Actor and filmmaker Justin Baldoni is a heartthrob, in pretty much every sense of the word. Best known for his role of the handsome and sensitive Rafael Solano on the TV series Jane the Virgin, Baldoni has spent a good portion of his acting career playing the role of a guy who makes women swoon when he takes off his shirt. In real life, he's known for being a deep and thoughtful man—who is also handsome, and yes, looks good with his shirt off—making him seem like the quintessential man-who-has-it-all.
That's why Baldoni's struggles with his own body might come as a surprise to many people.
Baldoni opens up about his body image issues in his new book, "Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity." In fact, he shares that he's spent much of his life suffering from body dysmorphia—a psychological disorder in which people have a distorted perception of a part of their body, where they see something different in the mirror than what other people see.
For Baldoni, it started when he was young and being teased by guys for being too skinny. While he'd always been an athlete, he started hitting the weight room in high school—hard. "I became obsessed with gaining muscle," he wrote. Though he ended up gaining 25 pounds of muscle, it wasn't enough.
"It was never enough," he wrote. "When I looked in the mirror, I didn't see what everyone else saw. I didn't see a teenager who was so jacked that he was accused of being on steroids. I didn't see the six-pack. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw the skinny kid whose abs weren't visible enough, whose shoulders didn't fill out his shirts enough, who should probably try harder and put in more hours to gain more muscle. Wake up earlier. Push harder. Be better. It's never enough and never will be."
Now he's 37, and though he thought he'd moved past those insecurities, he admits found himself anxious on the set of Jane the Virgin whenever he was going to be shirtless in a scene. He was grateful to be working and making money as an actor, but playing "the hot guy" came at a cost. He would resort to extreme dieting and exercise leading up to shirtless shoots, and he would even use props to hide parts of his body he felt self-conscious about. And getting support was tricky. Here's a guy with a physique many would pay good money to have, and he's feeling self-conscious?
In a confusing bit of irony, Baldoni came to realize that the roles he'd taken on had perpetuated the problem he himself was experiencing. "On the one hand, in my personal life I was beginning this journey to (hopefully) find a level of body acceptance that I had never known," he wrote, "but on the other hand, I was taking off my shirt on TV and literally creating the same images that triggered my insecurities as a boy."
"I'm tired. I'm so damn tired of it," he added. "I'm part of the problem, and I'm also suffering, and those two things are not exclusive. So at the very least can we start talking about it?"
I did talk to him about it this week in an interview about his book. When I asked about his body image issues, Baldoni pointed out that women deal with body image issues on a whole other level than men do, and he doesn't want him talking about his own issues to detract from that. But he also points out that the same system that creates that baggage for women also hurts men.
"Women struggle with this on far greater levels because of, I believe, the patriarchal system we live in," he says. "And the objectification, and the way that we have propagated women's bodies as objects instead of people...women have been struggling with this for so much longer because men have reduced women to their bodies and we use bodies to sell."
"The male body image thing is a little trickier to unpack," he says, "mostly because it doesn't have anything to do with women. It's the same system. What I've learned is that so many of the men I know who struggle with their body image don't struggle with their body image because they want to impress women. They struggle with their body image because they want to be accepted and respected by men."
"Women are being oppressed and sexualized and objectified by men, and men are also suffering in a similar way silently, because of the exact same system," he says. "It hurts all of us."
Having conversations about hard-to-talk-about elements of manhood is what "Man Enough" is all about. Baldoni calls the book "a love letter to men," and an invitation to explore the elements of the male experience that are often thought of as taboo or shameful or embarrassing or not "manly" enough to talk about.
Much of the book is about Baldoni's relationships—with his body, with his parents, with his peers, with his wife and kids, with his faith, and with himself—and how the scripts of masculinity that have been passed down for generations can impact and influence those relationships. He doesn't use the term "toxic masculinity," because he feels that it's been too politicized. But he does get into the ways in which certain traditions and messages of masculinity have hurt both women and men, and how he has learned to unpack what it means to be a man in order to embrace who he is without having to prove anything about his manhood.
Baldoni calls it a long, slow journey from his head to his heart, one in which he is learning to take off the armor, take off the mask (figuratively, not literally), and be all of the various parts of himself that are genuine without feeling like any of them diminish him as a man. Ultimately, the journey leads to knowing that he is enough, just as he is.
"The messages of masculinity will tell me over and over again that I need to be better or different," he wrote, "that I need to conform to be worthy. They'll tell me to acquire more success, confidence, muscles, women, social status—you name it, I will always need more. But my heart? My heart will simply say, 'I am enough,' over and over again."
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