The Epidemic of Male Body Hatred

“If I could look like that guy who played Thor, I would be happy.”

It’s a common belief among men of our age. Put more honestly, “If I can’t appear confident, sexy, intimidating, competent, and super-human, I’m worthless.”

We compare ourselves to others in the gym. We come away from movies wanting to exercise for eight hours. We would rather jump in front of a truck than take our shirts off at the pool. We feel pathetic and small. We look at ourselves in almost every mirror we pass. When alone, we flex — not because we like what we see, but because we don’t. We have spent hundreds of dollars on pre-workout, weight loss, and weight gain supplements. We research the best way to bulk, shred, diet, and binge.

Maybe this doesn’t resonate with you. But if it does, you are not alone. We have been fed a lie. I know this lifestyle. It’s a locomotive — and too powerful to be stopped by a single blog. I hope to shed some light on what we’re actually trying to achieve with each rep, each yard, each stabbing “You’re pathetic” we put ourselves through.

Aspects of Male Body Hatred

Health is not the issue here. There is a huge gap between being healthy and meeting our culture’s ideal of “hot.” And in that space lies any and every resource for a man to hate his body.

“A man who hates his body is really searching for love.”

A man who hates his body is really searching for love — a fundamentally relational search for intimacy with self in the form of confidence, intimacy with the opposite sex in being sexy, intimacy with the same sex in intimidation or acceptance, intimacy with authority in competency, and ultimately intimacy with God, in appearing worthy. The lie is that performance offers intimacy at all — it is, in fact, its foil. Yet this is the path we choose.

A man’s hatred of his body takes place in terms of five relationships because he is searching for intimacy in each of these relationships.

1. To our selves, we want to be confident.

We want to love ourselves — to look in the mirror and think, “I look amazing.” We look — “I’m fat there, small there, weird there” — and emotionally destroy ourselves. We want confidence. Confidence on the basis of body image relates to intimacy in a very special way. If we are ever rejected, we want the confidence to say, “They are wrong for rejecting me.” We search for self-confidence so that we can temper our experience of rejection if and when it happens.

This drive for self-love is driven by self-hate. It is a dialectic of inordinate self-praise at our own progress, and then emotional self-mutilation for our failures. In self-love, we are able to dismiss rejection as misinformed. In self-hate, we are able to preempt rejection with introspection. And we hope to find intimacy at the end — at the six pack.

2. To the opposite sex, we want to be sexy.

We want women to love us. We want to walk by women, and have them think, “He’s so hot.” We want women to lust after us. We hear women, even Christian women, talk about wanting to marry Channing Tatum or Zac Efron. Whether it’s accurate or not, we buy that even Christian women want a man to have a certain kind of musculature — not “muscly” or “big,” but cut — with lots of angles on every part of the body. We want to be able to seduce, to be “swoonworthy,” to embody the full form that media sells as “sexy.” It’s an obsessive and driving ideal.

So, I go out for a run. I get home, and run again. What sort of performance earns the adjective sexy? “Certainly another run. Another set. Am I sexy yet?” We don’t speak it — Christians don’t even talk about it — but it drives us.

3. To our peers, we want to be intimidating.

We are primally competitive. We want to be the biggest, the most intimidating compared with other men. It can be reduced to “sizing up” another guy, but can have results as broad as “I’m amazing” and “I’m worthless.” We want to know that I could steal this guy’s woman, beat him up, and I want him to know that too. And if I feel like another guy could do that to me, I go to the gym. I purge. I go online. I buy a supplement. And, for many of us, we would simply settle for being accepted as one of the group.

4. To our fathers, we want to be competent.

“A dad’s disapproving glance is a surefire way to help a man hate his body.”

A dad’s disapproving glance is a surefire way to help a man hate his body. When I was 13, my father, in commanding wisdom, patted his traps and said, “Girls like this muscle to be big.” End of story. For the next ten years: supersets of shrugs twice a week at the end of my workouts. We look to older men and feel the need to measure up — to compensate in body what we know we lack in spirit and mind. We want to know, “I can replace you on this earth when you go. I can take the mantle. I’m strong, like you. Please tell me I’m strong, like you?”

5. To God, we want to be superhuman.

Every male portrayal of God or the godly in art history is jacked. The statue of David. The creation of Adam. Even Jesus has a six pack. A six pack. Vascular. A youthful head of hair. We think, “David must have written Psalm 102 about P90X, because this guy is shredded.” What place does 18% or 25% body fat play in God’s story? And what about the scrawny, the skeletal, the scraggy? Neither quite fit in God’s grand history — at least how art portrays it.

And so, men are given the aesthetic message from both Christian history and cultural rhetoric: “The secret password to our love is to be godlike in your body.” So, of course, we spend fortunes and hours and energies we don’t really have to attain an image we can’t really attain to earn love that isn’t really love. It’s a cycle of death (Proverbs 16:25–26).

