When I grew up, in my entire adolescence, I remember only one positive image of back hair. One. As a hairy-backed man, I cannot tell you how meaningful that was.
All other cultural references to men and back hair were negative. All of them. I was a fan of The Pixies from a young age, and who knows – maybe part of the reason I liked them so much was because of their album artwork – a hairy man, beautifully photographed, capturing vulnerability and masculinity together, without judgement, contradiction, apology or explanation. I’ve reproduced it here, without anyone’s permission, so I hope that this will be acceptable, given the context.
So for me, there was someone else. There was another one, I was not alone, and if he didn’t have to be ugly, who did? If he could celebrate his beauty, who couldn’t?
I realised only recently that I can be that guy for the next generation. I can be the guy who says fuck body-shame. Fuck the beauty standard, celebrate yourself. Embrace diversity – don’t just say it while hating the body – embrace it. What does that really mean? It’s confronting.
I don’t want to be the guy who inspires people to become more, to achieve – I want to be the guy who reminds people that it’s okay. It’s okay to be you. Celebrate your uniqueness. Play to your strengths. The status quo (I love blaming those guys!) makes it impossible to see our own beauty, to appreciate our strengths, our character. Fuck that shit. Discover it anyway. It’s harder than pandering to their demands, but it’s worthwhile.
I don’t know if it seems like a little thing or not, but there it was – one beautiful man with a hairy back. And looking back, it really was more meaningful than I can express.
I say it a lot – it’s okay. And it’s because I believe it is. We are all okay. Humans have an incredible capacity to both deal with suffering and get on with life – doesn’t mean there’s no trauma – but judging yourself for having to endure trauma – how helpful is that? Judging yourself to be damaged, or un-okay in some way – is that helping? And saying that it’s okay – does that invite procrastination? Or does it encourage convalescence? I don’t believe self-acceptance is the enemy of self-development. It’s a prerequisite.
I’ve got type one diabetes, I’ve had it for 20-plus years, and I’m okay. My kidney function is great, my eyesight is great – I’m sick, and I’m okay. And if I were sicker, is that okay? It might not be okay, I might not be okay with it, but I’m still okay. Being sick does not make you a failure as a human being. We fear it, but that’s something else. So is it okay for you to be obese and healthy? Or at least obese and not-sick? Absolutely. It’s okay, and you’re okay.
It’s okay because mortality and sickness is something everyone is going to have to face at some point. It’s okay, because it’s okay for humans to be human. And death and sickness are part of what we have to deal with in life. So it’s all okay. Bleak as it might sound, everything is as it should be.
Everybody fails at everything. Either we are perfect right now, as we are, or nobody’s perfect – either way it’s irrelevant, because it changes nothing. Seeking perfection is an illusion – either it doesn’t exist, or you’re already there. Those are your two options, in human-worth terms.
Frankly, everyone fails at shit. And sometimes we succeed. But if you’re chasing perfection, the simple truth is that you will never arrive.
And, if you think you need to be perfect, if you base your sense of worth on being good at things, on not having flaws, you become incapable of accepting criticism. You become incapable of acknowledging your weaknesses, which makes you incapable of recognising your strengths, true character, and value.
The belief that you need to be perfect keeps you chained to the wheel of validation, of praise and reward; you always need to be good at things to feel good about yourself. You need to look right, behave right, and there’s no end to it. You become un-you when you try to please everyone else, and when you fail – when you are criticised, it comes as a threat to your very character.
I’ve been thinking about feminism a lot lately, particularly after reading this post earlier today.
But I’ve never been quite sure how to articulate what’s important to me about feminism, or what it means that I, a hairy weightlifting male, would value feminism. I don’t know if I’ll bring much that’s new to the discussion, but here’s how I can express my feelings the best, at this point in time:
So – I identify as a feminist, and here’s what it means to me: I don’t hate anyone. The only thing that equality threatens is privilege. Therefore (a): I accept that I benefit from privilege that is denied to many, even if I cannot understand the extent of what this really means, and (b): I endeavour to share my privilege where possible, and be not exploitative of others, while (c): trying not to judge people for being different from myself.
To me, that’s the essence of equality; it means not clinging on to my privilege, not being ashamed of it either, and adopting an inclusive mindset. That can be a bunch more challenging than one would expect.
I recently, on facebook, saw a picture of a woman in a sorta-kinda handstand. It was captioned: why practice yoga? With the following reasons dotted around the poster: for energy, for longevity, for health, for physical strength and flexibility, and for love.
These are all great concepts, but I’m surprised ‘for fun’ didn’t make the list. It makes me think about the difference between the reason and the benefit.
A benefit of training – I’ve mentioned this before – is health, more specifically to my interests – increased insulin sensitivity. But the reasons are something else. I go to the gym for fun, and to challenge myself, and for development and fitness, and feeling good, and other things – sometimes to prove something, or because of shame or insecurities, yes they do still come up, but I am better at negotiating them than I used to be, and in an overall sense, my training experiences are much more positive and ‘healthy’ than they used to be – and sometimes I’m pleased, sometimes disappointed – but not once have I gone to the gym fired up because I was going to stimulate some insulin sensitivity in my skeletal muscle. Health, for me, is a benefit – but it’s not the reason I train. It’s too vague. Even improved insulin sensitivity, which is quite, quite specific and important to me, is still too vague. ‘For health’ in a general term, is certainly too vague or abstract a reason to get me to the gym, or the yoga studio, the dojo, or a park.
