A University Grad Reflects On Being Good Enough
Our pal Sam Gray talks about his challenges with body image and being good enough throughout his high school and university days.
Straight / Male / 20–23 / North America / Relationship
This might sound strange coming from a guy, but I’d always thought pinching my belly fat was normal.
I recently graduated university and took a trip to a spot halfway around the world to focus on writing my first book. Unexpectedly, on this trip, tons of deep lessons about myself came to the surface. One of these lessons was becoming aware of the amount of time I spent worrying about my body. Every waking hour my mind would wander to worrying about how much muscle I was going to lose from being on this trip, or if my workout was hard enough yesterday, or if I picked the right exercises.
The sheer time I spent worrying about my body image was enormous.
Before coming on this trip, I was too busy to notice the frequency and combined time-suck of all the moments I would check on my physique. In isolation, a belly pinch here, an arm grab there, a skin-on-the-front-of-my-neck pinch here all seemed insignificant. But the quietness of my new destination made me aware that this was beyond a healthy relationship with my body. If I came across a mirror, I would always check my abs. Always.
I was quickly realizing that all of this time spent in my head worrying about my body was not only a huge waste of time, since it didn’t actually improve my body at all, but it was significantly affecting my ability to be confident and connect with other people.
I also realized my lack of confidence and ability to love myself was actually preventing me from fully loving anyone. I would hold them all to the same unreachable standard I held myself to, always reminding them of their flaws. Unintentionally, I had put my family and girlfriend into a state of being not-good-enough and worthless when they were around me. Cue breakups (yes, I mean plural) and regular family arguments. Instigator? Always me.
But that’s where I’m at now. Let’s go back to when it all started.
It started in high school of course, where I was fighting for Dad’s love through marks. Right from eighth grade (age 13), I had incredible marks, nearly A’s in every subject, but to Dad, these marks were never good enough.
Well, they actually were. My Dad said he was proud of my marks, he just liked to also express love by pointing out areas of improvement. I chose to reject the love he showed me and focus on his criticism.
So, I obsessed over marks. I thought that if I could bring up my lowest marks to A’s, then I wouldn’t need to keep improving. I thought I would be good enough. Maybe then I would be fully loved.
Sure enough, after a couple years, I made it happen. Finally. Straight A’s! But, the same thing happened. He praised my good marks, and pointed out the low ones. All A’s, but not all A+’s. Convinced he wouldn’t love me until my marks were all prefect, I trudged on.
This continued throughout high school. Even when I got into my top two universities, and won a full-ride scholarship, it wasn’t enough. While he said he was proud of me, he reminded me that I still hadn’t made it yet. The school I wanted to go to had a program where I had to maintain good grades for two more years, in order to get into the 3rd and 4th year program.
Alongside my never ending path to pleasing my Dad was my never ending path to having muscles that I thought were large enough. I always thought I needed big muscles for girls to like me.
I loved sports. I was an athletic fellow, but not exactly for the powerful sports requiring large muscles to compete in like football or rugby. Instead, I got good at cross-country, ultimate frisbee, track & field, and hockey (I was a goalie). I remained athletic and small.
My dad didn’t want me playing football or rugby even though I begged him for years, because he was too afraid I would get a head injury. I felt like this supressed me in a big way, especially since my school was known for its strong rugby team. Meanwhile, all of my friends got to play. Compared to them, I felt extra small. And I told myself that the girls thought so too.
In addition to playing sports, I lifted weights at the gym to try to get bigger. I didn’t really know how big my muscles needed to be for women to like me, but I knew simply playing sports wouldn’t be enough to get me there. In my mind, the fairytale went something like this: the day would come when my muscles grew to be enough. Then I would be at a party, and all the sexy ladies would come up to me asking to have sex in the bathroom.
Once I got to university, I still was without the bathroom sex. But I knew it was coming. I was patient. I had to get just a little bit bigger.
In second year, I stumbled into living with a bunch of guys who were good with the ladies. At the same time, I realized that I didn’t need to do any homework for school. I didn’t need to maintain a high average to get into my program in third year, and my courses were easier than expected. So, to stave off boredom, I took all my energy that I normally put into homework and put it into partying.
For the whole year, we partied with women who were very physically attractive, but I never felt confident enough to talk to any of them. I was too small, and they weren’t all flocking to me yet. One of my roommates told me I was “too much in my head and overthought everything”. I never figured out what to do about it.
But, I still wanted sex, because sex was awesome, so I took whatever I could get. I would desperately text girls, sending third, fourth, and fifth texts if they didn’t reply. I needed someone. I thought that if I was able to have sex with some girls, even if they weren’t as physically attractive as the ones my roommates were going for (and sleeping with), that I wouldn’t be a total embarrassment. Much better than having no sex at all. But deep down I knew that the girls I was sleeping with were nowhere near as physically attractive as the ones they were sleeping with, and it made me sad.
