This simple fact is something I have spent to much time thinking and worrying about. I am not alone. Perhaps I should start a 12 step program for “normal people” who are insecure about their physical attributes, because negative self talk is absolutely an addiction and is preventing most people from fully enjoying their lives. This Insecurity of mine fluctuates depending on how confident I feel overall at any given time and it will strike with a vengeance in very specific situations. For instance, this past weekend we were enjoying some pool time at a clothing optional resort we frequent with some friends of ours. The clothing optional thing for me has been a study in insecurity for me over the past couple of years. I was a chubby kid and the fear of being judged for my physique has lingered in my psyche. Some days it is all I can do to take my shirt off in public, and sometimes I feel like a million bucks and I am naked in a hot second. This particular day I was not feeling overly secure, probably because I have recently fallen off the fitness wagon and put back on some of the weight I had worked so hard to lose, so the clothes were staying on. I had worked myself up to being somewhat comfortable with taking my shirt off and was trying to get to a place where I could lose the shorts. At this point the two other wives started talking about their husbands 10 inch penises, aaaaaand these shorts are not coming off today.
So why is it that as humans we feel insecure about our physical appearance? Is it the so called beauty culture or does it go deeper than that? The act of making quick judgments and decisions based on those judgments goes way back. In order to survive in a complex environment full of predators and other dangers like our ancestors did you must be able to make quick life altering decisions based on very little information. If you are walking through the tall grasses of an african plain and you see something out of the corner of your eye, you have to decide if that is another person or a lion before you get eaten. The ability to make snap judgments evolved over the millennia to a very finely tuned survival instinct.
The other factor is that we are sexual creatures and therefore we make judgments based on mating preferences. A lot of these are not even conscious but we make them nevertheless. We instinctively act differently around someone we are attracted to or feel intimidated by. Mate choice is driven by our genes that are looking for certain tell tale traits of DNA health. There is a reason that most people find the same types of things attractive, it is programed into our cellular code. These genes couldn’t care less if you are in a relationship or not, they are always looking. Thats why we still care what that cute girl thinks even if we are very happily married. This programming also makes us aware of potential competition. Because if that cute girl has other options then you need to know who they are. I am just as worried about other men judging me as I am woman doing it. I am concerned about what everyone thinks. So how did we get from survival to penis envy?
As our environment changed and we started to be less concerned with survival our large complex brains turned our ability to make quick judgments and turned them towards perceived threats. Most people nowadays are not at risk of lion attacks on their morning commute, but our instincts don’t know this. Those instincts start to look for something to focus on and they find it in social situations. Instead of looking for lions they start to look for the predator in the office who is trying to kill your career. Stressful situations will make it worse. If we are in a situation where we feel uncomfortable then our stress response will make us extra sensitive to potential threats. Imagine walking alone through a dark ally, you will be more likely to hear every little sound than if you were in a more comfortable setting. So our DNA is pushing us to think about potential mates and therefor worry how we appear to them and also making us worry about the potential competition in the area, and at the same time our survival instincts have turned from worrying about life threatening situations to focusing on social situations. No wonder we are all a little neurotic.
So let’s go back to the pool. I am conscious of the variety of naked women and men in my immediate area. My DNA is telling me to try to look good for the woman but don’t forget about the men who are after the same girls. My stress hormones are up because I am not totally comfortable due to my negative self talk, and now the women are talking about larger than average genitalia. This is a perfect mix to crush any self confidence I had built myself up to.
So what can I do about this because I am tired of feeling like I'm not good enough. Well, for one thing I can do something about the weight I put back on. I know what I need to do, it is just a matter of getting back to the routine that worked the first time. Knowing I can improve the way I look helps, but not completely, because there are insecurities about physical attributes that I can’t do anything about. However as I pull myself out of my own thoughts and start listening to the conversation again I realize that they are not talking about how great large penises are, like I was imagining but they were discussing the downsides of size. Apparently regardless of what we average guys think, big penises are not always a positive attribute. The wives admitted that they would get sore fairly quickly and that some positions were painful and sometimes they wished that their husbands were smaller. Holy crap! I have heard this before but always played it off as someone trying to make me feel better about being average. These women had no idea what I was packing and didn't care either way, they were just being honest with each other. Now it is hard to rewire decades of insecurities in a moment but this conversation has definitely started to change the way I think.
So I can lose the weight and workout, then I reprogram my thoughts about size, whats next? Now I have to remember the science. I love figuring out the science behind human behavior but that doesn't mean I remember the science when I am feeling off. Being able to pause and reflect as the situation is happening is a great tool and one I am practicing. For me the trick is to get out of my head where I am creating all kinds stories, and notice what is actually happening. In most cases I am not being laughed at or judged and if I am, who cares? Most of the people who will judge me are people I will probably never see again, so whats the big deal. Remember that we evolved in small groups where how others saw you was a lot more important than it is now. Today our brains make snap decisions and judge like we are running around primitive forests with everyone we will ever meet not lounging in a pool with hundreds of people we will never see again.
Physical insecurities are something that plague a lot of people and I am definitely someone who spends more time than I should on thinking about it. By improving my physical appearance with this has helped, but this is more of a mental game than a physical one. We all know people who look great and are self conscious and others who are not in ideal shape and are confident. What’s the difference? How they think! I have found the best thing for me is to put myself in situations where I am a little uncomfortable and work through it. Like exercise, I am starting small and working my way up.
There are no easy answers and we will continue to work through these topics together. Thank you for letting me share my story.
Keep Evolving, E - Human Primates