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We Need To Talk About: Masculinity and the Male Body Image


In his most recent column, and in line with Eating Disorders Awareness Week, William Cafferky discusses the greatly important but perhaps sometimes overlooked issue of male body image.

As I’m sure many of you will be aware, on campus this week it has been Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It’s an issue that has quite rightly gained a lot of support and attention, something which has been really encouraging to see. What few people seem to truly acknowledge is that self-consciousness surrounding body image is something which affects us all, regardless of gender.

As a man, I cannot pretend to understand how this feeling manifests itself in women. Unsurprisingly, I can only speak of the effect my own self-consciousness has had on me. Before I continue I would like to acknowledge that my challenges haven’t been unique, there are many reading this who will have experienced significantly worse, but they have been challenges nonetheless. I am not attempting to compare the problems facing many men, with those faced by many women for centuries, I am merely attempting to highlight that the problem exists.

Image Credits: William Cafferky
Image Credits: William Cafferky

Many of us are all too familiar with the patriarchal elements of our society. Despite years of progress, a day spent on campus or a night out in Exeter will undoubtedly show you we have a long way to go yet. Whilst we, as students, may consider ourselves among the more progressive sectors of the population, I’m sure many of you will testify to some of the problems we still face.

Growing up I was rather short for my age and a tiny bit on the frumpy side. I won’t have to explain to you the disadvantages such a physique brings through primary and secondary school. It was the clichéd school experience, being picked last for football, being the butt of a few childish jokes, and generally being a few pegs down the scholastic hierarchy. This is something that happens to numerous people in every school throughout the country, without exception. Arguably, it’s natural, some would even argue healthy. But for some reason it was something that stayed with me for some time.

About midway through secondary school I started visiting one of the school counsellors. It wasn’t in much of an official capacity, and I didn’t tell any of my friends about it at the time, most of them still probably don’t know. It didn’t last long, about 6 – 8 months and around 1 – 2 times a week. Nonetheless, it helped massively in building up my confidence. The reason I’m saying this is because it marked a significant point in the way I began to view my own issues with my body. Instead of reacting whenever I was teased, I would begin to make jokes about myself. I found that the self-deprecation was something that took a lot of people by surprise, and was quite helpful in forming an appropriately thick skin to cover up my own self-conscious nature.

It’s something that has remained with me to date. I still repeatedly make jokes about my physique, my non-existent muscle and my lack of masculinity. Whilst these may not be things that people notice in me, they are things I notice in myself. The world is filled with depictions of how a man “should be”, strong, gentlemanly, emotionally sure, headstrong and generally patriarchal. It undoubtedly, for me at least, creates a feeling on inadequacy. I’ve hated myself for not being masculine, I’ve hated myself for being weak, and I’ve hated myself for being fat. Ultimately, I’ve hated myself for being myself. Luckily, for me this state of mind is something that I’ve largely confined to my past.

Whilst this is something I’ve discussed at length with many of my female friends, I can’t help but feel the subject of male body image is a taboo amongst other men. There’s undoubtedly a stigma surrounding male mental health, an assumption that it’s not something that should be shared. I don’t think I would have been able to overcome my problems had I not been able to talk about them with my friends and family. I’ve had an extremely fortunate upbringing, and my own insecurities are merely a tip of the iceberg in comparison to the vast number of others.

I’d like to think we are taking the right steps as a society towards understanding that insecurity about body image is something that can affect everyone. The damage can be devastating. One only has to look at the shocking volume of school children, both male and female, who commit suicide because they are scared of being different. I can’t help but feel we have a long way to go, especially amongst men, but we can and must remove the stigma surrounding mental health.

William Cafferky, Online Features Columnist

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