This is the fourth of a handful of posts I’ve solicited from some friends in the ancestral health community whose voices I admire (Part 1 by Tara Grant is here, Part 2 by Kendall Kendrick here, Part 3 by Anastasia Boulais here). I’ll be posting these in the days leading up to AHS13. It’s my hope that these dispatches will resonate with others out there and help dispel the notion that everyone in ancestral health have hunter-gatherer physiques and zero health struggles. I’m tired of the apologies and I’m tired of people not feeling welcome. We all come to ancestral health for our own reasons, and this is too important of a movement to let divisions arise over perfectly normal, human experiences.
Today, we get to hear from the other sex, thanks to James Murphy, also known as @primalRUSH on Twitter.
I was always a “normal” looking kid—I grew up at an average weight, so I’ve never had to deal with losing a bunch of it. Body-change-wise, my life has been pretty uneventful, I think, so I’m going to fast-forward through my life up until right about now.
Let’s look at some of the possible body image issues I could have:
- Pale white skin with an inability to tan
- Covered in freckles
- Red facial hair (gingers have no soul!)
- Relatively small frame
- Lack of Adonis-like musculature
I think that focusing on my perspective regarding the last two will be best, since they are the most relatable characteristics.
I’ve always thought of myself as a skinny dude. I could compare myself to any number of people (especially in this ancestral health community) and look like the opposite of what men are supposed to look like. Hunter-gatherers are big and jacked! I most definitely do not look like a jacked-Adonis-alphamale-caveman.
Men are supposed to look big and strong, though, aren’t they? Does that mean I’m not manly? Does this mean I’m not healthy?! These are some thoughts that have definitely passed through my head before, and because I work in a gym, I know many other dudes that think the exact same things on a daily basis.
Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? So why have I thought these things before? One’s body image is a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others.
Subjective: existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (as opposed to objective).
I think that word, subjective, is an important one to remember. It interests me quite a bit, especially since some of the people in the gym I work with are HUGE, but still think they need to get bigger. How can their view of themselves be so skewed? Is my view of myself skewed?
I did a bit of research on the subject of body-image in men: a 1987 paper “Men and body image: are males satisfied with their body weight?”
“Dissatisfaction with body image in the male can also operate in the direction of weight gain. Studies with high school and college students indicate that the chief male concern at that age is to gain weight, size, and strength. Consequently, males at that age often perceive themselves as underweight or too thin. It may be assumed that boys who want to gain weight are less interested in gaining weight per se than in becoming more muscular and equate muscularity with added weight.”
The average height of the 98 males in this study was reported as 70.9 inches (~180cm), or 5’11″. The average weight of the 98 males in this study was reported as 163.6lbs (~74kg).
Hold on…this is me. I am 181cm tall and weigh in anywhere from 72-74kg on average.
“But still, 26% of all men described themselves as overweight. In contrast, 20.9% of the men…described themselves as underweight.”
Now, this says nothing of body composition, and doesn’t say much about whether or not the males were “satisfied” with their body, regardless of being either underweight or overweight. But it does provide an interesting commentary on body image itself, and reinforces the “subjective” part of the definition.
Another interesting abstract: “Accuracy of estimations of body-frame size as a function of sex and actual frame size.”
“Body-frame size is an important factor in determining an optimal body weight for a given height. Previous studies have indicated that many individuals incorrectly estimate their body-frame size, and, as a result, incorrectly assess their ideal weight. The present study investigated the accuracy of estimation of body-frame size as a function of sex and actual frame size. The subjects were 66 men and 52 women participating in a community adult fitness program. Data indicated that medium-framed individuals were the most accurate in their estimations of body-frame size. Also, women were twice as likely to be accurate as were men. These results are interpreted to mean that most people assume they are medium-framed and that there is a sex difference in the way body-frame size is estimated.”
If some people would consider my height and weight to be underweight, and yet others would consider it to be overweight, does this mean that whether or not I’m actually one or the other depends on who I ask? Does it mean that my perceived “ideal appearance” could be wrong? Am I actually “too skinny” for a guy?
Maybe. The only important question, to me, is does it matter? And the only person I think it should matter to, is me.
Do I wish there were some things I could change about the way I look? Sure! But I realized a long time ago that I’m much more interested in what my body is capable of than how it looks. Not everybody will share my opinion on this, and that’s okay. Do I think it’s wrong to care about how your body looks? Hell no. But if we’re imagining an ideal body for ourselves that isn’t true, and it’s affecting our life in a way that affects our health, and we “care about our health,” then it’s possible that we need to re-evaluate what our priorities are.
People are scared that we won’t live up to the standards that we perceive everyone thinks we should. It’s definitely a real issue in this health community. Those of us interested in our health want to look healthy. It’s in our nature to want to physically represent our ideals—that’s why we buy certain clothes and accessories that help us look the way we feel we are. But sometimes this makes people focus on looking healthy instead of actually being healthy. And sometimes looking “healthy” (by imagined standards) takes some unhealthy practices (and when I say “imagined standards” I am not simply referring to self-imagined standards of a healthy appearance, but societal ones as well).
It’s easy to get caught up in a false ideal of what your body should look like. Just go to Men’s Health or similar websites and look at the pictures they’ve got plastered all over the site. Look at how many people are out there selling you a method or program for looking a certain way. Even looking at the covers of many Paleo books would have you believing you will (or should) eventually look like a Greek God.
Should you? Well, that’s completely up to you.
I think focusing on performance (i.e. what your body can do) will allow you to be proud of your body, regardless of the way it looks. This, in my opinion, is the best way to change our body-image into a more positive one. I know that I don’t care all that much about how my abs look, but I have never been more proud (and confident!) of my body as I was when I hit a double-bodyweight deadlift.
So once again back to my body-image. I mentioned at the beginning of this post a few things that I could have issues with regarding my appearance. Do I have issues with these things? The short answer is: no.
Obviously there is a valid fear of being judged by our peers and we know there are certain physical characteristics that most people inherently find attractive. But my views on my body’s appearance are similar to my overall view of life, and can be described with one simple phrase: don’t cry over spilled milk. If something is so minor that it’s silly to worry about, then don’t. If you can’t change something (the way you can’t put milk back into the glass) then you are doing more harm than good worrying about it. Of course this is easier in theory than in practice, but I still think it’s a healthy perspective to strive to adopt.
James Murphy is a holistic nutritionist, fitness enthusiast, minimalist and natural movement practitioner living in Toronto, Ontario Canada.