Making of a modern man: balancing masculinity, societal norms and obesity
What does it mean to be a man in a modern world? Conflicting messages
and expectations from society towards men may not only interfere with
one’s sense of identity, but also have impact on their health. Add to
this the societal pressure around body image and you can easily find
yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of despair. Ian Patton shares some
answers on how to balance masculine role model and health, get help
and re-connect with your true self.
I have always been the “big guy”. I grew up as the fat kid in school
and that image followed me through high school, university and into adulthood.
While I have always known that I was different and was compelled to
try and do something about it, I was also heavily influenced by
conflicting messages about masculinity, men’s health and my
body. As a male, my body has been both my greatest asset and my
Looking back on my life, it is clear that my beliefs about being a
male played a big role in the progression of my disease.
What it means to be a man in the modern world
Close your eyes and travel back in time with me to the early ’90s.
Imagine you are a 10-year-old boy dreaming of being a Power Ranger or
a Ninja Turtle. You have Donkey Kong playing on the Super Nintendo and
you are sporting a neon-coloured T-shirt.
What is that little boy
learning about his place in the world? What are the messages he is
receiving about being a boy and growing into a man?
He is growing up in a society,
a community and a home that is teaching him to value being big and strong,
brave and aggressive. He is being taught that he needs to be
responsible and dependable, a protector and provider. These are the
manly qualities that he is being conditioned to understand.
Feeling like an outsider
But what if you don’t fit in that mold? What if your body doesn’t
match the traditional manly ideal? What if all the world sees is a
large body? A fat and different kind of person?
To be encouraged to be big and use your size to your advantage
alongside the public understanding that you happen to be defective and
at fault because of your size. To be given strong and powerful
nicknames like Moose or Tank, but also be demeaned with hateful names
like “fatty”, “porky” or “lard ass”.
Conflicting role models
There is a fine line between that positive, capable and encouraged
he-man role and the dreaded, shameful, excessively large body. The mixed
messaging can be extremely confusing: “You need to be bigger and
stronger but, also, lose some weight and get smaller because now you
are too big.”
What makes this messaging even more damaging and dangerous is the
fact that there are no clear answers on how to fix yourself, to tip
the scales back towards that big strong manly image. All you get is:
“Be a man, try harder, go lift some heavy things, sweat it out” and
Shielded by sport
Growing up with obesity, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to
get involved in activities where my size was an advantage. I excelled
like hockey, baseball, rugby, American football and freestyle
wrestling, all of which reinforced the strong, powerful, aggressive
messaging that we just talked about.
In many ways, these lessons and opportunities were my saving grace.
They protected me from experiencing the same degree of discrimination,
bias and abuse that some of my peers describe.
Being good at a sport and being cheered on as the “big guy” provided
confidence, self-efficacy, positive social experiences and most
Yes, I experienced weight-based
bullying just like any other fat kid. Kids were mean, they
tormented me and pushed me around, played cruel jokes at my expense
and generally did not let me forget that I was, in one respect,
different from them.
Once the bullying turned violent, I was taught to protect myself and
others, by force if necessary. Bullies were quickly corrected and
The double-edged sword
Looking back, the downside to growing up in this world of
stereotypical manliness was two-fold for me: in addition to probably
contributing to the progression of my disease, it compromised my
ability to ask for help.
This is how it worked: On the one hand I was encouraged to be bigger
(to the point of no return). On the other, I was taught that as a man,
you need to stand up and be a self-fixer.
Don’t ask for help. Asking for help is weakness and in direct conflict
with who society wants you to be.
Men vs Women: a nuanced picture
As men, there’s no doubt that we have it easier when it comes to
being accepted and finding purpose
for our bodies. It is more socially acceptable for us to carry
excess weight compared to women, and we are body-shamed much less
frequently. At the same time, the idea of being “sick” and needing
help because of obesity is not fully embraced by men.
Compound that with the fear of showing signs of weakness, and you
have a situation where we, men, in general, are not seeking or
receiving treatment for obesity when it is needed.
Oh, the irony
As a guy who was athletic and interested in science and the body, I
went into kinesiology as a university degree – the study of the body
in motion, also known as exercise science. While my disease
progressed, I continued to study health, nutrition and exercise.
I completed a PhD with a focus on obesity.
Ironically, at this pinnacle of knowledge, I was also at my sickest,
weighing more than 350 lbs (nearly 160 kg). I was hypertensive, had
severe sleep apnea and plagued by the feeling that my fat was sucking
the life out of me.
Like most people, I had bought into diet
and exercise culture. I had insisted that willpower and
determination could make my obesity go away. That if I only starved
myself and sweated enough, if I could only endure enough discomfort
and wanted it bad enough, I could heal myself.
Wrestling with ego
While stuck in this “self-fixer” attitude, I refused to view my
obesity as a disease.
I let my ego and macho worldview delay the proper
management of my condition. I allowed myself to get sicker and
sicker out of stubbornness. And it nearly cost me my life.
I was so sick that I was waking up every morning asking if today was
the day the fat was going to kill me. I began wondering how my kids
would cope without their father.
One can only hope that, like me, they will realise that only by
swallowing their pride and facing their issue squarely can they hope
of surviving it.
A few men in a doctor’s waiting room
In 2014, I had a gastric bypass as part of my obesity
treatment. The pre-op phase was intense, with a number of
appointments and meetings. My initial orientation session included
nearly 50 people of whom only 3 were men.
Judging by who I met in the waiting rooms as I continued my
bariatric appointments, this was not unusual. I am also a member of
several support group communities, and here no more than 1 in 5
members tend to be male.
If you look at obesity across the population, you don’t see the same
gender-based divide. This tells us that men are not seeking
treatment or asking for help. With the complex and chronic nature
of this disease, I fear that many more men respond like I have – by
letting the disease progress unchecked out of some assumption
that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
In other disease areas (mental health, for instance) efforts are
made to dismantle the stigma attached to asking and receiving
help as a man. We need to do the same with obesity and the various
We need men to recognize that it is OK to ask for help.
Re-connecting with your true self and asking for help
It’s going to require men owning their multifaceted makeup. A man can
be strong and smart and ALSO need the strength and knowledge
of others – especially when his health is on the line.
We need more men adding to the chorus, speaking up and demanding
better. And we need more men leading the way and setting the example
with obesity is not something to do on your own.
Because the truth is there is nothing more manly or more powerful
than being brave enough to be vulnerable, than speaking openly about
all aspects of one’s health.
Your Body Mass Index (BMI) is a number calculated from your weight and
height. It’s not a precise calculation of percentage of body fat, but it
is an easy way to determine where your weight falls in the range from
healthy to unhealthy.
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