Author’s Note: I would *love* to include photographs of myself in this post to illustrate a part of my body image anxiety, which is that I do not see myself properly. People tell me I’m handsome and attractive, with a 34 waist and fair muscle definition but I see myself as a grotesque animal with a bloated size 44+ frame that makes people vomit upon glimpsing me. Unfortunately, my anxiety over my appearance prevents me from photographing myself either clothed or naked, let alone posting them online for all to ridicule. Hence the pixellation whenever I do post an old photograph of myself!
When the issue of body image arises people tend to think it the exclusive domain of the female gender; the sexualisation of young girls, the teenager struggling to accept herself, the woman instantly disbelieving her boyfriend the moment he says ‘no’ to her doubts over various body parts.
Rarely is body image seen as a problem that men struggle with. Over the years I’ve been in Australia, a country obsessed with appearance and physical shape, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard comments like: “men don’t care what they look like”, “men don’t see that they’re morbidly obese, they just believe themselves to be perfect” or “men don’t worry about how chubby their arse is”.
The simple fact is, some do; and I’m one of them.
Once upon a time I purchased a new pair of jeans. They were a pretty awesome pair of jeans, easily the most expensive I’d ever brought, and I thought they made me look pretty darn hot. Upon arriving home and modeling them for my then girlfriend I asked her the question she’d asked me approximately 38.6 times in the four months we’d been together: “Does my bum look big in this?”
She said, “Kindof, but then you only have half an arse anyway,”
“Half an arse?”
“Yep. Half is pretty sexy. The other half…ick,”
If I’d answered along those lines I wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near her splendiferous backside for many moons. But as men aren’t supposed to be hung up on body image, I wasn’t supposed to take it seriously. Unfortunately, I did, because I’ve been hung up on what I look like since I was but a young bairn rolling around in the mud in some distant Scottish village.
The Early Years
An overweight child at school will always be a prime target for bullying. If you don’t believe me, check out any news article published on the issue of obesity and take a stroll through the comments fields. The insulting terms that get thrown around in those adult forums are nothing compared to what goes on in the school yard. During those long school bound years I was called every name you can possibly think of for fat people; from the obvious (Lazy, Fatty, Fatso, Pooh, Michelin Man, Stay Puft) to the not so obvious (Feltzy, Dr Eggman)
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that it was during these formative years my issues with my weight and body began, especially when you consider my sister’s reaction. Diagnosed with anorexia at age eleven, her illness manifested itself into believing my fat was contagious, and thus, she could not have anything to do with me. No contact, no talking, no being in the same room or vicinity as her.
To say I became focused on my weight is an understatement. To be honest, I’m surprised I didn’t develop an eating disorder myself! But my issues manifested in the form of a severe anxiety – borderline hatred – of my body.
Throughout those years I made several efforts to address the problem.
When I was a child I attempted to join an after school football group, given at the time I was a staunch supporter of Aberdeen FC and loved the beautiful game. Unfortunately, on the very first day, the coach informed me I was too unfit (thus not good enough) to play and was promptly informed never to return.
In my early teens I undertook several paper rounds that saw me lug several kilos of newspapers around the town I lived in both before and after school. I also rode my bike wherever and whenever I could.
Even though I hated Gym class growing up I always gave it my best effort – not always easy when the Gym teacher would confiscate my glasses for fear of them being broken. Being a fat kid playing sport is bad enough – being a blind fat kid playing sport was agonizing; especially when cricket balls I couldn’t see were hurled into my goolies or I ran into the wall whilst trying to grab a blurred basketball. All such uncoordinated behavior earning more insulting comments and verbal retaliation; especially when I would miss open goals in football because I couldn’t properly make out the ball!
By my late teens (when most people had begun experimenting with the opposite sex) I had become a virtual recluse; unable to go to the swimming pool for fear of people laughing at my trunk clad frame, unwilling to exercise in public unless under cloak of darkness and solitude. I would wear clothes that were too large – thus reducing the amount of clinging material – and began showering in a T-Shirt with a towel placed over the bathroom mirror to reduce the chance of glimpsing my naked torso.
