As a fat girl who doesn’t fall into that magical mid-size or small fat category, I’ve got a few issues with the mainstream body positivity movement. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll write about it again I’m sure. The fact that so much “body positive” content that actually gets any traction centers around making already conventionally attractive cis-het white people feel better about their perceived flaws is disappointing. Half the content I see is average size people reassuring other average size people that they aren’t actually fat by showcasing the way their skin folds when they sit or bend, or taking a close-up photo of a stretch mark.
This is a movement with roots in 1960s fat liberation! It has a lot of crossover with feminism and racial justice, and the whole point of it is supposed to be to elevate marginalized bodies, demand things like equal pay and adequate medical care, and to change the narrative around fat bodies and health! The people who need it most don’t benefit when they’re not included in the narrative.
Men are one group that is sometimes excluded from the body positive narrative, and that’s unfortunate.
Of course, we can all acknowledge that as a group, women are held to a more unrealistic beauty standard. We are expected to be thin, look young, and maintain nearly impossible beauty regimens. We see nearly zero representations in entertainment of a chubby, goofy woman with a very conventionally attractive partner, but the trope of a chunky goofball guy with a gorgeous female partner has been to death. It’s harder for women. It just is.
But on an individual level, men can struggle just as hard as women to feel at home in their bodies.
Nobody knows that better than licensed professional counselor and body positive TikTok creator Will Mills, MA, LPC.
He chooses to use his position to encourage people to care for their mental health and to spread a message of body acceptance that comes from a somewhat unexpected source: a mid-size mental health professional who happens to be a man.
“A lot of people with thin privilege and pretty privilege use body positivity to grow their platforms and grow their accounts. I’m not invalidating anyone’s personal experience, but the reason people listen to them is because they do have that thin privilege,” Will sighs.
Will acknowledges that he does benefit from thin privilege sometimes, but his body is more of a mid-size, and that allows him to feel some of the exclusion and body judgment that people in large bodies experience, as well as deal with some of the practical annoyances, like shopping for clothes.
“For me, I’m not straight sized, but I’m not big and tall, either. I’ve been larger and I’ve been much smaller. When I wanted to find a crop top to make a crop top-themed video, I basically had to sacrifice a lamb and scour the earth to find crop tops. I finally found them on Etsy, and they were like $40 because of ‘extra fabric,’ for the half-inch extra length on my 2x,” laughs Will, describing his experience clothes shopping in a mid-size men’s body. “I am in the in-between. Everything is either just too small where buttons are popping, or everything is huge where I look like I’m wearing my Dad’s suit.”
As a high school athlete and theater kid, Will found that his larger body often factored into missed opportunities.
He was told that he would be perfect as the lead role in theatre productions if only he could lose some weight. “They’d say, ‘You have the perfect sound for this, the perfect voice part. I love your energy and your stage presence, but you wouldn’t be with the waif of an ingenue.’ Coaches were more concerned about how my body looked than my athletic prowess,” he remembers. “I’m recovering from multiple eating disorders. I can think back to being ten years old and being told my family, friends, coaches that I need to lose weight.”
At home, he faced a lot of criticism but very little support. Will’s family would often speak about his body like it was not good the way it was, but they did not have the resources or knowledge to equip him to change his body. The result was intense feelings of shame without any empowerment to make a change or learn how to make peace with the body he inhabited.
“The first part of my body positivity journey was to repair my relationship with food and what I’m using it for. As a therapist, I know that the way we cope and the way we celebrate cannot be the same because it confuses our brain, so it’s important that we aren’t using food to cope as a means of escape,” he explains.
Will is willing to be vulnerable about the times he has felt unworthy in his body.
“It doesn’t matter how small I was. When I had a 32-inch waist I was like, ‘This hangs here, this sags here, this isn’t lifted where I want it to be.’ I would stand in the mirror and take pictures of myself and zoom in,” he recalls.
“I was encouraged to do that by my fitness friends. They didn’t know about my struggles. They didn’t know I was making myself throw up in every shower, or that I was eating a hundred dollars worth of food and then making myself throw up at home when I was alone. I didn’t share, and it was very isolating experience because I was told boys don’t have eating disorders.”
Will didn’t find a lot of support for his body image struggles, even within his own family. When he told his parents about his disordered eating patterns and his suffering, he was dismissed because they were under the impression that boys didn’t struggle with disordered eating.
This is part of the reason Will is so passionate about sharing his experiences from a male perspective.
“It’s societal, it’s communal, it’s familial,” Will explains. “It’s a different space for men. I think people sometimes see body positivity as a monolithic experience just for women, but men have struggles too but it shows up differently.”
Will is also a member of the queer community, and he has noticed some patterns of body negativity that can be perpetuated in specifically queer spaces.
“Attractiveness in community especially amongst gay men is defined by that DC or Marvel superhero just like anywhere else. It’s a heteronormative idea of attractive that is expected but not achievable for most people in a healthy way, but it’s the standard because it’s what it takes to be accepted by straight society,” Will explains.
He hopes to see that change. “If you live your life out loud, you should live in your body as it is. If you want to change your body because you want to, that’s fine, but not if you are doing it in hopes to be loved, accepted and adored,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to nearly kill yourself to feel like you deserve to take up space on this earth.”
Will is passionate about reminding people that genetics impact the shape of your body, and not everyone is physically able to mold themselves into the Hollywood stereotype. It’s not fair to assume that those unmet expectations only affect women. Men feel let down by their own perceived imperfections, too.
If you talk to any human being who knows anything about biology, science or medicine at all, they’ll tell you it’s not healthy for people to have excessively low body fat. It’s dangerous to push the narrative that less fat is always healthier because it’s not!”
When it comes to being a man in the body positivity space, Will is careful not to speak over women in his quest to spread a body positive message.
“I’m all about celebrating women and what they’re doing for the body positive movement. It’s changing the way we look at women. They’re not just sex objects. They’re not just mothers. They’re not just sisters. They have more to offer than their looks and the shape of their body (which they probably have little to no control over and also has nothing to do with their beauty in general)” Will explains.
But that doesn’t mean the body positivity movement isn’t important for men, too.
“I don’t mind that women take up most of the body positive space on social media at all, but sometimes you can’t find many men [to follow.]” Will says. “I want to be that guy.”