Body image anxiety and dysmorphia are issues that transcend gender, and not all people experience them the same way. This particular post focuses on body image issues from one man’s point of view.
1. You're not alone.
Body image anxiety is not an epiphany. It doesn't arrive suddenly, all at once. It creeps slowly, eating away at your self-esteem every time you see a photoshopped physique or a newly buff celebrity. Why don't I look like that? I wish I were a little...better. With the media more pervasive, more invasive than ever, it's no wonder that men are just as likely as women to suffer from body image anxiety and dysmorphia. As with depression, though, men are far less likely to report it, and far less likely to seek treatment than women. I'm not suggesting men have it worse, but we have it, and it starts early.
I remember being as young as 9 or 10 and holding my stomach in at school swimming lessons. I didn't have a gut. I was a perfectly healthy weight, too active and sporty to ever really put on weight. My stomach was always flat, and yet the worst thing I could imagine then – a time when my only concerns should have been Ninja Turtles and BMX – was being called fat. So I held my stomach rigid at all times. It was something I never told anyone. I had no idea that other men might feel the same. It's time we talked about it.
2. Body image issues aren't just about your physique.
Weight is a major source of anxiety for men, and it isn't just about feeling overweight – many men feel anxiety about being underweight. We want to be bigger, more muscular. But there are other common body image issues men deal with. Baldness is one. Height is another. It's common to feel insecure about the amount of body hair you have, or your lack of it. And of course, whether your dick is big enough.
My biggest image anxiety, like many other teenage boys, was acne. It made me terribly self-conscious, and I grew shy. There are no pictures of me from 15–18. I threw away school photos before my parents had chance to order any. I tried various drugs, some with horrible side effects, but it was facial spa treatments that ultimately helped, along with tanning. A girlfriend suggested the former when I was 22, eight years after I first developed acne. These are conversations we should be having with each other.
3. It’s about how you feel.
As a result of the acne, perhaps, I threw myself into training. With my face covered in white-tipped blotches, I could at least work on my body. And work I did. At 15 I began lifting weights. By 19 I was shaped and sculpted and fit. I should have been happy. But it wasn't enough. I needed to be fitter, to look better. I gave up sugar, chips, bread. I trained harder. By 22 I was in the shape of my life, everything taut and toned. But it wasn't enough. I was empty. My life revolved around my body, and I was miserable.
And yet, a decade on, physique dented by desk jobs and bouts of depression, I idealise that body. If only I still looked like that, I think. I see my stomach, no longer carved into rectangles. I see the weight gather around my face, and I think I'd be happier if I still had that body. The body that was never good enough. I've spent my life either looking forward to the body I might have, or lamenting the body I had. I've rarely sat in my skin and been content with the way I feel now. It's something I'm trying to make more time for. One day I'll look back and wish I had the body I had now, I'm sure.
4. No, you don't have to look like Magic Mike.
The Magic Mike Myth – that we all need to look like a male stripper to be attractive to women – is particularly damaging, yet it's one almost entirely perpetuated by men ourselves, not straight women. It's an ideal we've fed ourselves from years of action movies and fitness magazines, and it's a completely flawed assumption.
As BuzzFeed UK's culture editor, Bim Adewunmi, told me: "I speak for myself and many straight women of my acquaintance when I say Magic Mike's 'perfect' body is not what we are necessarily looking for. It is a sort of hilarious, outsized version of masculinity that might be aesthetically pleasing, but not actively desirable for the everyday. Kudos to the man who wants to build a body like that, but it's totally not required.
"Channing Tatum is attractive because he is Channing Tatum: a seemingly fun guy with a good sense of humour, a charming smile, a refreshing self-awareness, and who can dance. Plus he has a neck of greatness. Same for Joe Manganiello, etc. But the abs and the biceps and the arse are really extras."
You can't blame women for being attracted to godly physiques, but at the same time, no one is demanding that of you. If they are, they're in the minority.
5. Everyone has different tastes.
The other problem with the Magic Mike Myth is it assumes women are a collective conscious with one set of interests and ideals, a perspective that is entirely disrespectful to women, and damaging to ourselves. For every person who is only interested in your height or how ripped you are, there's a person who is interested in your sense of humour. Shallowness is ungendered. If someone doesn't want you because one of your physical attributes isn't to their liking, they aren't worth your time. Don't get mad, move on. It's their loss. There will be someone who values that attribute and then some.
When I was all sharp corners and hard surfaces, I remember a woman I fancied telling me we could never date because I was "too much". I was so in shape I put her off. Now I have a bit more padding, I get just as much attention, because I'm more comfortable in my skin. My successes and failures in dating and relationships have never had to do with my body. To be honest, when I was in peak condition, the biggest fans of my physique were other straight men. They wanted training advice. Most of my exes couldn't have cared less. They wanted an interesting, caring partner, six-pack or otherwise.
It took a long time to realise that, and it's invaluable knowledge.
6. Confidence trumps all.
Having the body you desire might make you feel more confident, but it's a placebo. A prop. The truly confident embrace imperfection, own it, use it to their advantage. Possibly the most insecure I've been in my life was when I was in peak condition. I wasn't just building a body, I was building a shield. It worked. I kept the world out for years. I pushed everyone away, and then I wondered where everyone had gone.
Who would you rather be around, the person who is light and breezy and witty, or the person who takes themselves way too seriously? I used to be the latter. I still am, in some ways. And I was alone. But the more I embrace my flaws, the lighter I am, the more I laugh and joke and take it in my stride, the better I feel, and the better people react to me. That doesn't mean I have to make fun of myself for people to like me, and it doesn't mean I can't be in great shape if I want to be, but it means I don't have to be.
Give yourself permission to be flawed. It's a wonderful permission to have.
7. Ask for help.
Body dysmorphia – where body image anxiety becomes an obsessive preoccupation, leading to sometimes extreme and dangerous behaviour in order to 'fix' the perceived flaw – is not a joke, it's a serious mental illness and should be treated as such. There are many treatment options, and you should consult your GP to find out what is available to you. Therapy is a great place to start, in my experience, because although there are treatments for hair loss, acne, and body shape issues, they often don't deal with the root of the problem. Talking to someone can really help.
I exercise regularly these days, but not regimentally. I do what I have time for. Sometimes I go to the gym, sometimes I go for a long walk. Sometimes I have a day off. Instead of a personal trainer, I see a therapist. I know that the key to my happiness doesn't lie in an extra few reps at the gym, but in the way I think and feel about my body. I doubt those anxieties, the ones that began with swimming lessons and cemented themselves during the acne years, will ever be gone for good, but they are manageable, and I'm much happier now I have a healthier attitude towards my image.
8. Be kind to yourself.
It's easy to find flaws, to dwell, to beat yourself up. But the way you think and talk about your body affects everything, from how you perceive yourself to how you behave. Being kind to yourself isn't easy, but it's the most dramatic change you can make.
My therapist has an exercise we run through whenever I'm feeling bad about the way I look. The first time I did it was a revelation.
"Say all the worst things you think people will say about your body," she told me. "Now imagine someone is saying those things to your best friend. What would you do?"
"I'd tell them to shut up," I said.
"I'd tell them they weren't allowed to speak to anyone like that. That they have no right. That they're in no position to judge."
The lesson was clear. I wouldn't let someone say those things to a friend, so don't say those things to myself.
We are all our own worst critics. Be kind to yourself. It's free, and it's priceless.