What health and fitness looks like
I’m going through slow changes, which probably aren’t a surprise to any of my readers, but to say it openly: I’m still shy about the way I look, even though I know I shouldn’t be – these waters run deep.
But I’m making progress: rather than submit to the pressure and starve myself thin, or do like so many others: quit the fitness industry in shame, believing I’m a failure because ‘the ideals’ are not realistic or maintainable – rather than all that, I’m consciously promoting myself as a fitness ambassador who says it’s okay to have a belly. It’s one thing to say – it’s okay for you guys to be fat. It’s another thing to say it’s okay for me to be fat too – even though I work in fitness. Even though people are going to judge it. It might or might not look like much, but it’s never an easy step.
Many trainers are very insecure about their bodies. They have this idea of ‘perfection’, as if it’s a static, absolute and tangible state, and this idea that they need to look a certain way. And only then will they be able to publish that DVD, open that gym, whatever.
Clearly, I think it’s crap. It’s not your job to look any way at all. But it’s one thing to say, and it’s another to bare your belly for inspiration. As a trainer, it’s your job to teach, and instruct, and if you want to ‘be a role model’ – because hey, that comes into it too – I still get ‘the fantasy of being thin’ thing arising from time to time, but I’ve been around long enough now – my job as a role model is to boldly say that you don’t have to be a dick about your body or other people’s bodies to set a good example for the kids. You don’t have to harm yourself in the name of health.
We’ve all seen the ‘you need to be thinner’ examples in fitness. You need to be more beautiful. It doesn’t inspire – it marginalises. You only need to motivate and encourage people to do things that aren’t fun. If it’s fun, you’ll naturally challenge yourself. You’ll naturally play and experiment in the gym. It’ll do your mind and body good, and you won’t need to be encouraged to do it.
I read once, about these old bodybuilding standards – the girth of your upper arms, calves and neck – they should measure the same. I had bigger legs. My arms were just over 13 inches, and I thought I’d be happy if I could get them up to 14. Then 15. Then a solid 15 – they’d almost match my calves. Last time I measured my arms, they were pushing 16 inches. So I’m finally happy with my body, right...? Right...? This process of development has made me less insecure, right?
I read an article a little while ago – the author was talking about a trainer she knows, and the trainer – who had put a lot of work into developing her body – was told by some dude that she had the body of a teenage boy, and that it wasn’t attractive.
What comes up when you look in the mirror and tell yourself “I love you”? Seriously, I started playing around with this one. Hell, you don’t need a mirror. It feels weirdly strained, and makes me a little self-conscious. It’s certainly confronting. But what if I told myself this, in the same way I tell my partner? The consequence of self-hatred appears to be an inability to care for oneself – but what happens when you tell yourself “I love you”? Do you feel obliged? Unworthy? What is revealed?
And if you do feel obliged – to do what? If you feel a sense of pity, or loneliness, what then? Compassion? Do you think you should be exercising more – or less? What is required to take care of yourself? Are you starving yourself? Do you believe in deprivation to earn worth? And how is that working out? Does deprivation improve your sense of self-worth, or worsen it? How would you take care of a loved one? And how would you expect someone else to respond to the implementation of tough love? How do you respond to it – is it real?
Disclaimer: I am selling stuff. Just so you know. In particular, the zip-up I’m wearing in the picture to the left.
When you surround yourself with ‘goal’ pictures – images of what you want to look like – in the hope of inspiring yourself to change, you also run the risk of marginalising and ostracising yourself.
What’s important? Progress and development, or love and acceptance? And what’s the difference?
Can you progress without first accepting where you’re at – without negative judgements – and if you can accept yourself, what motivates you to develop? Love or hatred? Judgement or hope? Why do we want more, and what’s good for us?
I know many people are convinced that striving for perfection and progressing towards a certain goal are positive actions and mindsets, and that acceptance equates to quitting on personal development and excellence. I used to think so. I’m not sure how it changed. It’s about perspective.
What’s wrong with modern fitness training? We take desperate people, with low self-worth, who've been ostracised and bullied, and then tell them the path to success (and happiness and improved self-esteem) is the path of obedience, not the path of self-discovery. People seek to lose weight because they want to be free of their vulnerabilities. But even if weight loss occurs, the vulnerabilities remain, because when you take a weight-centred approach, the judgement and hatred remain.
You see it all the time at gyms: if I can remain muscular or toned, and lean, then I’m strong. I’m not vulnerable any more. I’m not weak. So we equate fatness to weakness, to sloth, but it’s a misnomer. It’s not that fat makes you vulnerable – it’s that training doesn’t make you invulnerable. Welcome to the human condition.