Redeeming Men Who Hate Their Bodies

God has something to offer each aspect of a man’s hatred of his body, and he offers it through the five relational spheres of his self-hatred. Each gift that God offers is a form of intimacy with both God and the human through which he offers it.

1. Through our selves, God offers the bodies we have.

The image of God doesn’t just reside in the soul. The body bears the image (Genesis 1:26–28; 2:7), and therefore, since not all body types correspond to the billboard ideal, God expresses his approving delight over naturally pear-shaped, stick-shaped, V-shaped, and the rest — they each equally express his glory and bring him delight. If you hear anything, hear this: You’re okay. God doesn’t regard the appearance of man (1 Samuel 16:7).

2. From the opposite sex, God offers perspective.

Guys, let’s remember a few things. First, feeding the desire for female attention is feeding future adultery. You are not sexually available to everyone. Paul tells women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9). That goes for us, too. Guys have gotten off the hook too often. We don’t wear yoga pants (hopefully), but we are tempted to wear tank tops and tight shirts. It’s time to start owning a higher standard.

Second, women who are won over by musculature alone are fickle. They exist. But “her steps follow the path to Sheol” (Proverbs 5:5). And to hate one’s body is to buy the lie that the steps lead to life, when with such a woman, we “wander . . . [but do] not know it” (Proverbs 5:6).

“Men communicate to the women around us how we view their bodies by the way we view our own.”

Third, the women we single men are trying to attract are in the image of God as well. God calls us to love him with our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). A woman growing into the image of Christ, while certainly desiring to be physically attracted to her husband, will define that attractiveness in terms of your entirety. Character. Integrity. Intellect. The twenty things you see in the mirror that you hate yourself for, they will not register for a worthwhile woman. Moreover, we communicate to the women around us how we view their bodies by the way we view our own.

3. Through peers, he offers service.

As men, we rank ourselves. The warrior metaphor is intuitive to us. To submit is to lose. To tap out. When we submit, we forfeit our masculinity, or so we think.

No. The way of Christ is to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). This isn’t a command to “be humble.” It’s a command to be intimate. To see another guy and think, “He’s bigger, stronger, better looking, funnier, and more attractive than I am” is a daunting experience. Yet when a man has told me something he appreciates about me, I feel a great sense of safety and love. It’s how God relates to us in points of tension — with patience and reminders of goodness (Romans 2:4). We have the opportunity to do the same for other men — to be safe, noncompetitive places for them.

4. Through fathers, he offers empowerment.

Fathers have the power to embitter their children, and God forbids that (Ephesians 6:4). From older men, we are supposed to learn how to grow in the midst of shortcomings. We learn that we are okay when we fail. We learn that the physical ideal is unattainable (Proverbs 16:31).

Of the two older men who empowered me to feel most competent and confident in my life, neither of which is my father, one is 5’5” and the other has a potbelly. They demonstrate to me what godliness looks like when Marvel wouldn’t cast you as Thor. And they model amazing marriages without model-level attractiveness. The greatest of intimacy that a father (or father-figure) can give to us is the empowerment of peace so that we “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Dads are meant to supply godly empowerment, and God as Father does the same (Ephesians 3:14–16).

5. Through his Son, we receive love.

A six pack plays no role in God’s love for you. Your being conformed to the physical cultural ideal changes God’s love for you exactly 0%.

We are plagued with a negative body image because we feel the exacting eyes of a deistic, disapproving God. We believe that God withholds no good thing from those who walk [and run and diet and work out] blamelessly (Psalm 84:11). Fortunately, the blameless walker gives us the Father’s gifts even though we are evil and inconsistent and indulgent and lazy (Matthew 7:11).

Whatever healthy stewardship of the body looks like, it is most healthy when it occurs in the context of the safe and loving acceptance of God, who is the one who gives, has invented, and ordains romance, authority, and friendship. And God is no rewarder of the jacked, the cut, the swol, the sexy, the built. “It is in vain that you rise up early [in the gym, on the trail, on the mat] and go late to rest [on bodybuilding forums, in GNC, in the gym again], eating the bread of anxious toil [and pre-workouts, post-workouts, creatine cycles], for he [God] gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).

You don’t have to stop lifting or dieting or supplementing. And maybe you should start dieting and exercising. This isn’t a rebuke in either direction. It’s an invitation to perspective and intimacy — with ourselves, the opposite sex, the same sex, authorities, and God. Love is better than protein (Proverbs 15:17). In his abundant love, God delights in everything about you, including your body. Let’s remember what we’re really trying to accomplish, and let’s pursue the love of God and neighbor in ways that can never be attained through worshiping or hating our bodies.

is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute.