The Sunday Magazine

Men experience body image issues, too — and this actor says it's time to talk about it

David Pevsner wants to normalize discussion about body image and desire in aging bodies. The actor and author explores these issues in a new memoir called Damn Shame: A Memoir of Desire, Defiance and Show Tunes.

New memoir by David Pevsner challenges us to see aging, sexuality and desire in new light

Actor and author David Pevsner says he’s on a mission to end ageism, body- and sex-shaming, and to promote healthy esteem at all ages in a culture that prizes youthful appearances. (Submitted by David Pevsner)

David Pevsner wants to normalize conversation about body image and desire in aging bodies.

The 63-year-old actor and author, who shares racy photos and videos on an Only Fans page, said he believes many people his age and older would like to express themselves more freely but that "they feel shameful about it."

"They don't feel good about their bodies, necessarily. When you get older, you feel like you're redundant, like, 'nobody wants me anymore,' you know, and I just want people to stop feeling that way," Pevsner told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I want society to stop putting that on people, and I want people to start ... just having the difficult conversations about sex and aging and nudity and all the stuff that [as] dinnertime conversation makes people really nervous. I think it's time to stop being nervous about it."

Pevsner, whose television credits include shows like Grey's Anatomy, Modern Family and Silicon Valley, is the author of a new memoir called Damn Shame: A Memoir of Desire, Defiance and Show Tunes. He says he's on a mission to end ageism, body- and sex-shaming, and to promote healthy esteem at all ages in a culture that prizes youthful appearances.

In the book, Pevsner, who lives just outside Los Angeles, shares his own long-standing and complicated relationship with body shame, which he says stretches back to his first memories of looking at his body in a mirror as a child.

Pevsner's new memoir is called Damn Shame: A Memoir of Desire, Defiance and Show Tunes. (Submitted by David Pevsner)

"My parents had a full-length mirror in their bathroom and so I would go in there and look at myself, and I just was so skinny and I kind of had like [what] to me was a gigantic nose, a honker of a nose … and I just didn't like the way I looked."

'I was still the same person'

Pevsner said it was only when he conformed to the supposed ideal male body type that he gained some level of confidence about his body.

While acting in a touring production of the musical South Pacific in the late 1980s, he and his colleagues had a lot of free time in the cities they'd visit, and some of the other men passed the time with body-building.

"I was dancing, so I kind of was in shape. But I wanted muscles. And so I followed their lead…. And we would spend three, four hours at the gym every day."

While it was a boost to be on the receiving end of the kind of attention he'd craved from other men, he said, that esteem was only "skin deep." 

"It was my shell that was attracting people. I was still the same person, but I was very insecure, because I felt like all my self-esteem was in my biceps."

He said he now looks back with regret on the fact that he was contributing to the problem, by judging other men based on their bodies as well.

Aaron Flores is a registered dietitian in California who specializes in male body image as well as in helping people who struggle with disordered eating. (2015 Raymond Joyce)

While women have long been subject to all kinds of scrutiny about appearance and body size, research has shown that, in recent decades, the "ideal" male body promoted through media and popular culture is leaner and more muscular than it was previously, leading to decreasing body satisfaction among men.

"Look at Adam West as Batman in the 1960s and then look at Christian Bale as Batman in 2012. That is a very different superhero body," said Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian who specializes in male body image as well as in helping people who struggle with disordered eating.

"There is this idea of muscle ... and building muscle as the ideal," said Flores, who is also from Los Angeles. That idealized body is usually also a white, fair-skinned one, too, he noted.

Shifting standards

This phenomenon was explored in a book called The Adonis Complex. When it came out in the year 2000, it ignited conversation about what it called a "health crisis striking men of all ages."

The book, co-authored by psychiatrists from Harvard and Brown universities, documented a range of body image issues extending to full-blown body dysmorphia among men who strive compulsively toward a kind of muscular ideal exemplified by the Greek god Adonis. 

Even so, there's relatively little research about male body image issues compared to those experienced by girls and women, said Erica Bennett, an assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of British Columbia's School of Kinesiology who has studied body image among older men.

Erica Bennett, an assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of British Columbia’s School of Kinesiology, has studied body image among older men. (Connor McCracken)

That's because in Western culture in particular, there's a lot of pressure on women to "retain youthful, feminine, physically fit, thin-yet-toned, muscular bodies throughout their life," said Bennett, who holds a PhD in kinesiology. 

"So as a result of that, researchers have been really interested in women's body image. What has happened is that we've often ignored older men and men's body image."

But research shows that men now receive more cultural messages than they have in the past about retaining lean, muscular physiques as they grow older, she said. However, because men are also socially conditioned to be stoic and not emotionally expressive, they don't talk about body image much, said Bennett.

Performance pressure

That tracks with what dietitian Aaron Flores has observed. He estimates the conversation around body positivity for boys and men is about 10 years behind where it is with women.

"I think in the male experience, the value of the body is reflected through performance, right? How well can you perform? How athletic are you?" said Flores. "And as we get older, I think it's through productivity: How productive are you? How much do you earn?"

While compared to women, men have "a ton of privilege around aging," he said. But the high value placed on performance can make it difficult for his older male clients to grapple with the fact that they no longer have quite the same golf swing, for example.

Men experience body image issues, but research on the problem tends to focus on women, researchers say. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Bennett said if we can understand more about how men experience body image issues as they age, we do a better job of providing services that support their well-being, including the psychological adjustment to aging.

Flores said simply acknowledging that aging is hard is a positive first step. "We confront our mortality, right?" he said.

You may have a bum knee that's slowed you down, or you might have to take medication every day to manage a chronic condition. Making room to process those adjustments with peers or in therapy could go a long way, he said. 

Us being OK with fatness needs to be a part of the body image conversation.- Aaron Flores, registered dietitian

It's also important to "acknowledge how living in a larger body in this world is very different than someone in a smaller body," said Flores, whose size-inclusive practice doesn't focus on weight loss. 

"Us being OK with fatness needs to be a part of the body image conversation."

David Pevsner said he worries, too, that waning body confidence in mid-life and beyond holds men back from finding romantic happiness.

"I get messages from guys all the time saying, 'I love what you're doing. I couldn't do it. I feel like, you know, I'm 55 years old and my lover died 10 years ago, and I'll never find somebody, and I would really love that,'" he said. "It just hurts my heart, because you can find somebody … but you've got to have the confidence in yourself to say, 'I'm not done. It doesn't matter if I'm a little flabby.'"

"This is your body right now," Pevsner said. "Live with what you have. If you want to lose a few pounds or put on a few pounds or, you know, lower cholesterol, whatever it is, great. But you can't ... say, 'Oh, in six months when I'm thinner or when I'm muscular, I'll like myself more.' You can't do that."


Written by Brandie Weikle. David Pevsner interview produced by Tracy Fuller.

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