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Unpacking the pressure on men to be beach body ready

In the run up to summer, women aren't the only people who feel the pressures of being 'beach body ready' – it can affect men's mental health too

Summer is coming. The world is heating up at an alarming rate. The long term consequences will undoubtedly be devastating. In the short term, this means I’m going to need a beach body to feel comfortable in my local park, let alone on holiday. Love Island is back on the TV; even though I resolutely refuse to watch the show, my social media feeds are populated by sculpted arms and washboard abs. The pressure I feel from this is very real and very destructive.

As a 32-year-old man, I’m taken back to the world of my childhood, where fierce physiques felt ubiquitous. This was a world of Gladiators and Ultimate Warriors. My Action Man was stacked. Even the Biker Mice from Mars were packing serious muscle. Could I be blamed for believing a chiselled frame was a guaranteed staple of manhood?

When I started secondary school, I had a bowl cut, chubby cheeks and a paunch, poorly hidden by my oversized blazer. Naturally, my friends rinsed me for this because that’s one of the many healthy ways boys express affection towards one another. Puberty changed this. I became tallish and slim, with absolutely no sign of the body I thought was my birthright as a man. So I started training in a boxing gym. Exercise coupled with adulthood meant my body thickened and strengthened, and yet, I remained deeply unhappy with what I saw in the mirror.

The only respite I feel from this unhappiness nowadays is when I'm training for a boxing match, and manage to get my body down from the 83 kilos I walk around at, to an impossible-to-maintain 70 kilos. I finally see in myself the images of the men that populate my feeds and those I’d spent my childhood looking up to. For these periods, I’m at peace. Topless selfies abound.

While the women in my life express concern about how gaunt I look, my guys are like, "you’re looking cut you know, I’m trying to be like you, bro." I dismiss the concerns and lap up the approval. What does that say about my sexism? As a cis-het man, what does that say about who sets the expectation of how my body ‘should’ look, and who I’m trying to impress?

The moment I relax and resume a normal diet, a voice says, "wave goodbye to your abs, you’ve fucked it now." I become trapped in a destructive cycle of cruel self-criticism and massive blowouts on food, booze and drugs. Worse yet, I’ve never felt able to talk candidly about these body image issues, and how summer, in particular, is a shitty time to navigate. And I know I’m not alone. Men are becoming increasingly better at discussing our vulnerabilities, but how we feel about our bodies is a frontier we're yet to cross. I'm certain lots of us feel pressured to look like the immaculately groomed, shredded men populating our screens and online spaces, but we rarely get the chance to talk about this – and the impact it has on our mental health. 

Caleb Femi is a poet and director. He’s also my guy and we play football together. He told me that insecurity about being skinny was the initial thing that got him in the gym as a boy, but he’s since found sanctuary amongst the dumbbells: "I find that I go to the gym more for the therapeutic effects and some alone time to think rather than sculpt my body."

I’m quietly jealous of this balanced approach towards training. Caleb doesn’t necessarily feel huge pressure to look a particular way, because his physique is one that is "generally socially validated," as he put it, but reckons there is a definite pressure to maintain it in the summer.

However, while I lament my childhood, and how in it, I attached my notions of manhood to muscle-bound heroes, I did at least have alternatives; for every Schwarzenegger, there was a scrawny but cool Leo Di Caprio type. Caleb didn’t have that growing up. He told me seeing black men in the mainstream – like 50 Cent, Wesley Snipes and Will Smith – led him to believe the ideal black man had to be muscular and hyper-masculine. Watching porn reinforced that belief, he said. "Historically the black body is hyper-sexualised and held as a symbol of toxic masculinity. For much of my teenage years, I internalised that rhetoric, which affected the way that I viewed myself."

Until last year, my friend Ben identified as a gay man of colour, now they identify as nonbinary. When they were younger, they were bullied for not looking how a boy ‘should look’ and didn’t have people in the media they could aspire to be like.

Ben said that "in the gay community, there is definitely a pressure for gay men to be built and muscular." While a similar pressure propelled me towards an unhealthy relationship with exercise, this was hurtful for Ben in a different way. They told me they’d always tried to minimise their masculine features, and that meant wanting be healthy but not wanting to bulk out their physique. They said, "tasks like working out made me feel dysphoric about my body."

Moving to London from West Yorkshire and working in an environment which champions all LGBTQ+ people, along with having bold women of colour like Laverne Cox and Munroe Bergdorf to look towards, helped Ben on their own journey. However, pressure surrounding their body image hasn’t gone away. They feel it is exacerbated by scrolling through social media and watching television. Ben steers clear of Love Island though because it doesn’t represent them or their community: "It’s an artificial environment full of hyper-masculinity." They said, "I struggle daily with body image. I also experience a lack of confidence about my body and body shape, because I reject some of the more masculine features." Ben feels that not wanting to have a traditionally masculine body seems to be a taboo or radical statement in our society.

Anthony Astbury, co-founder of Whole Man Academy (WMA), a mental health service which provides an inclusive space for men to get together and share their experiences, has had his own struggles with body image: "I now realise I linked my self-worth with my physique, and maybe still do to an extent. If I hadn’t been to the gym for a few days, I felt rubbish."

He asked WMA’s Instagram audience if shows like Love Island add further pressure on men to have muscular, toned physiques: 81% said yes. He then asked how many struggled with body image: 77% said they did. Anthony argues that being inundated with images of men with the same, supposedly ideal body type by the media at large is a significant factor in male body image issues and might account for why the wider picture of men and their body image issues is a bleak one.

On the whole, it suggests our struggles begin during adolescence. Of 1000 eight to 18-year olds polled in a 2016 study, 55% said they'd change their diet to look better. 23% said they believed there was a perfect male body. Over half the boys polled said they wouldn't talk to their teachers about their concerns, while more than a quarter wouldn't talk to their parents about it. The boys pointed to friends, social media and advertising as the main cause of their worries.

But it's not just young boys. In research commissioned by menswear brand Jacamo, 48% of 2,500 adult men polled said they desperately wanted to lose weight, and 54% said they don't like their stomachs. What might surprise those who naively associate body image struggles with femininity is that of the 1.25 million people in Britain living with an eating disorder, 25% are men. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of men admitted to hospital with an eating disorder increased by 70%. If you couple this with a wild increase in steroid use amongst young men, it is clear that our body image issues are snowballing.

Anthony offers advice for men who are struggling with body image: "I would start by being aware of what you are focusing on, because it may be your confidence and self-esteem that is the issue, not your body. These things don't change overnight, just like your body shape, but can be improved, so educating yourself on the fact that your thoughts control your feelings, and understanding what you are focusing on, can have a huge impact."

Personally, I know that being built like a renaissance sculpture doesn’t necessary equate to athletic prowess and functionality. Anthony Joshua’s loss to a skilled boxer with the ultimate dad-bod reiterated that fact. Love Islander Mike Thalassitis’s tragic passing was a reminder that looking incredible is also never an indicator of wellbeing. His death by suicide really hurt me; he went to my secondary school and died in the park where I grew up playing football. Yet despite understanding these things, the desire to have an Insta-ready beach body is hard to reckon with. Perhaps this indicates the depths to which images of the muscle-packed heroes from my childhood were absorbed. Perhaps it’s today’s pumped up news-feeds that keep them buried.

In order to unpick this irrational, unhealthy desire, we need to accept that our body image issues are not separate from the other vulnerabilities we are gradually getting better at discussing. They are directly impacting our emotional wellbeing. We need to move the conversation forward together, in an inclusive way that encompasses all representations of masculinity. Maybe then we'll feel more at peace with what we see in the mirror.