I realized I was fat in the first grade. My teacher asked the class to share what we loved most. While my classmates shared their love for their parents, pets, favorite toys or siblings, I wanted to profess something different. I had a crush on the prettiest girl in class, and I had found the courage to let her and others know it.
I walked to the front of the classroom with my head held high.
“I love Dee because she is the prettiest and smartest girl in class.”
“Eww!” Dee responded. “I don’t like you! You’re fat, and your titties are bigger than mine!”
The class erupted with laughter; my eyes filled with tears. My classmates called me “titty boy” as I walked back to my desk, arms folded over my chest and head dangled in shame and defeat. My teacher quickly gained control of the class, but the damage was already done. That day, I realized I was different. That day changed my life and created a monster ― one that despised and hated his body for the way it looked.
Day-to-day life as a fat person is about overcompensating or camouflaging yourself so that you don’t stand out as the fattest person in the room. I avoided going swimming simply to avoid taking off my shirt in front of anyone. Clothes and shoes became my talking points. And when that didn’t work, I became the class clown, making people laugh — sometimes at my own expense — to deflect conversations or haggling from others about my weight and breasts.
And since learning that I have man boobs, clinically known as gynecomastia, I’ve had to fight bullies — literally — to protect myself.
Others’ perceptions of me damaged my psyche. I believed that being fat meant I was worthless. I felt like my thoughts, feelings and emotions were invalid ― I was fat, and it was my fault.
Like countless people, I had a tumultuous affair with my weight, body image and attempts at weight loss. Despite finding success with weight loss at certain points of my life, I was left with man boobs. I still viewed myself as a failure; my extreme weight-loss efforts didn’t translate to what I saw in the mirror. After all, my new body wasn’t one worthy of a Men’s Health cover.
I spiraled out of control, losing the glimmer of confidence I was building. I gained weight, repeating the vicious cycle again. Each time I repeated this process, I didn’t feel good enough for society — or even myself.
My turning point surfaced during a doctor’s visit. In 2012, I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office weighing nearly 400 pounds, anxiously awaiting my doctor’s prognosis regarding a hip injury. He groaned.
“Mr. Evans, I know why you’re in pain. You’re fat. You need to start walking and lose weight, or you’re going to die.”
Absorbing my doctor’s response, feeling angry and embarrassed that he had called me fat, I responded, “Screw walking. I’ll run a marathon.”
My doctor chuckled. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in all my years practicing medicine.”
For a moment, I revisited first grade. I’d been told I was fat all my life. Now this doctor, a medical professional, had the audacity to laugh at me, exclaiming that running a marathon at my current weight was impossible. His response pissed me off. It pushed me to purchase some running shoes, train for a marathon and birth my blog, 300 Pounds and Running.
Despite finding success with weight loss at certain points of my life, I was left with man boobs. I still viewed myself as a failure; my extreme weight-loss efforts didn’t translate to what I saw in the mirror. After all, my new body wasn’t one worthy of a Men’s Health cover.
When I started running, I felt uncomfortable in my skin. Negative thoughts flooded my mind as my body moved on the pavement. I had this overwhelming feeling that people were silently judging me and giving me weird looks as my body shuffled through runs. Imposter syndrome shadowed my thoughts when someone ran faster on the treadmill next to me or when I felt like I was moving like a lumbering fool. I felt like I didn’t belong to this elite club, even though I knew it was accessible to everyone.
It wasn’t until after I ran my first race that my self-confidence started to form. Something about the race environment awakened parts of me I didn’t know existed. When I crossed the finish line, I was euphoric with empowerment. I felt unstoppable, finally acknowledging my body’s strength. This feeling couldn’t be reduced by any negative comment, so I completed more races, proving to myself that I could do anything, regardless of my size.
The first year after encountering that doctor, I lost nearly 100 pounds and completed over 15 races, including a marathon in my hometown of Detroit. I became the before and after picture that everyone wanted.
With the exception of my man boobs.
The dual relationship with my body still existed. In some ways, I was proud of my physical performance, but I still hated my reflection.
In 2014, I found myself battling a new hurdle. I had two car accidents that sidelined me for a couple of years, and I gained back every pound — plus more. When I was cleared to run again, I was urged to begin another weight-loss journey. But the pressure from my peers bothered me much more this time. In the past, weight loss had been my primary source of inspiration, but this time, I wanted to focus more on my newfound love ― running.
Focusing on weight loss put me in a vicious cycle and a horrible headspace. But when I solely focused on being the best athlete I could be, everything changed. As I ran more races, I felt more powerful in my skin, exuding confidence in myself and my body. Each time I crossed the finish line, I felt unstoppable.
This resolve didn’t sit well with my friends, family or some of the followers of my blog who knew me prior to my injury. From every direction, I was instructed to lose weight. I realized that larger bodies are forced into a box. When fat bodies are active, people assume they are being active only to lose weight. When people discover those fat bodies are not trying to lose weight but are simply trying to be active, they shame those fat bodies for not fitting societal norms.
Even with the rise of the women-driven body positivity (BoPo) movement, my concerns as a man were still not covered. I felt left out of the conversation. Traditional American masculinity does not permit men to admit their physiques are less than ideal. I wondered what would happen if men felt safe enough to be open about their insecurities without fear of violating the unspoken rules of masculinity. Would we do better at accepting our bodies’ flaws? By doing so, could we get closer to acknowledging the many ways to be healthy?
