This week is Men's Health Week, which aims to raise awareness of illness among men and to encourage guys to look after themselves, both mentally and physically. To mark MHW, we spoke to a man whose negative body image and obsession with attaining the 'ideal' male physique impacts both his emotional and physical wellbeing.
My body image impacts me every day, all day, from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to bed. It affects the clothes I wear, what I eat and how I go about my daily routine. For me, it’s a never-ending journey of bitter disappointment.
This morning when I woke up, I did what I do every day; I looked at myself in the full-length mirror by my bed to try to see if there’s been any dramatic change overnight. For example, I’ve always worried that my quads are small so I check those out or I compare the sizes of my biceps. Of course I know my body won’t have changed while I slept. But, every morning, I still hope it might have.
While I'm assessing how I look, my internal monologue is brutal. Even if I just catch my reflection in a mirror I’ll be like, “Eugh, disgusting,” “Eugh, I’m repulsive.”
I don’t want anyone to ever feel about themselves the way I do, and that’s why I want to encourage people to speak about their body image problems. In the UK an estimated 2% of the population, or some 1.3 million people suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition where someone is intensely preoccupied with an imagined or slight defect in their appearance.
Growing up, I wasn’t worried about my appearance. I was doing lots of athletics so, in terms of staying in shape, I felt like my body took care of itself.
In my late teens I started working out in the gym, and as I hit particular strength goals, my confidence increased with my muscle and body weight.
But five years ago, when I was 20, disaster struck. In my final year of university studying Sports and Materials Science at the University of Birmingham I developed a stomach ulcer. It stopped me from going to the gym and hitting my targets and I couldn’t really eat. I lost more than a stone and a half (10kg) in around five weeks. It felt like I’d regressed physically and was powerless to stop it, just having to watch as my muscles wasted away.
On New Year’s Eve that year (2012), I was in the pub with my friends back home in Wokingham. Everyone was back from university and hadn’t seen me in a while. I’d lost weight from my face and I wasn’t filling my clothes out. Everyone started saying, “God you look much smaller than you did before. You’ve lost loads of weight, are you ok?” Instead of hearing their concern, it was like their words were crippling my self-esteem.
Pretty soon I stopped going on nights out, at home or at university. I'd text my friends excuses: “Sorry, I didn’t see the message” or “I fell asleep.” I wanted to see them but this voice inside me insisted, “You can’t go out. Look at you, you still look awful.” I basically excommunicated myself from my friends.
After that night in the pub, I became hell-bent on gaining weight and took on a brutal exercise regime. My aim was to get back to where I was before my illness, at 12st 8lb (80kg) - I’m 6ft 1in (185cm) - and to push on beyond that.
I went to the gym six days a week, without fail. Sessions lasted an hour and a half to two hours each day. After completing my degree my body became a project. Every day I’d sit at work as an account executive at an advertising agency and just think obsessively about what I was going to do in the gym that night.
But I wasn’t progressing as fast as I wanted to. I couldn’t physically consume all the food I planned to eat, because I was still taking lots of medication for my stomach ulcer. I was trying to make myself eat 3,000 calories a day with an unhealed ulcer. I’m pretty sure I almost tripled my recovery time by doing that.
Once the ulcer was completely healed (around November 2013), I started to nudge the calories up even more. By the time I got to 15 stone (95kg) I was on 4,000 calories every day without fail. A typical day would see me eating cereal for breakfast followed by a protein shake and protein cookie before lunching on a couple of bread rolls and a can of tuna or a pack of ham. Following that I’d snack on a flapjack before having a second, similar lunch after work. Then it was on to the gym, which would be followed by another protein shake. Finally I’d have dinner, which could be a roast, a chilli or fish fillets.
This drive to gain weight compromised a lot of things. If I was spending the day out, there would be a constant anxiety; when am I going to get food in? Where’s my next meal going to come from? Am I going to miss my calories?
Weekends were especially tough. On countless occasions I’d be sat up at 1am on a Sunday night, trying to ram meat or protein flapjacks, cookies or shakes down me just to make sure I’d hit the calories for that day.
I’ve now bulked up from 11 stone (70kg) when I was ill, to 16st 1lb (102kg). But the satisfaction I expected from hitting my targets has never materialised. I’m still going to the gym six days a week and I’m on just under 4,000 calories a day - it’s become the norm for me now.
Things have started to go the other way. I still feel I’m not big enough, but I also feel that I’m really fat – so my head is telling me I need to get smaller and bigger at the same time. I’m worried that if I put on weight it will come on as fat rather than muscle, but I can’t diet because then I’ll just go back to how I was before all my training. I’m trapped.
It affects all other aspects of my life. Last summer, when I went on my first date with my girlfriend, I was obsessed with my size and ‘looking fat’.
I wore a loose-fitting T-shirt with an all-black outfit, because it’s slimming. It was a baking hot day, but I thought, “I’d rather be roasting hot than look fat”.
We started the day on a boat, which reassured me as I thought she’d look at the scenery more than me. But later we went for some food. I breathed in the whole time, worried she was ‘checking me out' (in a bad way) and waiting for the sun to go down – that way even my shadow might be less obvious.
Thankfully, my girlfriend turned out to be extremely supportive of everything I do. She understands I’m going to spend hours at a time in the gym and that I’m going to come home and say these negative things about my body. She really helps me a lot.
For years I kept all my struggles locked inside, and it has only been in the last six months that I've spoken to two friends, Harry and Jason about it. It was incredibly hard because if you have BDD you know that if you open up to someone they won’t see what you see. But one day we sat down and spoke about what we see when we look in the mirror. It turned out that both my friends also have body dysmorphia issues. It was a real relief – I then knew that there were others around me who ‘get’ me.
Together, we run a Youtube channel where we vlog about strength-building, body image and the industry around fitness bloggers and products. We encourage people to focus on their own bodies, to set realistic goals for themselves and to be proud of their achievements.
If my body image struggles have taught me anything it’s that everyone should learn to love themselves and be really happy with who they are rather than constantly comparing themselves to people they see on TV or social media.
I’m sick of the way we're all made to feel we should look a certain way. There’s a whole industry that feeds on people’s insecurities in order to sell everything from detox teas to weight-burning pills. That’s what motivates me to speak out.
I want people to embrace their personal appearance and to feel comfortable with who they are. That will allow them to lead a far more fulfilling life.
I know I’m being a hypocrite because I still can’t accept my own appearance. But speaking about it helps. Further down the line, if I know the message is getting across to people and they’re getting happier with themselves, that will help me become happier with myself too, so that one day I can look in the mirror in the morning and not hate what I see.
Alex features in the video below: What Happens When Strangers Get Real About Body Image.
As told to Tomasz Frymorgen
This article was originally published on 23 January 2018.