isolation easily feeds into and exacerbates underlying depression.
As much as we need to stay in shape physically, we need to stay in shape emotionally and mentally. We are more than our physiques. Just as we are compassionate, kind and supportive to our friends we need to demonstrate the same qualities to ourselves.
When we experience the self-talk that tells us we are shameful or that we don’t look that great, or that we are “weedy” or overweight, we need to learn to be compassionate to the person who is ourselves. Being compassionate to ourselves doesn’t necessarily come naturally, particularly when we have internalised shame. However, just as we can become fit physically, so we can learn to be compassionate to ourselves emotionally.
This Pride, we can take pride in ourselves, but let’s ensure we aren’t just proud about how we look - let’s encourage each other to experience that healthy pride in who we are as unique, resilient people.