When I was thirteen the perfect day would have been spent with my friend Simon, playing Minecraft into the early hours of the morning and listening to ethereal electronic music on YouTube. Our lifestyles centred around gaming, programming, and fighting with people in internet chat rooms; we abhorred exercise and the outdoors for fear of being associated with the ‘popular’ kids who tormented us at school. This was a marked departure from my lifestyle at the beginning of secondary school, which had seen me spend every evening of the week either at swim training, riding around on my bike, or playing soldiers in the woods at the back of my house. I judged myself on how much I had distanced myself from my previous ‘jock’ habits, including abandoning my obsessive fixation: my body and appearance.

This once-lost anxiety returned in November of Year 10. In true form to my anti-jock mentality, it was an anime series which prompted the change. The show, Free! Eternal Summer, soon transitioned from another colourful, surreal animated narrative into a running indictment of my poor state of fitness. Worse still was the fact that the show centred around a high school swim team, a team I could’ve been a member of if I hadn’t quit in Year Eight. The frustration and anxiety I felt looking at these athletic, muscly, and totally nonexistent teenagers overcame me, and I spent hours trying to justify my situation to myself: why I didn’t look the same as them, why I didn’t have abs, and why my arms had no definition. These feelings of insecurity grew ever more desperate until one day when I was walking home from school, I decided that I would go back to swim training.

The first time I walked out on the poolside in my swimming trunks, I felt overwhelmingly self-conscious. The real-life embodiments of the animated characters who had consumed my thoughts for the past month were there, powering up and down the lanes, looking athletic and effortless in the water. I got in, did my sets, and left. I followed the same routine every single day for the next three years, save Christmas Day and New Year’s, regardless of whether there was a scheduled training session or not.

“Every evening I would stand in front of the mirror with my shirt off, always feeling a crushing blow of disappointment”

This might sound like a good thing, and in some ways it was. Exchanging my evenings gaming and watching TV for the swimming pool, my lie-ins for early morning practises, and my lunchtimes for gym sessions at school, certainly made my life far more disciplined, and dramatically improved my level of fitness. However, at the time it was never enough. Every evening I would stand in front of the mirror with my shirt off, always feeling a crushing blow of disappointment when my abs didn’t appear as I wanted, and wishing that my arms were more toned. All I could think about were the protagonists of the anime I had watched one evening in Year 10, the way they looked in their swimming costumes, an appearance which always seemed to elude me. It didn’t matter to me that they weren’t real. This mentality rendered my newfound fitness regime profoundly unhealthy.

I was spared the nightly embarrassment and frustration at my own reflection by A-Levels: my university ambitions superseded my desire to look like the non-existent members of a non-existent swim team. I thought that I had finally reached an equilibrium, continuing to swim and go to the gym, but for its own sake, for the team, and for the love of the sport. This was challenged once again when I reached university. Being surrounded by so many good-looking and successful people thrust my mind back into the same mode of impossible comparison that I had entertained throughout my school years, and I was at risk of falling back into the same space I had been in before. For a while, I went through a period of returning to my room at midnight after a library session and doing circuits before putting on my pyjamas, thankful that the only people who would be disturbed by my nocturnal calisthenics would be those doing their laundry. Protein shakes dented my maintenance loan, and I revived my daily ritual of interrogating my reflection, which would always, inevitably, be inadequate.


Mountain View

Chasing Adonis: the male body-image epidemic

I was saved from a relapse by the guy who was to become my boyfriend. Of all of the good-looking, successful people at Cambridge, he was the epitome, possessing an intellect, beauty and talent that continues to stun me. Over the course of Michaelmas term I fell utterly and completely in love with him. I confessed my feelings the following Lent which, incredibly, he reciprocated. My mind then, momentarily, poised on the same precipice that it had threatened to throw me over ever since Freshers Week, the same old mental mechanism grinding back into operation, but this time with even greater urgency. It wouldn’t now just be me looking at myself undressed, in the mirror, but someone else — a guy I was desperate to impress. The most handsome, athletic, attractive person in the whole world would surely be devastated that he had chosen to go out with me. It was considering this, during the early days of lockdown, that broke the cycle. Yes, my boyfriend was unbelievably handsome, I’d thought that since the moment I first set eyes on him. But all the nights I’d spent dreaming about him, the days I’d spent wishing I could hold his hand, the overwhelming emotion that led me to confess my feelings for him, that had nothing to do with his looks. I was in love with him, his personality, the way he laughed, the fact that he loved indie folk/rock — I didn’t care how he looked, and in that moment, I knew that he didn’t care how I looked either.

In my experience of male body dysmorphia, I know I was incredibly lucky to have found someone who gave me the confidence to overcome my concerns about my appearance. Undoubtedly, the pressures surrounding male body image are everywhere: social media, tv and film, as well as other people in one’s immediate vicinity. These influences can combine to create a standard which is impossible to attain but one that, regardless, obsesses and plagues many men. There are many who have these same concerns and anxieties and, if they feel anything like I did, the last thing they would want to do is confess their fears to another person.

“Every man must feel that he is in an environment which is supportive, and one which will take his problem seriously”

There is a definite lack of discussion around male body dysmorphia and this is something that needs to change. I never, ever wanted to confess that my whole sense of self-esteem and my free time was determined by some animated characters. However, I have learned that, while the sources of my anxiety existed only on a computer screen, the feelings they generated were more than real. No one would question the validity of a physical injury; even if I’d broken my leg in the most amusing way, I’d still be treated for it at A&E, I’d still have doors opened for me, and offers made to carry my bag. I’d still be helped. It is with this mentality that we need to engage with male body dysmorphia. Every man must feel that he is in an environment which is supportive, and one which will take his problem seriously. It shouldn’t matter whether the trigger was an advert, seeing your friend in their swimming costume, or even an anime you watched once when you were at school. If you’re feeling the same way that I did, I want you to know that it is a serious thing. I also want you to know that you’re not alone, and that there are ways to break this cycle.

I write this, in part, as an attempt to connect with others suffering from the same anxiety and mental discomfort that affected me for many years. I hope that, by imparting an account of my experiences, I might allow others to relate to both the causes and effects of male body dysmorphia. I also hope to impart some lessons I’ve learned from my experiences: that this mindset — one which never allows you to feel comfortable or adequate, one which holds you accountable to impossible standards — can never be considered healthy, even if it has increased your state of physical health.

Moreover, embarrassment or concern over the cause of one’s anxiety should never be a reason not to engage with it, or discuss it, with other people. The single most important thing I remind myself of every time I feel I’m on the verge of that all-too-familiar precipice is that love is not conditional on appearance. You are loved because of who you are, because of the personality you have, not because of how you look. The actors, celebrities and models that may cause these feelings are never more worthy of love and respect than you, the wonderful, lovable person reading this article — no matter how many times they workout.