Over half of all men suffer from body insecurities, so why is it so hard for us to talk about them the way women do, asks Andrzej Łukowski
When I started secondary school I was a bit on the tubby side.
Other than a general aversion to competitive sports (though I did swim, I had badges an’ all!), I’m not really sure there was any particular reason for this.
It wasn’t the cause of any great teasing or anything, but I didn’t really want to be overweight, because most other children my age weren’t. People on TV weren’t overweight. My childhood idol Optimus Prime – a heroic cartoon robot who could transform into a truck – was not technically overweight. I wanted to do something about it. But I absolutely did not want to do it via the medium of exercise, and positively, absolutely did not want to talk to anyone about it. It just seemed embarrassing.
I hatched a plan. A really bad plan. For a few years I simply stopped eating breakfast and lunch on school days, and pocketed the cash my parents gave me to pay for food. In other words, I defrauded my parents and starved myself, while pretending that I wasn’t.
It worked! Either that or it had no effect and adolescent growth spurts simply ironed everything out naturally, and I starved myself for no reason beyond modest financial gain.
But it was clearly a wildly unhealthy thing to do, that’s left me with a slightly ambivalent attitude towards breakfast and lunch, and a tendency to skip meals when I’m feeling down.
For years and years I didn’t talk about it. I was probably concerned that I’d be mocked, but to be honest it never even really occurred to me to mention it. There isn’t really a general male language of talking about body insecurity. I assumed I was a rare case among men.
Of course, I was aware that women were generally expected to feel insecurity about their bodies. There are multibillion-pound industries devoted to making money from that self-doubt. Hollywood remains aggressively fixated on women of a certain age and certain shape.
It’s horrible, and I’m sure many women do suffer in silence, but at the same time negative body image is probably a subject that women can find easier to talk about than men, if only because it feels as if it’s expected of them.
My wife has certain, run-of-the-mill insecurities. There’s nothing weird or transgressive or shocking or unusual about them: it’s pretty easy for her to talk to me about them; and it’s pretty easy for me to be comforting about them. Indeed, it’s pretty easy for me to get on a high horse and blithely mansplain away her issues as being entirely the product of late capitalism, while refusing to reflect upon the fact that I’ve had similar thoughts.
On the face of it, men do have an easier ride: the fashion and beauty industry has given up on most of us, Hollywood is happy to depict average-looking, untoned middle-aged guys as unstoppable babe magnets, and it’s generally understood that an actual six-pack is unattainable nonsense.
And yet … according to a survey conducted by MPs on the women’s and equalities committee last year, while 62% of women (and 57% of those identifying as neither man nor woman) felt negatively about their body image, men were hardly far behind, at 53%. And in 2019, a survey for the Mental Health Foundation suggested that 11% of men who took part had experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of their body image.
I’m happy to say that I’m not one of that group, but my teenage and pre-teen years were tougher than I let on, and I have literally no idea if any of my male friends were going through the same. But I have to think that probably they were.
I’ve largely managed to move on – I’m still a bit iffy around meals, but I’ve learned that exercise can be something quite casual and doesn’t have to involve going to the gym or joining a team. I swim, and I walk everywhere I possibly can walk, at a preposterous speed (it sounds a bit eccentric but it works). But you only have to cast your mind back a couple of years to Christopher Eccleston’s revelation that he’d suffered from anorexia at the height of his career to see that men of all ages and statures can suffer – unfortunately, it remains rare for them to admit to it.
We should be aware that there are still stronger societal pressures on women, and that women certainly account for the lion’s share of eating disorders. But we should also be aware that most of us suffer body insecurity, and that it’s far better to talk about it and think of a healthy, mindful way through it than to deal with it alone.
Read more at tena.co.uk/men/real-life-stories