My name is Mike, also known as Doctor Mike, the Second. As part of this campaign, I want to explore the universal problem of body shaming.
Body shaming is the overvaluing of body image and your appearance, leading to extreme self-criticism. And the consequences of body shaming can be extremely detrimental to both our physical and mental health.
What's important to note here is that body shaming can be interpreted in different ways. Whilst a lot of people will think of body shaming as judging others and criticising people's appearance, I want to focus on how we body shame ourselves, and how this is just as harmful to our health.
With so many women struggling with the idea of the ‘female ideal’ created by the media, it’s easy to forget that body shaming can affect everyone, regardless of gender, shape or size.
The rise of male body shaming and the idea of the ‘male ideal’
Body shaming is a universal problem, particularly in the age of social media which can sometimes misrepresent not only bodies themselves, but the methods used to obtain them.
There is a huge comparison culture where we are constantly looking at what other people are doing, and like so many aspects of life, if we could only focus on our own problems, goals and journeys, rather than those of others, we would probably be a lot happier.
One problem is the overstated link between appearance and health. There are undoubtedly many negative health outcomes associated with obesity, but the assumption that lean six packs equate to health is totally misguided.
Some of the practices that some people engage in to obtain that kind of physical condition can be hugely unhealthy too, both physically and psychologically.
Another huge obstacle is that somehow the healthy aspects of lifestyle improvement have got intertwined with some kind of perception of moral judgement.
As a doctor, I have no problem telling a patient that their blood pressure is too high, but addressing unhealthy weight is a different kettle of fish. Society has constructed this situation where, when someone tells you that you are overweight, it’s an insult rather than a measurement or an observation.
Although by contrast, for the same reason, people confuse body positivity, or having that elusive six pack, with a justification for not addressing unhealthy behaviours.
The answer, as always, lies in balance.
The mental and physical effects of body shaming men
The obsessive thinking that can develop from body shaming can have a huge impact on both our mental health and physical wellbeing - and especially on our self-confidence.
Who hasn’t walked into a gym with anxiety that they will be judged by other people in better shape? I know I have, to the point that it stopped me from joining a gym for a long time.
But nobody was actually judging me, the issues were mine. When we are self-conscious about things, we are far more likely to interpret things that happen around us as being related to those things, when they may well not be.
Although body shaming and a negative self-image are two separate things, they can feed into one another and compound the issue.
It’s important to realise that our own thoughts and actions can have just as much of a negative impact on ourselves as those of others, if not more. All too often, body shaming can be boiled down to how we are perceiving and interpreting not just others, but ourselves too.
But the unhealthy thoughts and opinions around the ‘perfect’ body shape and size, regardless of whether they are perception or reality, can end up leading to something much more sinister. The number of adult men being admitted to hospital for eating disorders has risen by 70% in the last six years, according to NHS figures.
Body shaming has been found to lead to poor diets, excessive exercising and depression – a combination that can create a dangerous relationship with food. Not something that many men would admit to, however.
The likelihood of feeling confident enough to admit to these insecurities is low. Our culture feeds the stigma around men discussing their thoughts and emotions and feeling as though they should conform to the ‘norm’ further impacts self-esteem levels and the shame felt for their bodies.
But we all have our hang ups, and body shaming is not limited to overweight people. I’ve seen many people who are in shape getting called obsessive, vain and even disgusting - just for how they look, and this is just as unacceptable.
It’s important that men feel as though they can open up about their internal struggles, regardless of their shape or size, and get the support they need to feel better.
How to stop feeling shame for your body – and judging others
There is a huge difference between wanting to make healthy, positive changes to your lifestyle and, dare I say it, to look better because you feel ashamed about how you look, or not loving yourself regardless of how you look.
So, stop focusing on other people and what they look like, or what they may or may not (but probably don’t) think, and focus on yourself.
What do you want your body to do, how do you feel about it, and how do you want to change it? What other people think of it is irrelevant, because you’re the only one who has to live in it.
If you’re struggling with body image, you may find help in some of these self-care tactics:
1. Get fit for the right reasons
Exercise to lose weight is fine, as long as it’s not your only goal, and remains a realistic and healthy one.
The best thing you can do is to change your mindset around why you exercise. Exercising to get healthy, to improve your mental health and to live a happier, longer life should all be excuses for getting yourself fit.
2. Make your diet and exercise plan sustainable and healthy
Focus on what you can do exercise-wise, not what you can’t.
Whether you get fit at the gym, out in the park or at home, don’t feel the need to do it all and follow the intense workouts you see online (but if you can, and want to, then go ahead!).
Find out what works for you, and what you’re comfortable with, so you can start making healthy changes to your lifestyle.
3. Identify body-positive people in your life
The problem, really, isn’t body shaming itself. The problem is that sometimes people just aren’t very nice.
Negative thinking can be infectious, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who don’t judge you, or anyone else, by their physical characteristics.
4. Confront people who you see or hear body shaming
Including yourself! Notice your judgements and start making changes to how you, and others, think about people – and eventually yourself.