It made me sad because I felt like I was losing. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be accepted by my boys. I felt that, without having sex with physically attractive goddesses, I would never get this acceptance. I just couldn’t get it out of my head that my muscles were too small.
By the end of third year, I didn’t feel the need to please my Dad through school anymore since I had gotten into my program and found out it was pretty much impossible to fail out. That problem was gone. But, I still did not feel strong enough to be worthy of attractive women.
I was starting to approach the goals I set out for myself that I thought might qualify me as ‘big enough’ in high school. I could now bench press 200 pounds, squat 300, and deadlift 400. But immediately after reaching each milestone, I was back to convincing myself I was too small, adjusting the goal up another 100 pounds.
Not many people talk about guys being self-conscious about their bodies. It seems to me this is reserved for females in modern society. I can assure you that I was extremely self-conscious about my body. I still am.
Reflecting on it now, it seems insane. I would spend hours every day playing sports, working out, or both and I would still have so many worried thoughts about my size. I would constantly squeeze my belly fat, feeling like I was too fat. I would always look at the way my shirts covered my arms, never filling them out enough. I would grab the skin on my neck, worried about it growing too fatty. It was always on my mind. Especially when I was out at the bar.
It wasn’t until I decided I would stop chasing after women, at the end of third year, that things really started opening up for me. I was able to focus my energy on getting what I really wanted, which, at the time, was an awesome summer job, reading books, working on personal development, and spending time with friends. I was busy with things I enjoyed and I was finally without the burden of a failing sex life. It was just nonexistent.
I changed the game. I wasn’t losing because I wasn’t playing anymore. Sure, I got uncomfortable every time I saw a physically attractive goddess, but I didn’t have to impress her anymore. I was taking a break.
What a glorious break it was. Not that I was over being self-conscious of my body, but I was finally starting to get out of my head. Instead of constantly worrying about chasing women all the time, desperately trying to get whatever sex I could get, I could focus on me, finally calm down, and live a more relaxed existence.
By accident, the break from girls uncovered the silliness of the entire game of chasing women. Due to the distance I had created from the pursuit of women, it quickly became obvious that my boys were tying their self-worth to their success of chasing women. I would end my nights in a similar emotional state to how I started them (because I wasn’t playing the game), but it would pain me to see many of the guys in our group shaming themselves for going home alone.
I now realize the whole pursuit to get bigger, and eventually become worthy of physically attractive girls, was a backwards one. I was already good enough. In fact, I was pretty freaking great. And I didn’t need to have sex with physically attractive women to prove it.
I had become used to the ‘never-good enough’ mindset based on years of my father’s criticism. This mindset spilled over into other areas of my life without me realizing it. While I may not have had huge muscles, I was very athletic. I was on tons of sports teams, excelling on all of them, and had a healthy body. Despite not being ‘good enough’ for women, I was actually a very sociable and interesting guy. And for school, I was getting straight A’s for crying out loud.
The biggest realization that came to me on my current trip halfway around the world, was that while I should care about my health, I shouldn’t spend time worrying about it. Worrying doesn’t help me.
After many months of not looking for sex, my now girlfriend popped into my life. While her good looks drew me in at first, I have found much deeper qualities to have kept the relationship going. Things like thoughtfulness, honesty, kindness, and conscientiousness have turned out to be exponentially more important than the surface level qualities I couldn’t see past as a lost, single man.
These learnings with my girlfriend uncovered for me that I was entirely wrong about the role of physical attractiveness in the game of young people attracting one another. I think that focusing on building just surface level qualities will attract surface level relationships. But, if I can use my energy to build a deep confidence in myself, working to create a life I am happy with, then I think I will be much more likely to attract a woman that I can deeply connect with in a long-term relationship.
As I look to more deeply connect with women that enter my life now, I recognize that just like me, all of them have things they’re self-conscious about too. Including those who are physically attractive, who would have thought. Instead of alienating myself from beautiful women, telling myself that I’m not worthy of connecting with them, I treat them just as I would anyone else. I treat them with respect and I express a deep curiosity about their lives. I love finding out what other people are up to.
Now, I’m working on getting rid of all my fat-pinching tics, and on spending less time worrying about my looks in general. With good habits built up from years of caring way too much about health, I tend to already make healthy choices that take care of my appearance. Worrying about it all the time only adds stress, which can be very unhealthy for my body, relationships, and life.
Finally, I’m starting to find value in appreciating things as they are, not hating them for the perfection they aren’t.
Sam Gray is a blogger, working to help young adults with self-development.
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