Just after leaving Monument Station on the London Underground's Central Line, I asked my fellow passengers for their attention. "Hi everybody, you don't know me and I don't know you". Some of the dozen or so passengers rolled their eyes. A few others turned their bored gaze my way. Twenty seconds later I dropped my trousers, continuing to talk about the importance of positive body image. You can see the entire video of it here.
I'm a Professor. I'm also a man who is fast entering into the years of middle-aged spread. Most people would probably say my body is normal. But every now and then I look in the mirror and worry about my shape. Is my belly too big? Are my legs too short? Am I muscular enough? Do I have too much hair, or not enough? Are my thighs and ass too big? I try my best to eat healthy food. I have run a few marathons. But these thoughts keep coming back.
I'm worried I don't live up to the image of the perfect male body. Every few weeks I find myself standing in front of the mirror telling myself off for being so out of shape.
Yes, I should know better. I even spent years writing a book about the downside of our obsession with wellness. Despite all my Professorial knowledge, I sometimes think I might have written that book as an excuse for not working-out more. Was I blaming society and social media, when it was just me being lazy? Shouldn't I take more responsibility for my own body?
All I knew was that the effort I put in to boosting my personal wellness sometime made me unhappier and unhealthier. I've tried diets which led me to weight gain in the longer term. I trained for and ran an ultra marathon, yet I ended up damning my own body. Why do these sincere attempts to boost my wellness make me feel so guilty? Probably because the ideal I'm trying to achieve is impossible. All my attempts fall short. Yes, I know that the perfectly toned body is a mirage. Yet I am trapped, because I cannot stop comparing myself to it anyway.
My worries are not unique. When men start to worry about their appearance, they are told to "man up" and hit the gym. One British study found that men were more worried about their body shape and appearance than women. Four in five men were anxious about their bodies. They worry about beer bellies, balding, and man-boobs.
Talking negatively about your body can have very real and troubling effects. It can undermine men's sense of self esteem and make them ashamed of their bodies. In some cases, men feel so overwhelmed about the pressure to look good they stop trying altogether. Disappointed and ashamed, they dive into a world of unhealthy habits head first. In other cases, men try to control their bodies through obsessive exercising and diets. Today, about 2% of all men suffer from Anorexia, 5% suffer from Bulimia and 2% suffer from Binge eating disorders.
We live in an image obsessed era. We know that women are particularly vulnerable. They often compare themselves with photoshopped images, which are impossible to live up to. To fight against this unhealthy culture, many women have acted as role models, such as the British Model Iskra Lawrence. They have said enough is enough. They have pointed out that we need to stop objectifying the female body. But the same message applies to men.
For some reason, we don't want to talk about men's distorted body images. We can't all be he-men. Men are victims of this culture too. They are subjected to the same cruel cult of visual perfection. Like women, they start to suffer as a result. This is a call for all men out there, to look at our female friends, find inspiration, and say no to the perfect body image. We are perfect as we are. We are perfect with or without beer bellies, with our without hair, with or without man-boobs.
To view the video of my speech click here
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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