Three years ago, this week, my life changed forever. My health took an unexpected turn and I’ve been managing its aftermath ever since. It was a before and after event. There is my life before it, and my life after it. It had a rippling effect in every single area of my life and I am certain that it will continue to do so in years to come. After all, everything about us is connected. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. One of its main effects has been a body awareness that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for or willing to engage with.
For the most part, I had a healthy relationship with my body growing up. I remember liking it, and even finding it attractive. In hindsight, I also need to consider the fact that most of my adolescence is marked by deep mental and emotional dissociation, so that would inevitably affect how I perceived, or not, my body. At 17 years old, I left home to go live in the USA and found myself in a very affluent community, living with people who had a consciousness around food which I’d never come across in my life up until that point, and generally being the healthiest I’d ever been. I also exercised more than I’d ever done prior to that, being on a competitive swimming team and going for regular runs and hikes. At 18 years old, I returned to Portugal, and besides experiencing a cultural shock with my own culture, I experienced drastic physical changes. From one day to the next, I changed most of my eating habits, my exercise routines, and within 3 months, I had gained considerable weight for the first time in my life. Moreover, my acne, which had only been mild in my adolescence, came back with such a vengeance that my face was almost completely covered for months, and I had to follow an intense course of medication which made me sensitive to sunlight. I don’t think there are many pictures of me from that year.
That year represented the first time in my life that I remember hating my body, and this made my mental and emotional dissociation from the world around me even deeper. The chasm between my physical body and inner worlds deepened to such an extent, that I barely remember that year at all. I think my body dysmorphia first appeared at this time. I disconnected from my body completely, which allowed me to starve it off, so I could regain my original weight and figure, and also to sexually give it away to people who did not deserve it. This process of disconnection lasted exactly for another decade, where I abused my body with alcohol, sex, and intermittent periods of starvation. I could look at myself in a mirror and either feel completely elated with how amazing I looked, or completed disgusted. I never knew until I looked. And this is something I still experience to this day, albeit less often. Sometimes I’ll experience the elation and the disgust within a couple of hours. Rationally, I can tell myself that I look exactly how I actually think I look, but somehow, some days, I just can’t see that at all.
At the end of my 20s, I was forced to look at my physical health. More so than forced to look at it, I feel that I was jolted back into my body, from whatever plain I’d been living on until then. In May of 2017, after months of avoiding processing the emotions resulting from changes to my physical health, my mental health caught up with me with such intensity that I had to stop work almost immediately. I took refuge in Portugal for a couple of months, where I both had the best summer of my life, and gained considerable weight without really noticing that this was happening. Sometimes, conflicting experiences exist at the exact same time. Upon my return to London, I felt extremely uncomfortable in my fuller body. I had joined a LGBT swimming club the year before, and whilst swimming is my favourite sport, and it’s great for my mental health, being surrounded by other gay men in Speedos is a big source of anxiety for me. So, returning to London, heavier than before, not fitting in to most of my clothes, allowed for that very familiar feeling of dissociation to return, and I’ve been managing my body dysmorphia ever since.
Why am I sharing all of this? Well, I tend to feel this need to talk about things that are rarely talked about. In this case, body dysmorphia in men, particularly in gay men. Gay culture’s obsession with perfect bodies can be extremely toxic, and I feel we don’t talk about it enough. This is an initial contribution from my perspective. Sometimes, it gets so bad that in order to attend swimming sessions, I have to actively dissociate myself (I’ve learned to do this over the years), and literally be there physically but not emotionally or mentally. This happens only for a few minutes, but these minutes can be crucial. They are the difference between staying at home and disengage, or summon the courage to engage with discomfort. It can feel like a very heavy choice at times.
I also wanted to share that body image issues come in many forms, are caused by many things, and have various effects. I am certain that most of us experience body image issues. It’s hard work to love our bodies when every single thing we see around us, is telling us that they’re not good enough. Finally, I wanted to affirm that even though body image issues exist, that they are only a part of us, and not the whole of us. Therefore, there are ways in which we can manage our body dysmorphia:
1. I would very much recommend talking about it with friends. You’ll soon realise that your friends probably also feel some kind of way about their bodies. You’re not alone in this. No one is. Talking will help with getting out of your head about it, and become more accepting of yourself.
2. Become aware of your triggers. What kind of situations or people are most toxic for you? If you can’t avoid them altogether, what other steps can you take? I know it may sound counterproductive, but my self-dissociation does help. It helps because I only need to do it for the few minutes between the changing rooms and being in the actual water. Once I’m swimming, the body dysmorphia disappears. I can honestly say that over the 3 years that I’ve been on this swimming team, I’ve had to rely on this technique progressively less over time.
3. Do take care of your body. Find whatever physical activity works for you. Not all of us run, or swim, or go to the gym. Some of us dance, or do yoga, or practice a myriad of other sports and activities. There are many. Try some, see what works. Also, try to prioritise your nutrition. I’m not talking about diets here, but about aiming to have a better balance of food. Balance allows for being extremely healthy and extremely over-indulgent. I don’t believe in deprivation, unless it is for medical reasons, so I always advocate balance. Also, rest! Rest is an extremely neglected form of physical activity. We don’t always have to be moving to justify our existence.
4. Slightly related to the triggers: social media consumption. Are your feeds filled with people with seemingly perfect lives and bodies? Are these helping you to be aspirational, or are they reinforcing your self-hatred? I don’t mind following people who inspire me, but if they make me feel bad about myself, I’ve learned to just cut them off. Delete. Delete. Delete. They may be harder to find but there are many people out there with a very balanced, healthy, and supportive view of health. Find them, follow them, be inspired.
5. Be kind to yourself. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It’s important to be kind to yourself, if you fall off of whatever health-based wagon you’ve jumped on. It’s okay. We can’t be achieving at all times. We won’t exercise all the time. We won’t intake the perfect balance of nutrition every day. Sometimes, we do need to rest. To indulge. To not take ourselves so damn seriously. Relax, and enjoy life.
6. Education. I think most of us may have inherited some kind of dysfunction around food, exercise, body image, and health, from previous sources of information/education. Find new information. Re-education is key!
Health is precious and not to be taken for granted. Appreciate it. Do all of the above.