• Josh Newis Smith

My Long-Term Relationship With Body Dysmorphia

My personal journey towards loving my body and the struggles with masculinity that came along for the ride.

Last week I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation in my gym changing rooms. Two hench AF men – fit in both senses of the word - were discussing their body weight in considerable detail. One was on a protein-based mission to increase his size and the other determined to trim down. Neither of them, in my opinion (not that that matters) needed to change a thing but still, after an incessant number of workouts in the last seven days, they still felt there was room for change.

What startled me the most was the realization that these two chaps discussing their bodies in such detail was a manifestation of a daily conversation I have in my own head. Every day is punctuated by time looking in the mirror scanning my body and thinking I am a completely different size to the one I objectively am. Admitting that I suffer from body dysmorphia has been quite the reckoning. Some who know me will find this surprising as I regularly appear composed and confident within my own skin but for me, being at one with my inner self, is completely different from being at one with your outer-shell.

Body struggles and hang-ups are not gendered they affect every one despite society traditionally seeing them as ‘female problems.’ Personally as a man I feel there isn’t enough of a conversation around the male quest for perfection and socially there are rarely any safe spaces to openly discuss it without facing judgment from our peers. Speaking to fellow guys over the last few days they concurred with my thoughts.

I have always struggled with my own personal perception of my body. I have gone through phases of wanting to be stick thin to thinking in wildly unhealthy ways about how many ribs I could feel or how much none existent fat I could pull away from my stomach. There are times when I think I can feel my stomach wobble when I walk after not working out for one day. I have gone to great lengths to mentally confirm that this isn’t the case – namely regularly getting my work BFF to feel and inspect my stomach.

Many will also be surprised to know these mental stumbling blocks haven’t ever quenched my hunger for a good golden chicken nugget or twenty. I have repeatedly been involved in debates with people of all sizes about how maintaining a positive body image plagues everyone at some stage. Live on Sky News for instance; when debating Alexa Chung’s involvement with Marks and Spencer, I was told by a fellow journalist (who thought Alexa was a negative role model due to her thin frame) I didn’t have an opinion on the matter because I was ‘thin.’ Just FYI thin people can eat burritos by the bucket load and still have body image issues. I know that personally to be a cold hard fact.

My personal journey with my own body image has gone hand in hand with my attempts to grapple with masculinity. As a gay man, within ‘my’ community there is now an insistent need to appear devoid of feminine qualities. The persistent social pressure is to bulk up, pump some iron and appear ‘straight’ acting. No one should appear anything other than their true self but many feel a pressure, within a social group that is meant to embrace one and all, to attach themselves to a historically engrained notion of manliness. Just because I write about fashion, host high-octane celebrity interviews and occasionally squeal, it doesn’t make me any less of a man than the body builders in the gym. That realization alone has taken well over a decade to come to.

Fancying men and being sexually active with men has also shaped my own misguided perception of my body – when you are in bed with a boy there are direct comparisons that can easily be made. He has better abs than me, his arms are more defined than mine or in the reverse: I am thinner than him or I have a smaller ass than him – are just some of the thoughts I regularly have when I encounter another man’s body.

I have equally become victim to someone else’s opinions about my body reshaping my own perception of my physical appearance, namely at the hands of one wildly manipulative ex-boyfriend. Initially the jibes were subtle and became increasingly harsh from regularly making comments about me having a ‘flat ass,’ turning into him saying in bed that spooning me was like hugging something I can’t even repeat due to the social insensitivity of it. Lying there naked, I stayed awake for hours mentally beating myself up. Saying it was a joke, doesn’t quite cover it when the criticisms are served up as daily doses. It wasn’t until we broke up that I realized how much of a negative impact he was having on my self-esteem. But when you are so desperate for something to work and you are suffering from some niche form of Stockholm syndrome it’s hard to see someone for the f**k boy they really are. Becoming a victim of someone else’s insecurities has become one of the biggest learning curves I have experienced.

Turning a negative influence into a positive motivation became a source of empowerment for me and I hit the gym in a fashion akin to Khloe Kardashian circa Revenge Body. Whilst being a mental cleanser in so many ways I have also found going to the gym can also have it’s negative effects - namely panicking that I am getting ‘fat’ if I skip a day at the gym. Sometimes I spiral into a social media stalking frenzy where I scroll through an Instagram feed of a perfect toned Adonis and mentally tick off all the faults with my body. Knowing that most of these images are air brushed in some way does give me some solace but the ‘you aren’t good enough,’ voice constantly lights up in my head in a manner akin to the light fittings on the Vegas strip. I am the first to admit I regularly use Facetune myself, which not only makes me part of the problem but further feeds the internal battle I have with my own physical appearance.

Moreover I have seen how the gym has had negative effects on men around me – some going to the lengths of weighing the last tiny little nut they consume because heaven forbid this might off-set the 900 plus hours they spent in the gym that month. Known as muscle dysmorphia or bigorexia it is an anxiety disorder that causes someone to see themselves as small, despite being big and muscular. The pressures affecting anyone suffering from this are just as personally mentally embedded as they are enforced by the social media obsessed word they find themselves actively engaging in.

Personally I have made progress to overcoming my own body dysmorphia by looking at my problems objectively as if someone else was seeking me out for advice. Firstly admitting to myself that I put a healthy body through unhealthy and immense pressure was a great step towards helping myself. From there the ‘self help’ advice I would dispense could actually sink in and extinguish the thoughts alight in my head. Changing the internal conversation and opting to focus on positive elements in my life allowed me to adopt a more uplifting mindset – not to sound like a retrograde Gwyneth Paltrow. Much.

Every journey (and good piece of journalism) should have a beginning, middle and an end. But as I write this I realise my relationship with my body is something that changes hour by hour, day by day, week by week so there will probably never be an ending – especially when we look down the barrel of the aging process. Many variables can creep in and unsettle my determination to be the ‘sassy independent man’ I know I can be but just like most men I weave my own complex tapestry when it comes to body image. But discussing it, or admitting you have a problem is the first step towards understanding and combating against the pressures we place on ourselves.

© 2018 by Josh Newis Smith