Imagine you have a friend who is obsessed with their appearance, to the extent that it is dominating pretty much their every waking thought. Imagine they spend an average of four hours every day styling, plucking, shaving, moisturizing, applying makeup and trying on endless outfits. Imagine that, in addition to this, they toil endlessly in the gym to get what they consider to be the ‘perfect’ physique. They’ll wear only designer labels, and their life is consumed by analysing how they are perceived by others. Their image is, quite literally, everything.
Now imagine this friend of yours is a man…..
This was exactly the scenario I was faced with when I appeared in the BBC3 documentary ‘How to Live with Women’. The programme featured Terry, a 19 year old from Wales, whose grooming routine and gym obsession was putting significant strain on his relationship with his fiancée and two young children. As his mentor, it was my job to make him see the error of his ways.
I arranged for him to take part in a live body confidence radio show (during which members of the public could phone-in) and I took him along to a fashion shoot for London’s leading plus size fashion magazine, Evolve. But the technique that had the greatest impact in tackling his issues was quite simply talking to him.
Being a visual medium, the television programme focussed heavily on the shoot and footage of us in the radio studio. What wasn’t shown was the relentless hours I spent encouraging Terry to open up. The fundamental format was this – I asked Terry what he thought about a body related issue (either his own or someone else’s). When he responded in a somewhat questionable manner I simply asked him ‘why?’. And I kept asking him ‘why?’ until he was forced to question his views and engage in a little introspection.
Of course, it transpired that Terry had been bullied. He’s been beaten at school and in the street for being ‘skinny’, and felt such omnipresent self-loathing that his excessive aesthetics-based lifestyle was the only way he could deal with it. In a woman we’d readily accept this. For a man, it was a momentous confession.
I came to a few crucial realisations whilst on the set of that show. Firstly, I realised that when it comes to female body obsession, we’re a lot more sympathetic. The listeners who called into the radio show we took part in were invariably scathing and sarcastic. They were laughing at Terry because they considered his choices ‘pathetic’ and ‘vain’. Had he been a woman, his self-esteem problem would have been immediately identified.
The second was that Terry was suffering from an eating disorder. The term ‘eating disorder’ is somewhat misguided, in that it inherently makes us think of food. But compulsive exercise is a form of ED. One does not have to be skeletal, emulating the pictures we so often, sadly, see in the press, in order to have a dangerous and life-altering condition.
The last, and possibly the most important, thing that dawned on me is that men need to talk. Women have a built in support network in which they’re free to discuss their bodies, warts and all, at length (usually to the mild annoyance of their companions). We normalise the issues, and that is a great shame – But men have the opposite problem. Men assume no one else is suffering in the same way as they are, because they’re only permitted to discuss variations of about three topics – usually football, cars and women – in their peer groups.
At Body Gossip, the campaign I run with Ruth Rogers, we ask the public to write something authentic about their bodies. Some stories are then performed by our celebrity cast and some will be published in our forthcoming book. We exclude no one, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual orientation – We all have a body and we all feel a certain way about it. Once, we were asked to make the campaign a female-only one, in exchange for financial benefit. We refused. We passionately believe that men can and should have a voice in the body image debate.
That’s why Body Gossip are so proud to be associated with MGEDT. It is time for men to step out of the shadows and acknowledge that they get eating disorders, too.
To contribute to the Body Gossip book go to www.bodygossip.org/book.
Body Gossip, which works with the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image, is a pioneering and all-inclusive campaign asking everyone in the UK to write something about their real bodies. You can follow them on twitter @_BodyGossip or check out their facebook page www.facebook.com/bodygossip