He figures is Yahoo Life’s body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring people as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Andy Neal, an outdoor fitness influencer and plus-size model, remembers hearing all kinds of fat slurs about himself and his family growing up in southern Oregon.
“There was this idea that we had to make ourselves smaller because the world thinks we have to be smaller,” he told Yahoo Life. “It communicated to me that, oh, there’s something Wrong with my body.
These days, however, Neal has the final say as host of The hiker’s podcast, where he and his guests discuss the joys and healing powers of nature, and via Instagram, where he regularly spreads the message that “the outdoors is for everyone.”
“The outdoors has given me so much healing and purpose,” he says. “This morning I went for a run by the river. I run! I’m in a bigger body and that’s OK. My body can do amazing things. It takes me to amazing places – and that’s healing.
A former pastor, Neal, 40, recalls a lifetime of struggle with body image that culminated in years of fad diets and various bouts of eating disorders. Growing up witnessing his family’s “toxic relationship” with food and body size, he says, created an unhealthy cycle that’s hard to break.
The obsession with his weight eventually led him into a deep depression, as doctors and friends regularly expressed concerns about his health. It wasn’t until 2019, when her therapist suggested she go hiking for her mental health, that her whole outlook on fitness changed.
“I went for a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a huge trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada, and I fell in love,” he recalls. “I was like, well, I blew that bluff. I can do it! It’s something I can do. From there, I continued. I was surprised at what I could do and where I could go. Yeah, maybe I’m a little slow, but my body can do amazing things and go amazing places. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I fell in love and haven’t looked back.
Neal began sharing the lessons he learned from the outdoors — and how it changed the relationship with his body — on his podcast. Soon after, he started posting words of encouragement for others on his social media accounts. The response was immediate.
“I’ve been inundated with messages and DMs about how amazing it is to see a guy step up and give other guys permission to be vulnerable about their bodies,” he says. . “It really encouraged me and gave me confidence that this is what I need to do, put myself out there, because other people are going to see it and it will give them permission to go out and access The outdoors is for them, regardless of their body type.
As a male influencer in the body positivity space, which has traditionally been largely focused on women, Neal wants to create safer ways for men to talk about their experiences with body image. But first, he argues, guys need to start having conversations about how toxic masculinity plays a role in stifling their personal growth.
“There’s a feeling that as a ‘masculine man’ you can’t be vulnerable,” he says. “It’s a shame that our culture, in many ways, puts [men] in these boxes – that we have to look a certain way, act a certain way and we can’t show our feelings, which is a bunch of BS”
For plus-size men looking for a sense of belonging in the fitness space, Neals says the outdoors is far less threatening than a hyper-masculine gym environment.
“There’s something about being connected to the outdoors, sitting next to a mountain or a river, walking or running along the path and having that connection with nature and feeling at peace with yourself and who you are with, even if the world is collapsing around you,” he says. “There’s nothing better than going to the redwood forest in California and standing next to a big tree, after I’ve been told all my life to make myself smaller. I am out here in the wild, where bigger is better. It’s like, wow, I look tiny compared to this tree that’s been around for a thousand years. There’s something about it that shatters all that angst and masculine baggage.
Yet despite his success, Neal is not immune to online trolls. Recently, he posted a response to what he says are daily accusations that he is “promoting obesity” simply by being a plus-size influencer.
“Toxic fitness bros and IG diet gurus often tell me that,” he shot back in a video response in September. “I don’t promote obesity…I promote mental health, joyful movement, the outdoors and inclusivity.”
Although he continues to be a role model for other tall men who don’t have a platform, he admits the criticism still comes his way.
“I can sit here and say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t affect me,’ but it does,” he told Yahoo Life. “These things, not only do they hurt where it hurts, but it takes me back to when I was a kid and they called me ugly and everything. I’ve grown so much as a person since learning to accept my body.”
Ultimately, Neal wants people struggling with their body image to know they’re not alone.
“If more and more people hear my voice and they start talking too – and, more implicitly, people are starting to hear that my body isn’t messed up, it’s not flawed, it’s beautiful — so maybe people who say that mean horrible things will start listening and start changing their way of thinking: what does it really mean to have a healthy body? What does it really mean to be fit?
Part of that shift, he explains, is unlearning cultural biases about beauty. And that starts with sharing our own stories.
“You can quote statistics, you can quote numbers, but when you hear someone’s personal story…it cuts differently,” he says. “When you see the tears in their eyes, and see how they came out of [their toxic mindsets], that’s what changed me. That’s what made me stop chasing the scale and stop chasing fitness or a certain size and just enjoy my body.”
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