Body Image & Me: A South Asian Male Perspective
Since the age of 15, my body and I have gone through quite a lot of changes together. I’ve been ‘small’, I’ve been ‘big’, I’ve been ‘hench’, I’ve been ‘average’, I’ve been ‘fat’. I’ve been so many things and despite all this, for the most part, I’ve never been happy. I’ve never smiled when looking at my body in the mirror, I’ve never exuded confidence when walking out of the door like men’s tv adverts tell me I should and I’ve never taken pride in what my body is capable of. In spite of all this turbulence and dislike, my body is one of the few parts of my being that has never let me down.
I’ve been ‘small’, I’ve been ‘big’, I’ve been ‘hench’, I’ve been ‘average’, I’ve been ‘fat’. I’ve been so many things and despite all this, for the most part, I’ve never been happy.
I have a very complex relationship with my body and although this is slowly getting better as I’m getting older I realised I’ve never really talked about my body image issues - like so many other men.
Why it’s important to discuss male body image as men
In my last article, I highlighted how we as men have a tendency not to discuss how we’re feeling - with reports stating that 35% of men waited more than 2 years or have never disclosed a mental health problem to a friend or family member. The behaviour around not discussing how we’re feeling is something that’s equally as present when it comes to body image issues.
It’s so important to discuss body image amongst those who identify as men for a variety of reasons, mental health being one of them. For instance, research shows that 28% of men feel anxiety about their own bodies while 21% reported that they actively choose to dress in a way that hides their bodies. More worryingly, 11% of men reported that they had suicidal thoughts as a result of body-image issues while 4% of men reported that they had deliberately hurt themselves due to such issues.
When you couple this data with the research around men not wanting to speak out or seek help we begin to see the damaging links between body image issues and mental wellbeing.
The conversation around male body image issues has moved forward in the last few years. However, for me, this dialogue is missing nuances that are specific to South Asian men.
Why it’s important to discuss male body image as South Asian men
How we experience body image differs greatly, depending on who we are, how we identify, where we live and the ‘beauty’ standards that are ‘in fashion’ at the time. As someone who identifies as a South Asian man, there are nuances within my experience that are often overlooked in the mainstream conversation. These nuances center around body hair.
Generally speaking, euro-centric ideals of beauty tend to view bodily and facial hair as ‘undesirable’. Although the dialogue around facial hair for men has become more inclusive in recent years, due to the ‘beard revolution’, it is still selective, rooted in privilege and ultimately racist, as I critiqued back in 2014.
Experiencing male body image issues at the intersection of identifying as a South Asian man feels like a double-edged sword. Not only are you punishing yourself to achieve an unrealistic physique but you are also having to navigate people viewing your body hair in disgust. All of which serves to remind you that you’ll simply never be good enough.
Experiencing male body image issues at the intersection of identifying as a South Asian man feels like a double-edged sword.
Having to painfully endure this double-edged sword is something I experienced a lot growing up as a teenager. At the end of year 10 aged 15, I forced my body into significant change through mild-anorexia that was accompanied by tons of cardio and weights training. Within a period of 6 months, I lost around 3 stones and started to look somewhat visibly hench (muscular) in a t-shirt for my age.
As the summer came to a close I went back to school to start year 11. By this point I was feeling on top of the world based on the compliments I was receiving from friends and family. It was a great feeling but it all came crashing down in my first PE (physical exercise) class back. In all my years at school up till that point, I would always find ways to hide my body in the changing rooms. Whether it was wearing an undershirt or worse getting changed in the toilets - a place reserve for the select few outcasts.
This time around, however, following a summer of confidence-boosting compliments I decided to get changed in front of everyone. For the first time in 4 years I felt bold enough to make a statement in perhaps the most high-pressure environments - the changing rooms. The changing rooms are a space where no one can hide and teenage boy ‘banter’ is ramped up a notch in the body-shaming department.
It all started so well when one of the nice lads noticed how much my body had changed and complimented me for it. At this point, I had my vest on. This compliment drew the attention of the other boys in the changing room and a few of them wandered over.
I was flying so high like Icarus that I even pulled out a few amateur body-building poses as a joke. That was until I got ahead of myself and regrettably took my vest off and everything changed. The second I took my vest off one white-boy loudly decided to point out how ‘hairy’ my lower stomach was and in that moment the room changed. The feedback eroded from positive celebration to outright disgust and mockery. I felt crushed.
After all the months of punishing and starving myself I still wasn’t worthy of celebration let alone acknowledgement. Even if I had achieved a ‘good’ physique, it still wasn’t desirable enough because it had thick black hair on it.
After all the months of punishing and starving myself I still wasn’t worthy of celebration let alone acknowledgement.
This experience left me feeling quite shit to be honest and it was an experience I would encounter time and time again over the coming few years. From remarks like ‘hairy nips’ to ‘hairy boy’, the trauma from these experiences led me to become quite fixated with body hair and hair in general. More specifically, I became obsessed with trying to remove as much bodily and facial hair as possible - an obsession which knew no boundaries.
Looking back I was trying to achieve something that was unachievable and in that process I inflicted a lot of trauma on myself. Trauma which I still carry to this day 14 years later.
Why don't men discuss body image issues?
There are a variety of reasons as to why we as men don’t discuss our body image issues, let alone our emotions in general, and all of this is under-pinned by toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity, broadly speaking, is a set of behaviours and beliefs that encourage suppression the of emotions amongst those who have been socialised as cis-men. Toxic masculinity stops men from discussing body image issues in a number of ways.
For instance, toxic masculinity, through its rigid ideas of what defines a ‘man’, discourages men from having dialogue around body image issues because it’s ‘not what men do’. As a result, those who choose to engage in such a subject are seen as ‘lesser’ men.
Equally, toxic masculinity also serves to mis-educate men and wider society by endorsing the false idea that body image issues are felt exclusively by women. Even if the research and lived experiences of other men proves otherwise.
Toxic masculinity is able to operate on such a systematic and cultural level through one of its greatest tools, which is shame. Shame is used as a tool to maintain the rigid definitions of toxic masculinity, as is highlighted by my experiences growing up. Equally shame is the same tool that is used as a threat to keep men silent on such subjects.
As a result of all these forces a lot of men decide that it’s better to stay silent on the subject let alone other issues. It’s this silence that causes a lot of mental health issues amongst men. Equally, this silence also creates emotionally repressed angry men who impact wider society and more importantly womxn in deep and dangerous ways. This is something that I wrote about in my last article.
Things that have helped me
It’s been a long and challenging journey for me, however, in recent years my view of my own body has positively developed to the point where I actively cherish and celebrate it. The things that have helped me are both internal and external. Internally, a growing awareness around Euro-centric ideals of beauty and how steeped they are in racism has allowed me to understand that striving to reach a place that isn’t designed for me is a waste of my time and energy. At the same time I’ve been educating myself on the ways in which Euro-centric ideals of beauty harm POC/Black communities and other marginalised communities.
Outside of educating myself, I’ve also started to reshape the way I engage with my body. For example, I’ve started to re-define my physical training around functional fitness. It is with functional fitness that I have been able to continue growing a love for my body after seeing what it is capable of, on a daily basis.
Externally I’ve also made an effort to reduce the number of influencers, fitness ‘experts’, actors or else who actively choose to endorse unrealistic standards of beauty. Boundaries, especially online, have become quite important for my mental well-being specific to body image.
How can we help each other
Speaking openly about my male body image issues is quite cathartic. With this in mind, after reading this piece, if you would like to speak to other men on body image issues then please email in and I can work on setting up a workshop that is able to provide a safe and open space for us to discuss this vast area as South Asian men.
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