“I feel like shit when I see myself in the mirror,” Elliott Rodgers, 47, tells HuffPost UK. “It was only today that I was looking at myself in the bathroom and thinking: ‘Do I need to take the mirror out of here?’”
In the past year, concerns about body image caused one in five men to dress in a way that hid their body, or parts of it, the Mental Health Foundation has found. In a survey of 2,100 men, one in 10 said they’d experienced suicidal thoughts because of these issues and 4% hurt themselves because of it.
For Rodgers, it started after he had a bad fall and subsequent treatment, which left him unable to walk properly. He ended up using a wheelchair and taking Gabapentin for the pain, which he says made him gain weight.
Before the accident in 2010, Rodgers worked as an emergency medical technician at sports events and concerts. He was physically active and fit, he says, walking in the hills with his dog for hours at a time, or running around BMX tracks sorting out fallen riders. But after he fell on black ice, he could no longer do those things – and his relationship with his body rapidly changed.
“My mental health has taken a severe blow,” he says.
Rodgers is one of three men who spoke to HuffPost UK about their relationship with their bodies – and all three have changed the way they dress to hide what they look like underneath.
“I prefer wearing a lot of baggy tops, and I’ve got a couple of baggy hoodies that I wear,” says Rodgers, who lives in Chesham in Buckinghamshire. He’ll often take a messenger bag out with him – not only to carry his medication and his tablet, he says, but also to hide his body. “I’ll put the bag on my lap with my arms around it, then anyone looking at me isn’t going to see my belly.”
Rodgers, who now works as a web developer and writer, says other people’s comments have a particularly negative influence on his mental health. Since becoming a wheelchair user, he’s noticed a huge difference in the way people speak to him. As well as hurtful remarks about his disability – one woman online said “you’re a good looking guy, but I can’t deal with the wheelchair” – he’s been subjected to fat-shaming and vividly recalls the moment someone he knew called him a “fat fuck” in the street.
“If three people I trusted turned around and said to me now: ‘your weight isn’t that bad, you’re worrying about nothing’, but a couple of people made snide comments in the supermarket – I’m going to listen to the negative comments far more,” he says. “Their comments carry so much weight, excuse the pun.”
Kieran Donoghue, 33, from Ayr in Scotland, has also struggled with how he looks. Three years ago, the visual merchandiser and fashion stylist discovered several food allergies that were wreaking havoc with his body. He had to change his diet and was put on a lot of medication, which made him gain weight.
He recalls how he’d try on clothes and notice his body looked different, which would then play on his mind for the rest of the day. Sometimes he’d find that his stomach would swell up and bloat, so he’d change what he wore because of it – often going for oversized hoodies, shirts and big scarves.
Donoghue has made peace with his body image issues in recent years, but he recognises it’s still a huge problem for lots of people. “I have attended events where I’ve helped style both men and women,” he says. “Every single person will say they don’t like X bit of their body and ask whether they can hide it. It’s not uncommon at all. The problem is, men don’t talk about it.”
Donoghue blames the “filtered generation”, where so many posts you see on social media are filtered or Photoshopped, and the “superhero effect”, where the average man finds himself represented on TV and in magazines by muscular men who spend months training to look the way they do.
The latter is something Sami Tamer*, who is 22 and based in north west England, acknowledges as a problem. Steroid and human growth hormone use is rife among the men he knows, he says. “When they take it and look a particular way, they affect the norm of how everyone else should be looking,” he says. “It’s not just because they work hard in the gym. But people see the final image, they don’t realise the drugs people are taking to look a particular way.”
Tamer, who describes himself as “quite small, at 5ft 6”, has struggled with body image issues since his teens. After his first martial arts lesson, aged 16, the instructor advised him to start weight lifting to build up his strength. So he did – and has done ever since.
But a couple of months ago, at the age of 21, he suffered AC separation, where the collar bone separates from the shoulder blade – a common issue in people who train hard. Tamer was no longer able to lift weights. His muscle mass diminished, his clothes became baggy and he entered a “depressive state” because of how he looked. “When you’re used to looking a particular way and you’re used to your clothes fitting in a particular way, when you’re not looking that way [anymore] it feels quite depressing really,” he says.
Being smaller than average, he says his muscles were his only other way of looking “bigger” – so when they started to fade, he struggled mentally. Despite speaking to people in the gym about his body image struggles, Tamer didn’t feel able to open up to friends and family. “If I talk to people close to me, they think I’m being obsessive,” he says.
During this time, some bodybuilders at his gym advised him to take human growth hormone (hGH) to speed up his shoulder recovery. The hormone, which is injected into the body, works by replacing naturally-produced hormones in the pituitary gland. The production of these hormones slows down as we enter our 20s. Long-term use can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, raised blood sugar levels, heart failure and gigantism (the disproportionate growth of body parts).
Tamer has been taking hGH for about a month now to aid his recovery and, so far, hasn’t experienced any side effects. “My body’s been healing fast,” he says.
The lack of conversation about body image issues among men is something that needs to change, says Donoghue. “I do believe more people have those thoughts and feelings, but don’t feel confident to say so. If guys mention their body or discuss feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, they’re classed as vain.”
Rodgers is trying to focus on looking at the positives. He loves being part of online communities where he can play games alongside others who have no idea what he looks like. There’s also more diversity coming through the ranks on TV, he believes – presenters like Alex Brooker, co-host of The Last Leg, and Adam Pearson, who presents Tricks Of The Restaurant Trade, make him optimistic for the future.
“It gives you hope that we could make society more inclusive,” he says.
In light of its survey findings, The Mental Health Foundation is calling on the government and relevant industries to regulate social media, as well as campaigning for reality shows like Love Island to avoid showing unrealistic body types. “There is evidence to suggest body image issues in men are becoming more pronounced,” said Mark Rowland, the charity’s chief executive.
“But none of this is inevitable. There is much we can do as a society to reduce pressures on men and improve their mental health.”
*Sami Tamer’s name has been changed on request.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.