When Does Male Body Positivity Go Too Far?

Some metrics for measuring human fitness are bunkum. But ignoring them altogether is equally dangerous.

February 2, 2022 12:16 pm
When Does Male Body Positivity Go Too Far?
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There was a study a few years back, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, which concluded that men spend more time looking at other men’s chests than women do.

Researchers traced the discovery back to genderized perceptions of attractiveness. For men, who have been trained to prize signals of “masculinity, strength and formidability,” a higher shoulder-to-hip ratio is something to admire, to covet.

Lingering glances aside, we’ve come a long way in dismantling our preoccupation with brawn. Anabolic steroids, ’90s action stars and men’s magazines promising six-packs by summer have largely been cast aside in favor of more attainable ideals like functional fitness, rehabilitation training and daily meditation. This graduation wasn’t linear, and it’s far from unilateral, but more than ever, amateur trainees are prioritizing the pursuit of a goal over the pursuit of a body.

This more holistic approach to male body fitness is observable throughout the industry that serves it. Health teachers and personal trainers talk to students and clients differently these days. I remember a meeting with an exercise physiologist a couple years back. I told him I was a runner. He was impressed to hear my times. I also told him I wanted bigger calves. He was shocked. Why on earth was I worried about my calves? My light lower half, he explained, was helping me achieve those times.

I was too embarrassed to admit the real reason I wanted bigger calves — that, at a few inches over six feet, I felt I looked like a bit of an ostrich come beach season. Mild body dysmorphia still plagues me from time to time, as it does anyone who’s ever taken a shower in a high school locker room or looked at a Hemsworth brother, but I’ve since learned to embrace his sentiments. As long as I’m achieving my fitness goals, I should prize whatever body those goals leave me with. Trying to reverse that equation can be laborious and self-defeating.

From this perspective, the body positivity movement — that much-discussed idea that physical beauty is a social construct and that society should embrace and celebrate all body types — makes sense. Magazines and health clubs have steadily transitioned from a one-size-fits-all promoter of weight loss and muscle sculpting to inclusivity, with classes in every conceivable concentration, and trainers of varying levels and intensities. That doesn’t mean fitness has lost its intimidation factor: it’s still a nerve-wracking journey full of vulnerability and inevitable failures. It just means that some of its more imposing barriers have started to slip away.

Despite a theoretically symbiotic relationship between body positivity and modern fitness, though, the movement sometimes seems at odds with exercise, and dismissive of important biometrics.

The Problem With the Obesity Discourse

This question — when, if ever, does body positivity come at the expense of health? — is especially relevant for the “fat acceptance movement,” a component of body positivity’s “third wave” (which has mainly played out on social media since the early 2010s). While body positivity is a massive umbrella that promotes acceptance of one’s body regardless of size, color, ability or gender assigned at birth, it is most conspicuously associated with the obesity epidemic.

That’s an important distinction to make here. While you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-bigoted adult American who thinks marginalized bodies don’t deserve patience and love, there are plenty of people out there who remain confused by the role of fat acceptance in body positivity. One extremely telling stat? When body positivity first started gaining momentum 10 years ago, more than 1,000 British medical professionals were surveyed for a report on their approval of excess body fat. Just 1.4% had a “positive or neutral attitude” regarding “central obesity.” The report concluded: “[It’s] the number-one factor associated with diabetes, hypertension, and infertility, in their respective orders.”

Consider: while societal sensibilities have transformed over the last 10 years, the biomarkers associated with obesity have not. We’ve been conditioned to categorize fitness by way of mirrors and scales: Here’s how I present to the world. Here’s how much I weigh. It’s understandable that previous generations paid undue reverence to both, and the scale especially: at the time, it was one of the only metrics available for measuring their fitness without going to a doctor for invasive procedures like bloodwork or a CT scan.

Weight also lent credence to the ill-advised metric known as the Body Mass Index (BMI), which, inexplicably, is still a relevant stat for health centers today. (Remember when vaccines first started rolling out, and in a number of states, a high-enough BMI met eligibility requirements for an early jab?)

BMI is an imperfect guide post at best. It was invented 90 years ago by an insurance company as a way to quantify the health and risk of contracted employees, and was modeled by using almost exclusively white male bodies. It’s also a measure that once designated LeBron James as overweight and Tom Brady as obese. A study published last year discovered that a number of British men and women suffering from eating disorders were denied professional treatment because their BMIs are too high. Putting that much stock into one’s body shape is a tremendous misconception; eating disorders, quite obviously, affect people across the so-called body-mass spectrum.

On the opposite side of that same token, people of all shapes and sizes — including those with a BMI that rates as obese — can be considered “healthy” by any of a number of other biomarkers. It’s impossible to eyeball someone on the street and pinpoint exactly how healthy they are.

But in men in particular, there is one type of fat that deserves special attention. 

Does Belly Fat Deserve the Attention It Gets?

Visceral fat, also known as “belly fat,” is one of the few effective surface-level indicators of less-than-stellar health, and it tends to affect men at a much higher rate than pre-menopausal women. According to Mayo Clinic, it predicts for a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, sleep apnea and high blood pressure. That’s all serious stuff; doctors classify any male waist measurement of 40 inches or more as “an unhealthy concentration” of belly fat. Ideally, you’ll come in under that.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Because belly fat is such a demonstrative example of poor health, many men obsess over getting rid of it. They assume that shedding belly fat is the solitary key to unlocking their fitness (and by extension, their happiness) and make eliminating it their primary reason for working out. But fitness doesn’t do well with blinders on. It puts far too much pressure on the entire enterprise and often leads to burnout, particularly because “spot reduction” (a method of targeting fat in a specific region of the body) is absolute baloney. It doesn’t work. Ever seen a guy show up to the gym and do 300 crunches? He’s no more likely to cut fat in his midsection than anywhere else in the body.