The Backpacking Years
My first morning in Edinburgh I was desperate for a slash. I leapt out of my bunk bed and hobbled down the corridor to the bathroom, passing a girl who was packing her pack in the hall. She had a very wide, somewhat embarrassed grin on her face, an expression that confused me until I arrived at the toilet and realized my left bollock was hanging from my boxer shorts.
Only then did it occur to me that the excitement of embarking on my quest had overruled my strict rules of remaining clothed at all time. That woman, though she didn’t realize it at the time, holds the esteemed honor of being the first woman to see my left testicle!
Throughout the remainder of my backpacking – as per the reasons why I’d embarked on such a quest – I pushed to challenge my anxiety and self-confidence issues. When I went to Aberdeen I visited the leisure center to ride the flumes as part of a nostalgia kick to my childhood! A trip to Aviemore, in the desolate isolation of a forest, I stripped nude for the first time in public just to see if I could. On a visit to Glenfinnan I skinny dipped in Loch Shiel. Ditto, during a private visit to Loch Ness!
None of this prevented people aiming snide abusive comments or offering me ‘well intended’ advice on how I could lose weight and stop being so lazy and unattractive.
In spite of these comments and advice, by the time I arrived in Canada, I was stripping off whenever the opportunity presented itself. In fact, a couple of days after first meeting Annie I had zero problems stripping down to my shorts to swim in the springs nor doing the same to leap into a snake populated lake. Neither activity being something I’d have done a few months earlier, especially in the presence of such a ravishing, beautiful woman.
I’ve never been able to adequately explain why my body image issues lessened in Canada. Perhaps because I was so happy and relaxed, perhaps because I was in a foreign country and thus free to be a ‘different’ person. Possibly, and most likely, because the hours, days and weeks of hiking and exercise I’d undertaken since lugging my 20kg rucksack around the world had reduced my waistline to the second lowest it’s ever been.
The Australia Years
By the time I arrived in Australia I was back to my podgy, overweight, former-self. Months of depression and low mood had seen many comfort binges that had done my waistline no favors! Thus, upon arriving in the most appearance focused country on Earth, my body was far from what Aussie’s consider ‘acceptable’.
Every morning, on my walks and rides along the beach during those early months, I would receive condescending comments from complete strangers on how I should just ‘keep going’ and sooner or later I would ‘get rid of the spare tyres I carried’. Those arrogant prats probably thought they were doing something encouraging, whereas all they did was stop me from exercising and bring back the comfort eating to ease my bruised anxiety.
Over time I just learnt to accept I was never going to be anyone’s idea of male attractiveness. Despite cycling upwards of 20-30km a day my weight and physical appearance leveled off in the chubby camp and would never budge. My girlfriend consistently talking me out of joining a gym didn’t help given I’d worked so hard on my gym issues to even go there in the first place.
The Abuse Years
Oh. My. God!
I’ve written in the past how abuse does not go down well with a socially anxious person. Consider the comment from yesterday’s post where I mentioned my innate, crippling fear of being scrutinized and humiliated. All an abuser does is scrutinize, criticize and humiliate, in whatever manner they can to receive maximum impact.
As well as increasing my existing issues over my excess weight with regular references to me being fat, ugly and lazy my abuser created complexes over things I had never given a second thought in my life.
– A couple of moles I have on my back, and have done my entire life, I attempted to cut off with a knife after dozens of comments about how disgusting and grotesque they were. Seriously, don’t try that at home!
– A slightly hairy shoulder that I now shave religiously following dozens of comments about it, including twice when she informed me it made her want to vomit. I have, at times, reduced this area to a mass of bloody raw flesh by endlessly shaving given how aware of its ugliness I’ve become.
– Although never being the most fashionable human being on earth – I much prefer shopping in charity shops to assist the needy than spending hundreds of dollars on a single garment to help the already rich – I am now, and have been ever since the abuse, acutely aware that I am a deeply ugly person no matter what I wear. Until the abuse, I always felt comfortable and confident in whatever I wore.
– At one point in our relationship, as we were writhing naked in the lead up to a horizontal tango, she literally pushed me off of her as she’d become aware of a hair growing out of a freckle on my arm. After finding her tweezers and yanking it out she proceeded to give me a twenty-minute lecture about how disgusting it was, as if I had deliberately encouraged the hair to grow to annoy her. Now, much like the shoulder, I religiously excise this hair on a daily basis to the point that the skin is either removed completely or becomes infected.
