Every so often, my male cousins and I sit down and discuss the big first world problems; the real issues of our millennial generation (sometimes we reminisce about when we were six played with Lego, but still). The topic of conversation this week, as it has been for many weeks, was the gym.
My cousins are committed gym-goers. And when I say committed, I mean committed. Working out 5 times a week, the gym has come to represent their main hobby, and much of their personal downtime is spent working out. But it goes further than just pumping iron once a day – their eating habits, social commitments and relationships have all been altered somewhat by their gym activity.
Dinner has to be high protein, evenings with the girlfriend are compromised for evenings in the gym and their social media feeds are mostly full of fitness-related content. It’s such an integral part of their everyday lives that it got me thinking: do men see working out the way women see beauty?
Now I know every male out there reading this headline will immediately holler “No! Of course not. It’s totally different, bruv.”
But is it?
I picked the brains of numerous male gym-goers, and there are many things they have in common. The main statements that were made across the board were:
1. “Every man’s motivation for starting the gym is different. Some guys start because of work (security guards, fitness instructor, manual labor jobs, etc), some lads were bullied at school and work out to regain confidence, loads of lads start to get girls”
2. “Once you’re dedicated, it stops being about impressing women. Yeah, the little bit of attention is nice but it’s a by-product. I get more satisfaction from a guy commenting on my gains than a girl.”
(‘Gains’ is just a general term that means an increase in the appearance of muscle size . And yes, they had to define this for me)
3. “I’m always on the lookout for the next goal, the next milestone. It starts becoming addictive because, as big as you are, you know you could always be bigger
(Note: Not stronger, but bigger)
As a girl who loves her makeup and cosmetics, I can see some similarities between the guys I spoke to and my girl friends. For example, as young girls we were introduced to makeup in different ways. Many of us just did it because our friends were, some of us were nudged into it by our mums and older sisters and some of us explored it on our own, aspiring to look like women in magazines so we could get the attention of that boy in class. We all picked up that first tube of mascara or lipgloss with a different thought in mind, but once we got into it as adults and started to really learn about products and techniques, it stopped being about boys.
Because let’s be honest girls, I put more effort into my appearance when meeting my girls than when I see the boyfriend. And why?
Because they know.
Girls who are really into make-up know the brands, they know the techniques, they know the effort and artwork that went into creating my face this morning. Even my grandma will throw shade if my lipstick is slightly off. My boyfriend, on the other hand, does not (read: wouldn’t dare).
Beauty can also be a little like a cult, and there’s a mutual appreciation and respect for when another girl has got it right or wears something you recognise (shout out to my best friend at uni who on the first day poked me and said “Is that a Barry M Green?” #FriendsForLife). This exact mutual appreciation is how my cousins described gym culture: that feeling of recognition for those many hours spent sweating it out from another guy gives you a little rush.
But like the beauty industry, the gym has a dark side.
From what I’ve learnt, gym-going can be addictive. That never-ending quest for bigger biceps and a higher number on the weight rack is insatiable. The men I spoke to are longing for bodies that, quite frankly, are unnatural to them. Just like women, men have physiques personal to their genetics and a small amount of pot luck. Not all men will naturally be able to have a defined six-pack or chest area, but they’re striving for it anyway. But at what cost, and to what end?
The term “Bigorexia” (also known as muscle dysmorphia) has been floating around for about a year, and takes its origins from “anorexia”, the eating disorder typically focused on females. The disorder is even sometimes explained as “reverse anorexia”.
An anxiety disorder which causes someone to see themselves as small, despite being big and muscular.
Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that anyone I spoke to has muscle dysmorphia. But I can see how their attitudes and behaviour could lead to become a serious issues if allowed to become out of control. As millennial women, we’ve grown up with more positive body image campaigns than our predecessors. We’re finally starting to break down barriers of what we’re “supposed” to look like, and there’s a wider acceptance now of different body shapes and sizes. Granted, we still have a long way to go, but we’re starting to have the conversation, which is a good thing.
For 21st men, however, I feel that this is a new issue that we’ve not dealt with before. Yes, we’ve always seen images of burly men; the action figures and wrestlers and superheroes etc. But never before has health and fitness been so readily available to young men like it is now. The internet provides information on nutrition, access to supplements and images of the “ideal” for free, and both professional gyms and home equipment are now cheaper than ever before. For the first time, men are now questioning their body image in a way women have done for years. Bigorexia is real and could definitely be dangerous.
So is it time us girls impart a little bit of the wisdom we’ve picked up along the way? To gently remind the boys we know that their bodies are fine just how they are, and that gym-going should be an activity that ultimately makes them feel better, not a desperate quest to achieve an unattainable body that makes them secretly miserable. Because like boys have been saying to us for years, we like them just how they are.