Nathan Lee sits across from me on the bench as we both scarf down a late dinner. Inside the theater across the street, our dance group’s tech rehearsal is underway for our big shows that weekend. He’s a very different person than the guy I met freshman year — more adventurous, more secure in his own identity, more willing to put himself out there.
“I felt like the least masculine person ever when my teammates in sports back in middle school found out that I was in ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” He tells me through mouthfuls of noodles. “Now, I will, of my own volition, put on heels and leggings and a bra and go onstage, and the more provocative the (choreography) — to a point — the more fun.” His adventurous all-male dance group has given him a new self-confidence in my eyes — but it’s not one he’s always had and certainly not one he’s been led to possess for most of his life.
On March 23, American Eagle Outfitters released a new male body positivity campaign called #AerieMAN, only to announce a week later that it was an was an April Fool’s joke parody of their female body positivity campaign. Worse still, one of the models came forward after American Eagle’s announcement and claimed he’d had no idea the campaign was a joke. He’d been completely honest in his statements about male body image, but his involvement had been written off as a parody.
In contrast, Amy Schumer and Zendaya have both received huge praise recently for speaking out against the media’s body image pressures. Body insecurity for men, however, is to be taken quietly and — well — to be taken “like a man.” I was late into high school at the earliest when I realized I had never had any idea of how men experienced body image issues. And so I sought a friend’s point of view.
Nathan is tall and lean, and he claims that he’s “5-foot-11, maybe 5-foot-10 ¾, but I’ll always round up and yell at you if you tell me different.” I’ve known him since I first came to UC Berkeley and we joined the same dance group. Over the years, I performed alongside him and watched him put himself out there onstage with his men’s group. But I had never taken the time to understand what pressures he might experience.
“I think it’s pretty unquestionable and definitely applies to my experience that the media pressures exist,” he says about his experience with body image ideals in between mouthfuls of noodles. “But I would also very much agree that our culture cuts men a lot more slack than women.”
But I wonder if that’s true. The media he refers to presents skinny, idealized women next to buff, idealized men. The underwear line that American Eagle’s #AerieMAN joke helped launch uses the same set of sculpted abs to advertise every single pair of underwear on its website. It might be a more implicit pressure, less readily spoken about, but Nathan’s musings about a longing for a bigger, more athletic body type make me think the conditioning has still had quite an impact.
“In a lot of ways for men, we say it as a joke, but you think that size matters. Not just that,” he interjects, referencing the stigma around genitalia. “A lot of guys would like to be bigger in various respects. … You can make people kind of bend to your will by literally, physically overpowering their presence. Not by fighting them, but by being there and being that person. And I don’t really have that.”
He had tried once, he admits. In anticipation of a “Magic Mike”-themed dance piece, he’d had to work to get in shape. “For whole rest of the semester, I didn’t eat a single piece of junk food,” he says. “I worked out a fuck-ton because I just couldn’t bear to have my shirt off onstage and feel like crap and not have anything to show for it.”
“But how much work did it take to get to that point?” I ask.
“Well, I did 300 push-ups and sit-ups a day.”
He laughs. “Yeah, that was kind of overkill.” His motivation? “Just the thought that one way or another, I was going to get up onstage and dance with my chest mostly bare. And it worked. I felt good about myself, and … that’s when I realized I liked attention. Because I had never had attention for my looks.”
I couldn’t help but think about everything I had done for image — all of the makeup, the waxing, the hair straightening, the nail polish. I thought about how many of my female friends had done swimsuit diets for the summer season. Women will often put in weeks of work and withstand all types of pain to meet a certain standard. Nathan’s mission was inherently the same as mine, I realized sadly.
Sitting on that bench, we certainly seem different. Nathan tall and thin, wishing somewhat to be more heavily built; me small and curvy, wishing somewhat to be leaner. But ultimately we both struggle with the same things, the same self-image that much of western media has been implicitly feeding us our entire lives. The only difference is that it’s becoming — albeit slowly — more acceptable for me to speak against it. Nathan had found some freedom in his performing arts circle, but most guys like him would remain quiet, internalizing their fears and insecurities and taking them silently with the same masculine strength they might never have felt quite able to fight against.