In part 1 of this interview experienced personal trainer Sean Rigelsford sits down with self-professed ‘twig’ Daniel Hills to talk about all things body image. The result? An interview that just about sums up everything you need to know about body image as a man.
Sean begins by acknowledging that he’s experienced what it’s like to be ‘overweight and not athletic’ and ‘athletic and big’ but that at the end of the day ‘your body image never really makes you happy’. That ideal body you have in mind if you could just stick to your gym program and eat properly and try hard enough and stop being so lazy? It’s a mirage.
Sean’s natural build has seen him struggle at the opposite end of the spectrum to Daniel: he gains weight easily and can struggle to keep his weight in check. Daniel, on the other hand, struggles to put on any size at the gym. We’ve all heard about genetics playing a part, but just how much of a part is what tends to be up for debate, even in the research.\
'There is nothing that your body can provide you with that your mind cannot take away.'
Setting genetic limitations to the side, let’s frame the issue of body image through an old psychological lens - one that could affect all of us regardless of the size of our biceps - ‘the grass is always greener’.
In a small segment of the interview that didn’t make the final cut, Sean refers to a very muscular friend of his that seemed to always wish he could look even better. No matter what physical goal he achieved, he always wanted more. Sean only wished he could look like his mate - so why wasn’t he happy with what he already had? This observation can be explained quite simply: there is nothing that your body can provide you with that your mind cannot take away.
It’s important to realise that your reality is heavily influenced by how you feel. It’s why you think you look awesome in the mirror on one day but hate yourself on another. It wasn’t necessarily because you’ve ‘been going to the gym for the last month’ or ‘have been using this new supplement’. It’s because you feel good about doing those things and are projecting that feeling onto the image you see in the mirror. But it works to reinforce a negative reflection too.
'How you look and how you feel are inextricably linked. Do things that make you feel good and you will look better in your own eyes.'
‘Most people see themselves negatively, they’re like their toughest critic’, suggests Sean with absolute certainty. It’s why he preaches performance rather than aesthetics. How you look and how you feel are inextricably linked. Do things that make you feel good and you will look better in your own eyes.
‘Rather than trying to fix the sadness inside by how you look in the mirror, fix the sadness inside by making your body feel good and you’ll look at yourself as if “yeah, I’m good”.’
It’s very likely that someone in your life looks at you and only wishes they had your body. It could be a guy that walks past you on the street. Someone on the bus. It may even be the 12 year old version of yourself.
Amongst gay men, especially, some guys want to be you, and some guys want to do you. Don’t forget that. Plenty of guys wished they looked like you, and plenty of guys want to have sex with you because you look the way you do.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to be your own type - you don’t need to want to have sex with yourself. But what about those guys you are so sure would love to have sex with themselves?
'It gives them money, admiration, and dominance over other, ‘lesser’ men.'
Inspired by this interview, I found a fascinating article by Petersen and Laustsen (2019) that discusses the relationship between a man’s strength and his political ideology. The more strength he has (both self-reported and through assessments of the upper body - termed ‘formidability’) the more likely he is to have a socially dominant orientation, or an anti-egalitarian outlook. This basically means that the more ‘formidable’ you are, the more you support the disparity of resources between groups of people. This could explain why you get such physically attractive, muscular men on social media trying to sell you their health and fitness-related products. It gives them money (a powerful resource), admiration, and dominance over other, ‘lesser’ men. If you give them your money, admiration, and subjugation, then you’re making it harder for you to climb the social ladder, which is theoretically exactly what they want - whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
The men with those bodies aren’t trying to help anyone. They’re trying to reinforce their position of significance in the social hierarchy. Remember: without your admiration, they are nothing. Take that resource back and watch them starve.
'Bones, speed, body fat, and good feedback.'
If you look closely at the men that tend to have a naturally muscular physique, you may notice a trend. Look past their muscles and look at their bones. The first advantage they have is a skeleton that naturally looks appealing when it’s wrapped in meat. This is often seen in 1) their jaw line and 2) their shoulder to hip ratio. Broader shoulders compared to one’s hips is a natural indication of a biological male, and so we all associate this with a more ‘manly’ man. That’s a pretty solid head start.
The second advantage is that they have faster muscles. As a general rule, faster muscles mean bigger muscles. It’s to do with the cellular qualities that that make up those fibres. Think about it: that guy you can remember from school that seemed to have a muscular body for no reason, and he just happened to be one of the fastest runners in the year? That’s not a coincidence, that’s genetics. For the most part, how fast your muscles are is genetically locked in, so you aren’t going to be changing that any time soon.
The third advantage is a naturally low percentage of body fat. Less fat means more visible musculature (obviously). Think back again: that fast, muscular guy in high school - did he also seem to have very little body fat? That would be expected on someone whose muscles are churning through more energy than yours because they’re naturally powerful. They literally walk around simmering at a faster basal metabolic rate than you.
Finally - and this point is absolutely critical - have you ever noticed that guys who swim have broad shoulders? Or that guys that run a lot have defined legs? Or that guys that do gymnastics tend to be shorter? Sure. But do you think it was those activities that gave them those features? What about if it was them naturally having those features that ensured their success at those activities? They then proceeded to stick with that activity because they were good at it. It’s a positive feedback system that we all exhibit when selecting our past times.
'Guys don’t look the way they look because of what they do, they do what they do because of how they look.'
The muscular guys that make up the majority of guys you see training on the weights floor at the gym? They’re there because they’re muscular. The exceptionally attractive ones? That’s the bone structure sitting underneath that muscle (see: 'The gym is where fit people go to be fit').
My conclusion here is that guys don’t look the way they look because of what they do, they do what they do because of how they look. Let that hypothesis sink in for a minute. It might just blow your mind.
Check out the interview below and start a productive discussion around body image with a couple of guys in your life.
Petersen, M., & Laustsen, L. (2019). Upper‐Body Strength and Political Egalitarianism: Twelve Conceptual Replications. Political Psychology, 40(2), 375–394. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12505
Nathan helps people to express themselves at home, at school, and in the workplace, all around the world. He's passionate about thinking, and engages in it regularly. He's not overly fond of writing in the third person though. It's weird. Connect with him on Facebook to continue the conversation, make a video at colourbeat.com, or even share a dance with him at movewithcolour.com!
There is nothing that your body can provide you with that your mind cannot take away, i.e. your mind calculates and distorts the image you 'see'.
How you look and how you feel are inextricably linked. Try and do things that make you feel good.
Naturally very attractive, muscular men may be trying to dominate other men to fulfil a biological need for social disparity.