I hate being called skinny. I also hate slim. Svelte is growing on me but it isn’t my absolute favorite. If I had my way I would look like Dwayne Johnson. Muscle mass that sits on top of muscle mass. My name is Matthew Johnson Harris and I am a fitness instructor in multiple formats. Men and women compliment me on my body on a daily basis. Little do they know I struggle with my own personal body image.
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(Group Fitness Instructor Matthew Johnson Harris — Photo By Chelcy Harrell)
I spent my high school years overweight. I attended a predominantly white high school in a suburb in Texas and I was cast as Santa in the annual school Christmas Concert. When your weight trumps racial tensions and “traditional” ideas of Santa you know you are overweight, so I decided to make a change. My mom owned an old fashioned stepper that she purchased at a garage sale. Every morning I would do an hour step aerobic workout and before the summer had ended I had dropped 35 pounds. I knew nothing about weight training or gaining muscle so I purchased a copy of Men’s Health magazine and used it as second bible, and I became obsessed with fitness. My life has been filled with devastating obstacles and my workouts became my therapy. Three years ago I decided that I wanted to share my passion for fitness with others. I have worked at some of the best gyms in the New York City and still find myself struggling with my body image. Due to the high velocity of cardio classes that I teach, it is hard for me to maintain muscle and I constantly struggle with the idea that my body is too skinny and not masculine enough.
(Graphic By Matthew Johnson Harris)
November or “Movember” is a month dedicated to getting men to take better care of themselves with fitness boutiques all over the country offering special promotions and events to get men moving and thinking about their overall wellness. I used my platform to pick the brains of my favorite male students. Often, when approached, men just don’t know how to talk about body image. It is almost shameful to acknowledge such an insecurity. They may ask you how many reps it took you to get your arms or abs but they won’t flat out say that they feel areas on their own bodies are inadequate. I reached out to some of the fittest guys I know to gauge their thoughts on male body image and asked for advice on how they deal with their own insecurities.
(Group Fitness Instructor Jamal Smith)
Jamal Smith is a fellow fitness instructor and friend of mine. He is 6’3 and 220 pounds. If I went to bed tonight and woke up as Jamal tomorrow; it would be a dream come true. He is my ideal body type. On top of that he carries himself with a laid back charm and exudes an extremely approachable energy. Everyone who takes his class leaves inspired and wanting to be more like him. I assumed he of all people must be comfortable in his own skin. I was stunned when he told me that he wasn’t a fan of his own body. “There are other body types that I aspire to have,” Jamal simply stated. His honesty was refreshing.
As men, we are expected to be both physically and emotionally strong. To express negative thoughts about body image comes across as trivial, effeminate, and selfish. We fail to realize that unless we mentally and physically take care of ourselves, we are not fully able to take care of others. Edwin Velez says the right amount of selfishness and honesty about your self image is the most important key to making any kind of change.
(Personal Trainer and Spokesperson Edwin Velez)
In April 2014, Edwin Velez made national news when he lost 100 pounds in four months (Watch him discuss his journey on Good Morning America). He did it all with no trainer or guidance. Just a determination to get things done and an ability to put his health at the top of his priority list. He offers his advice to people who would want to make the same journey. “I would say you have to make the decision to change for yourself. We tend to try to make everyone happy and do the thing for the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with placing yourself first.” Edwin currently resides in Alabama and I have no doubt that he will be one America’s top trainers.
(Former Body Builder and Personal Trainer Keyon Roman Powers)
So what happens when you place yourself first, put in the work, and reach a physique that is “admirable”? Do the insecurities quiet down? Keyon Roman Powers is a former professional body builder and takes on this question. “I am admittedly insecure about my body. Once you have reached a certain level of fitness aesthetics you are held to the standard of maintaining or being better than where you are.” Gentlemen, Keyon Roman Powers, who I playfully call Mufasa, is insecure with his body. His quads look like they swallowed to Watermelons!
So what can we do to help battle these never ending thoughts of inadequacy? I think the answer lies with Zach Miko. Zach and I used to serve tables together in New York City and now he is making a name for himself as America’s First Male Plus Size Model. He is 6’6 and 275 pounds and has always been the “big guy”. He endured years of disappointments while pursuing his acting career because of his physique. This year he landed his breakthrough moment modeling for Target. His message is simple. Love yourself and realize that your body is specific to you.
(Actor, Model, and Musician Zach Miko)
“I like being the big guy. I’m happy being the big guy. I’ve been trying to change for years because that is what the industry has told me I should do. I just want to set a different standard.” says Zach.
There is always going to be some type of idealized fantasy on the perfect male form. Some are based on societies ideas and others are based on our own definition of masculinity and attractiveness. If you don’t like something about your appearance then there are many options to change it. Just know that it starts a race to perfection that never seems to end.
Some physical goals won’t ever be achievable. I won’t bore you with talk of genetics but some goals are not achievable based on good old fashioned science. When men approach me with admiration for a certain physical attribute I do something that isn’t popular in my profession. I let them know that results may vary. I try to shift their fitness goals to being more functional and efficient in day to day life. Can you pick up your toddler without blowing out your back? Can you walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded?
I haven’t fully come to terms that I will never look like Dwayne Johnson but I am happy to report that I am getting used to being Matthew. Whether there is a six pack or a keg under your shirt — self acceptance is the ultimate goal.
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