I became so obsessed with my physical appearance during that time I’ve never fully recovered from it. As with all areas of my anxiety, the abuse has skyrocketed my body image issues to unparalleled levels.
The Post Breakdown Years
During the months after my breakdown I returned to my never-naked youth. Showers were taken in T-Shirts and swimming shorts, sleeping was always clothed (even on 30+ degree nights) and I would dress with my eyes closed to prevent any accidental nudity glances.
Only when my mood escalated to mania did I stop caring about what I looked like. Hence my ability to undertake the oft-mentioned streaking incident, stripping down in front of numerous women and roam around the hotel fully nude for hours on end. All things I would never consider under normal circumstances.
Upon the inevitable collapse back into depression, my anxiety over my body returned and remained. I returned to the techniques refined since my youth, as well as the new routines I’d developed as a result of the abuse. Although I would pretend otherwise, I never felt truly comfortable being naked in front of my next girlfriend, not because of anything she did but because of all that had happened in the past.
The Homeless Years
As with all aspects of my mental health, the anxiety concerning my body has increased ten-fold since becoming homeless. Sleeping in a park does not facilitate fuzzy bunny feelings over ones appearance. You feel constantly dirty, even after showering, body odors become difficult to contain, even after using deodorant, and clothing is often whatever you can afford and to hell with whether it suits you. Throw in the difficulty of getting a haircut, accessing razors to shave slightly hairy shoulders and eating a healthy and balanced diet, it becomes impossible to view yourself as an attractive human being.
With the vast majority of the world treating you as a feral animal, it doesn’t take long before you start seeing yourself as one.
My strict protective strategies are deeply embedded to the point they are now second nature; the disrobing and putting on my ‘showering’ clothes, the changing clothes with my eyes closed, the endless removal of shoulder and freckle hair, the constant self-criticism over my lack of decent clothing, my inability to go to the gym in fear of scrutiny and humiliation in front of the sizzling hot people who tend to populate these facilities.
Although not receiving as much attention as female representation. The way males are depicted on-screen has also had an increased negative effect; the endless parade of ripped, shirtless males with perfect abs, six packs and v’s amplify the thoughts that I’m insignificant and unlovable; the demoralizing depiction of overweight males being lazy, unintelligent, beer swigging, morons; the repetition of the myths that men always see themselves as handsome, never see their physical flaws and that body image anxiety is solely the domain of women.
Throughout my life I’ve never really spoken of these body image issues with friends, girlfriends or psychologists in fear of the inevitable laughter, ridicule and emasculating comments. Men are supposed to be confident, assured, strong…not caught in the cycle of self-hate that body image issues create. Given I already feel emasculated as a result of the abuse and rape, increasing this would only do more damage to my fragile self-esteem, so I merely keep quiet at all times.
In recent months I’ve noticed articles begin to appear discussing male body image, all of which are sorely needed. But as with other areas of life (abuse, mental health, rape) the emphasis in mainstream society is still on female body image issues with little advice to men other than the standard, and insulting, “just harden the frak up” or “man up”.
Male body image issues are real, debilitating and humiliating. If you cannot love yourself, what can you love? Society needs to take this problem more seriously, instead of resorting to the tried and true stereotypes that reduce men to emotionless, arrogant, morons. Continuing to ignore the issue will have devastating consequences including, in some extreme cases, death.
Note: I would *love* to include photographs of myself in this post to illustrate a part of my body issue anxiety that isn’t clear, which is that I do not see myself properly. People tell me I’m handsome and attractive, with a could-be-better 34 waist but I see myself as a grotesque animal with a bloated size 44+ frame. Unfortunately, my anxiety over my appearance prevents me from photographing myself either clothed or naked, let alone posting them online for all to ridicule. Hence the pixellation whenever I do post an old photograph of myself!
Previous articles in this series:
Tomorrow: Anxiety and its effect on friendships and relationships >>>
- Are body image classes the answer to our kids’ anxiety? (thepunch.com.au)
- Boosting Body Image and Self-Esteem (everydayhealth.com)
- Body Image and the Media – What Has to Change? (toughandtiny.wordpress.com)