This doesn’t mean cutting belly fat isn’t a worthy use of your time; it is. It just means the methods and advice that have long swirled around the mission are outdated, ineffective and exhausting. This explains why so many proponents of the fat acceptance movement have come to live by the credo that they shouldn’t feel compelled to address their fat at all. If nothing ever seems to work, why bother?

You can sort of understand such an extreme reaction. You spend a lifetime hearing your shape doesn’t adhere to societal expectations; it’s self-inflicted, a product of laziness and a drain on the country, and you should start dieting. So you try method after method, and none of it changes anything, and anytime you break a diet, you really, really break it (this is a scientific phenomenon, which has a name), and eventually you start to assume all the health risks that people projected onto you from the start, when they first made insulting assumptions based on your size and shape. Never did they think to ask about your insulin sensitivity, or your genetic history, or your metabolic rate, or your thyroid problems, or a dozen other things that you were born with and had no control over.

As is always the case with wellness, the real answer lies somewhere in between the reductive notion that we should all lose weight until we reach a number deemed appropriate and wholesale fat acceptance. Men should love their bodies, regardless of what they look like. But men should also take care of their bodies. And believe me, there is a better way. We don’t need to blindly practice body positivity. We need to practice body practicality.

Body Positivity’s Good. Body Practicality‘s Better.

What does body practicality look like? Marina Kovaleva, a certified personal trainer and lead researcher and data scientist at Welltory, has some ideas. (For the uninitiated, Welltory is a health tracking app that’s been put to use by University College London as a research tool.) Kovaleva recommends monitoring figures like age-predicted maximal heart rate, resting heart rate and VO2 max.

“Check your maximum heart rate,” she says. “It’s the highest number of beats per minute that your heart can produce under maximum effort. Track your resting heart rate, too — right after waking up or during sleep. You have a perfect resting heart rate if the difference between it and the maximum heart rate is more than 131 beats. It indicates a good fitness level and a low risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. A number lower than 112 is a red flag. All numbers within the scale of 111-131 are acceptable. It implies you can improve your physical fitness.”

As for VO2 max, that’s your body’s marker for maximum oxygen consumption. It’ll decrease naturally as you age, but “the higher that number is, the better for your health.”

The good news on these markers is they’re easily accessible these days through smartwatches and fitness wearables. There’s even tech for conducting an at-home body scan to test for how much belly fat you really have. If you’re looking for a more intensive understanding of exactly what’s going on in your body, though, you’ll have to see a doctor.

Once there, Kovaleva suggests prioritizing the following: “Clinical blood and urine tests, biochemical blood tests that give a reading on glucose, total cholesterol, total bilirubin, ALT, ALAT (alanine aminotransferase and aspartate aminotransferase; AST), total protein, urea, creatinine. Also, schedule a consultation with a cardiologist if necessary.”

Information can be scary. Particularly information about ourselves. But it’s the greatest asset at your disposal when it comes to maintaining your long-term health, empowering you to make changes in your habits and chart progress in a reliable, sustainable way. One of the most self-defeating aspects of weight loss-driven fitness is that you’re boiling down your success to a single number, and one that isn’t even necessarily an indicator of good health. If you start to make minor changes informed by the information showing up on your daily biometric readings, your body will respond in kind. Don’t worry about what you look like. Learn what the numbers mean and study them. 

Sometimes, you’re not going to like what you see. This can lead to a negative feedback loop, triggering a “nocebo” effect, wherein possessing upsetting information about your health or energy can actually make you feel worse. It’s a risk. I wear a WHOOP, for instance, and on mornings after a night of beers and greasy food, it will let me know that my respiratory rate was elevated, or my heart rate variability was down. It can make you feel like shit, if you let it. But it’s just information. What’s my alternative? Pretend my decisions didn’t lead to a bad night’s sleep? I try my best to make peace with my reality.

In many ways, then, body practicality is spiritually similar to body positivity. It’s about accepting and appreciating what you’re working with. Body practicality just happens to be way more useful. It’s a roadmap for noticing, tinkering, improving.

Ultimately, the messaging that has steered people toward no-carb diets and expensive gym memberships is flawed and deeply predatory, fueling industries worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Heavier men have an absolute right to feel personally victimized by the attitudes and systems that have bullied them their entire lives. But embracing one’s size doesn’t have to come at the expense of monitoring one’s health.

Try intuitive eating. Try taking a daily constitutional. Throw out the stuff that doesn’t work for you, keep and cherish the stuff that does. Your definition of “what works” should have nothing to do with your shape and everything to do with your energy levels, your quality of sleep, your mood, the increasing ease with which you’re able to walk up a flight of stairs — all of which can be confirmed by studying your biomarkers. 

We’re all born with perceived flaws that drive us crazy. We inherit some along the way, too. Our complexion, our scars, our hair. Size belongs on that list, too, no matter how many magazine covers have tried to convince you otherwise.Today more than ever, fitness should champion inclusivity. It’s taken a while, but everyone’s invited. That Ancient Greek proverb, “to know thyself is to love thyself,” wasn’t referring to personal fitness bootcamps, but the sentiment is sound nonetheless. Don’t settle for just loving yourself. It’ll be all the sweeter if you actually get to know yourself — VO2 max, lipid levels and all — a bit first.

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