Making of a modern man: balancing masculinity, societal norms and obesity
By Ian Patton, August 2020
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 greatest fault.
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?
I was that child, and now I am that man. And I can tell you, it is quite the conflict, to be both complimented for and shamed for your body.
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 the like.
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 in sports 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 importantly, friends.
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 rarely re-offended.
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.
Shouldn’t I, with all my knowledge, be able to do something about my obesity? My body was broadcasting to the world that knowledge is clearly not enough.
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.
Not that uncommon
I am not alone in this. There are so many men out there who simply ignore or refuse to take care of their health because it is not the masculine thing to ask for help. Obesity, mental health, screening for chronic diseases… It can be anything.
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 treatments available.
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 that dealing 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.