Linemen are typically guys with bigger builds, and vital to the game of football. However, these are not men you typically see scoring endorsement deals with UGG or on the Met Gala red carpet. So when ESPN included the Houston Texans’ 325-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the 2016 Body Issue, Twitter went nuts — shockingly enough, in a mostly positive way.
There was a resounding chorus of “love it” and “way to go!” tweets in response to the spread, in addition to generally supportive comments about how Wilfork told the magazine he’s “perfectly fine” with himself, his body, and his accomplishments.
Wilfork hoped the shoot would help clear up any lingering misconceptions about his character that may be linked to his appearance. “A lot of people look at me as a big person,” he told the magazine. “Some people consider me to be obese. Some people consider me fat and sloppy. But I think this shoot will give people a different look at what I am. Everybody knows that I have a big stomach, but I think sometimes that overshadows everything else on my body — from my calves to my back to my shoulders to my biceps, you name it. What people go to the gym and work for, I have.”
The 34-year-old said he’s on good terms with his appearance, even if others have a problem with it. “The one thing about me is, I don’t care what people think,” Wilfork said. “It all starts with yourself. I believe in myself. I love myself.”
The lineman even went so far as to discuss his favorite body part. “I love my calves,” he confessed. “In high school someone told me, ‘You got runner legs.’ And I say, what the hell does that mean? He’s like, ‘Well, your calves; you don’t have fat-people calves’ [laughs]. So to this day, I’ll be talking about myself in the meeting room and I’ll say, ‘Man, look at that dude’s calves.’ And everybody laughs at me, but I have some good-looking calves.”
It’s refreshing to see an athlete known for his larger frame discussing body acceptance on a major platform. The interview covered all the amazing things Wilfork can do — from running a superfast 40-yard dash to dunking a basketball. Wilfork’s self-esteem, even amid lifelong stigma surrounding his body, is aspirational and inspirational.
Social media’s fairly consistent round of applause was also great, considering the mixed reviews similar body shoots have gotten in the past. Baseball star Prince Fielder, for instance, received a wave of body-shaming comments when he covered ESPN’s Body Issue back in 2014.
People take for granted the fact that men have self-esteem struggles and body insecurities, just like women do, according to psychologist Karla Ivankovich. “We still portray individuals who are overweight or obese as sloppy,” she tells Yahoo Style. “Society and the media also portrays beauty or attractiveness as a particular slender, toned build, so men are equally as predisposed to feel as if they don’t fit in.”
Ivankovich says that the more we can support the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, whether you’re a man or a woman, the better off we’ll be in moving toward acceptance. Women, especially, like to see men with high self-esteem about their body types. “There is a growing movement for male body image acceptance, as evidenced by the explosion of the dad bod,” she explains. “The Internet has met this with some pretty amazing responses — lots of women commenting on how sexy a ‘real’ body is.”
Wilfork’s shoot also shows there is a very real place in the body-acceptance movement for men to do some major good, according to body image and confidence expert Jess Weiner, CEO of Talk to Jess. “Men sharing in the body acceptance conversation is imperative to a successful movement,” she says. “The pains and torture of body comparison, bullying, and unrealistic expectations are not limited to just women. Men have felt them too, but haven’t had such a public platform to discuss them.”
Weiner notes that, as a society, we need to “hear, understand and help both men and women in the journey towards body positivity,” and that starts with open discussion. She adds that since “body love” feels so predominantly female, a figure like Wilfork talking frankly about the male perspective starts a conversation that is rarely had. When we are connected to one another’s struggles, we take a big leap toward universal acceptance, reaching for health and happiness instead of a societal ideal.