It was after what I called a “strong day” at my college gym: a marathon two-plus hour session where I pushed myself to lift more weight than I ever had before. In fact, I had just pushed myself through an entire week of strong days, and I was feeling confident in my progress—I was finally putting on the muscle mass that would take me from skinny guy to jacked giant.
But as my sweat dripped onto the scale in the men’s locker room, all of that confidence immediately melted away. After six months of going to the gym three to five times a week, increasing my healthy calorie intake by almost double, and taking endless scoops of protein powder and creatine supplements, I had gained almost no weight at all.
In that moment, I knew the sneaking suspicion I’d done my best to ignore was true: I would likely never be one of the “yoked” guys hulking around the dumbells. Probably not even close.
At 145 pounds with a 6′ frame, I’ve always been what you could call skinny.
Or thin. Or lanky—I’ve heard it all before. For as long as I can remember, I was taller than most of my peers and definitely thinner than almost all of them. Strange as it sounds now, I remember feeling oddly proud of my thinness when I was younger—it meant I wasn’t the stigmatized “fat,” which was one less thing to be mocked for. Ah, kids.
As time went on, my body remained largely the same shape, even as the onset of puberty had me eating like a horse. In middle school, we didn’t think (or understand much) about “body image,” and though my friends and I teased each other about anything we could think of, I still thought of myself and my body as healthy. Back then I was a fairly good soccer player, and some girls even thought I was cute. So did my mom—and that was good enough for me.
But when high school rolled around, it seemed like someone had turned up the pressure dial on everything.
Suddenly, everyone became painfully aware of their bodies. By that point, all of us had consumed enough movies and TV to internalize what a “beautiful” body should look like and had begun to endlessly compare ourselves to those absurd standards. Girls wanted to be thin and curvy at the same time, and guys wanted to be big, strong, and covered in muscles. Consciously or not, we were desperate to look like the athletes, actors, and rugged dudes in the shaving cream commercials who defined male attractiveness.
For the first time, I started to feel a little bit self-conscious about my thinness. Our soccer workouts now included weightlifting, and we worked tirelessly to pursue what we thought the world (and mostly girls) wanted from us. Some of my teammates showed results quickly, putting on noticeable muscle mass easily. And me? I was a little bit stronger! Did it show? Not really.
By the end of high school, it was clear that puberty would not magically grant me massive pecs and defined triceps.
But that was OK! Another tenet of masculinity I had learned to internalize was the “no pain, no gain” attitude. I would just have to double down, work harder, and be more focused on my goals.
I moved into my college dorm a man determined. Like every other freshman on campus (and probably every campus, ever) awkwardly attempting to reinvent themselves in some way or another, I was sure that my goal was going to happen. If I can just get big, I thought, I’ll be the man. I’ll have all the confidence in the world.
For a year and a half, I worked my ass off. I researched weight lifting, spent hours at the gym several days a week, and forced myself to eat way more chicken and rice than any reasonable person should. And to be honest, I never really enjoyed any of it. I found weight lifting to be so goddamn boring, and I constantly felt like there were better ways to be spending my time. Did I mention how much chicken and rice I ate?
These feelings, combined with a constant lack of noticeable results, would convince me to give up every few months. It was just too hard to keep forcing myself to do things I hated when it seemed like I wasn’t moving any closer to the body that I wanted.
So when I stood on that scale for the last time, after a one-last-try-period of dedication, it was a seriously difficult pill to swallow.
I hadn’t gotten huge. I wasn’t swole. Even with a few hard-earned extra pounds, my body was eons away from looking like the lead of a Marvel movie. It just wasn’t going to happen for me, and it felt like sh*t to accept that.
That night I went home and scoured the internet for stories of people like me, hoping to find words of commiseration from thin guys about how impossible it was to gain weight. And while I did find a few things like that, what I found more of were blog posts and articles about people with my body type that eventually did put on a ton of muscle. For most of them, it took years of going through intense daily workouts and strict diets—and I suddenly realized how laughable my six months of four times at the gym per week was.
I considered what committing to that lifestyle would mean for me. For starters, I would have to sacrifice a lot to make it happen: A few extra hours every day, a ton of money on supplements, freedom to eat what I wanted… and these were all things that I enjoyed having. On the other hand, I also began to think seriously about what I would gain from committing to that life.
Well, I’d be absolutely jacked, obviously.
But what did that even matter? How would my life be measurably different? When I really thought about it, I couldn’t really find a good answer. Even though I wasn’t completely into my body, I never found getting dates to be a problem. So while I sometimes wished I looked different, I still had a ton of confidence stemming from, you know, being a nice, thoughtful human being, with diverse interests and a lot of ambition to do good things in the world.
Turns out, I thought I should be big because… well, that’s just what we’re instructed to believe as men. And that really sucks.
When I realized that, things changed quickly. It was as if a weight was lifted off of my chest (pun intended). I stopped going to the gym and got into cycling, rock climbing, yoga, and surfing. I put down the chicken and rice, and ate the foods I actually liked—and I realized I loved eating so much I started working as a cook.
It was easy to keep physically active doing things I enjoyed, and pretty soon, I noticed serious improvements in my flexibility, strength, and agility. For the first time, I started to feel healthy in my own body, by my own standards—and it felt fantastic.
I know this struggle isn’t unique—most people, at some point in their lives, will compare themselves to some fantasy body planted in their head by a culture that worships a very narrow brand of attractiveness. But what gives me hope is this: When we resist the standards of all-the-same-looking Kardashians and Hemsworths, we make more room to see the real beauty in one another’s differences.
Nowadays, I’m still thin. But I can climb a wall, run a six-minute mile, and cover 200 miles of wilderness with a 50-pound pack on my back. Plus, my mom still thinks I’m cute. That’s healthy to me.
Andrew McMaster is a freelance writer. His work covers food culture and policy, as well as anything random, interesting, and important.