Body image: Men have historically been conditioned to suppress how they feel about their body, but as our society gets better at dealing with mental health, we need to make sure that men’s body image isn’t left out of the conversation.
Men have historically been conditioned to suppress how they feel about their body, but as our society gets better at dealing with mental health, we need to make sure that men’s body image isn’t left out of the conversation
Last month, ex-Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston opened up about his experience of anorexia. A lot of people were shocked, but he’s not the only male celebrity who’s had an eating disorder: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton and Zayn Malik have all had anorexia; Russell Brand, John Prescott and Elton John have all had bulimia. That’s not even mentioning all of the men who’ve experienced binge eating disorder.
So, yes, men get eating disorders too. I did. For me, my anorexia was a diseased coping mechanism. It didn’t have anything to do with body image and it wasn’t really anything to do with food. In the same way that alcoholism isn’t really about booze, it was about the release, the numbing and a whole array of other stuff underneath. It was an obsession, an addiction, a form of control. It was an outlet for stuff in my life that was beyond my reach. It was transcendent and became more important to me than anything else. It wasn’t about looking good for the prom.
But when I went through therapy, I had to think about body image, because I had to “weight restore”, which is basically a fancy, medical way of saying I had to gain weight. It might sound like a dream, being told by a doctor that you have to pile on the pounds, but we still live in a society where losing weight is seen as good and putting on weight is seen as bad. The truth is that “fat” is just a description. We choose to treat it as either “good” or “bad”. But even with this in mind, the changes to the shape and size of my body as I began to gain weight were unnerving. I had to chuck most of my clothes away and I began to feel that I’d “let myself go”. I was no longer in “control” of my body through restriction, exercise and calorie counting.
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The reason many men struggle to talk about body image is that we have historically been encouraged not to.
Anxiety around body image existed before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and it existed before we became accustomed to seeing the preened and plucked, nipped and tucked bodies on reality TV. Of course, being bombarded with selected, filtered and edited images of seemingly perfect bodies can make you feel more conscious of your appearance, but the issue is much deeper than that.
The reason many men struggle to talk about body image is that we have historically been encouraged not to. Back in the “good old days”, we were encouraged to push those pesky feelings deep down. We were meant to treat emotions like paintbrushes, screws and overalls; keep them out of sight and out of mind. We popped our worries in the shed at the bottom of the garden, locked the door and threw away the key. But things are changing. More men than ever before are talking about their mental health, which is a much-needed shift in attitudes – after all, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 40. We’re now talking about things that I wouldn’t have even considered when I was at school.
This is all great news when it comes to tackling how we feel about our bodies, because although people may have always thought about their body image, men have rarely discussed it. This made things harder to deal with, as we didn’t have any examples to work from. When I first talked about body image, I felt a bit awkward. The only time I’d heard other men talk about their bodies before then was while they were boasting about how big their “Dr Johnson” was. It was like trying to learn a new language by reading a book; you can do it, but it’s easier when you can hear how someone else says it. You don’t feel as silly or self-conscious and that can help you improve.
Body image is still a tricky thing to talk about. Especially for men. After years of being told that body concerns are for women, or that they are trivial and vain, there’s no wonder that they didn’t feature much in conversations down at the pub. Yet, as our idea of masculinity evolves into something more than a knuckle-dragging ape that lives off meat and cares only about the size of his dong, I feel hopeful that we’ll get better at talking about it. As with most mental health issues, the first step to making progress is learning how to talk about it and then finding the courage to open up. It’s a difficult hurdle to get over, but it’s not impossible. I promise.