Frankly, I didn’t have the answers to these questions. My only solution was to try this approach for myself. What could I lose? All my life, I tried to overcompensate and camouflage my man boobs, yet I was still subject to harassment. What if, for a change, I celebrated my body instead of despising it?
So I took off my shirt, grabbed my phone and snapped a selfie. Without thinking twice, I posted the picture on Instagram. I would celebrate what my body could do.
While most of the comments were positive rather than negative, I wasn’t searching for anyone’s validation. Having enough courage to post a topless picture on Instagram was good enough for me.
Many men reached out to share their stories of feeling inadequate. They told me they wouldn’t have the courage to do to the same as I did.
Gathering inspiration from ESPN’s “The Body Issue,” I took my topless photos to the next level. While I loved seeing the empowering visuals of athletes’ bodies, I didn’t see an image that represented me: a fat runner. Not to discredit amazing athletes like Prince Fielder and Vince Wilfork, but I didn’t see anything outside of the box.
Sports like football and even baseball celebrate larger male bodies but running is not one of those sports. As a fat marathoner, I wanted an outlet to show there’s no one form a marathoner should take. So I did a nude photo shoot with Shoog McDaniel, a BoPo photographer who pushes the boundaries of the fat acceptance and BoPo movement through art. I also worked with renowned body painter and artist Trina Merry.
Outside of celebrating my man boobs with such grandeur, I felt like it was dynamic to show vulnerability from a straight male perspective. I was given an opportunity to embrace layers of myself by transforming my body into art and allowing it to be free. Metaphorically, I crossed another finish line for the first time.
To some, this may not be much. To others, perhaps it may be too much. I took a risk by exposing myself ― a man who spent his whole life camouflaging himself. Posing nude was necessary; it stripped away all of the toxic masculinity bullshit of how a man should look — and act.
I found healing through art. Through these forms of expression — running and artistic nudes — I have come no longer to see my body as something disgusting but, instead, as something beautiful and strong. I am just doing my thing, without restriction.
When I shared my pictures from my photo shoots on Instagram, I received a bit of hate, but I also received love. The fat-shamers said I was promoting obesity and that my body was disgusting. Some people sent me DMs and emails; others resorted to creating threads on forums discussing their hatred for fat people. With my newfound confidence, I’m unbothered by people who sit behind a keyboard, spewing hate about someone they don’t know and will never meet.
Let’s face it: Men don’t face the same unrealistic expectations as women, but we still feel pressure to obtain the perfect body. What was the last superhero movie you saw with a plus-size lead? Men’s publications still focus mainly on hypermasculine things like hard bodies, washboard abs and sex. These images of masculinity, coupled with traditional values of stoicism and self-reliance, are causing a growth in eating disorders and body dysmorphia in young men.
I just want to see men celebrate their bodies and the great things they can do. This 354-pound body can run marathons, complete Tough Mudders and do anything else I put my mind to. I probably won’t grace the cover of Men’s Health or ESPN’s “The Body Issue.” That’s fine by me. I take joy in celebrating myself.
However, I don’t feel like there are safe spaces for men to celebrate themselves. Men need space to eliminate the bullshit of toxic masculinity around like-minded individuals, without fear of repercussion from being that vulnerable. So, what can we do to start creating a space like this for men?
Unfortunately, the media showcases unrealistic standards and misrepresents the average physique — and that includes male bodies. It’s OK to challenge the pictures you see surfacing on your screen. Confidence should be built in you and your efforts, not in the opinions of others.
First, men, believe you are worthy. Period. Sometimes, you just need someone to affirm the things that are going on with you. Let me be first to say it. You. Are. Worthy. You belong!
Second, focus on what your body can do, instead of what it looks like. I am living proof that you can run a marathon weighing over 300 pounds. That’s something to celebrate, even if the media won’t celebrate with me. And even if you cannot fathom running a marathon, maybe your celebration comes in the form of a 5K or a mile. Maybe even cycling, weightlifting or hiking. Slow progress is still progress.
Remind yourself that media-portrayed body images aren’t realistic images of or for everyone. Unfortunately, the media showcases unrealistic standards and misrepresents the average physique — and that includes male bodies. It’s OK to challenge the pictures you see surfacing on your screen. Confidence should be built in you and your efforts, not in the opinions of others.
Above all, it’s OK to be vulnerable. It doesn’t endanger your masculinity. Sharing our experiences, both negative and positive, is the first step to healing and growth. It takes a different kind of man to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is just another form of strength.
Nothing is wrong with showcasing weight-loss journeys or finding joy in your before and after pictures; they might inspire someone to get off the couch. But when they are all you promote and when your content lacks diversity, you are contributing to the problem.
Let’s do better.
Let’s work to create spaces that celebrate men for who they are ― man boobs and all.
Martinus Evans is a marathon runner, author, run coach and award-winning speaker who helps plus-size individuals be active without the pressure of weight loss. He is also the host of the “300 Pounds and Running” podcast and the “Long Run With Martinus and Latoya” podcast on the 300 Pounds and Running Podcast Network. His story has been featured in Runner’s World and Livestrong. If you’re looking for a place to start your journey to better health, sign up for his free tips at 300poundsandrunning.com.