Over the past few months, I have been helping GSN reporter Matthew Jenkin with his Olympic body challenge, providing him with advice and monthly programs.
His final article on the subject, 'From Flab to Fab', generated an interesting debate about body issues. Negative body image is a subject I have blogged about and which we cover in The Velvet Journey workshops, so when asked by Matthew to write about it, I jumped at the opportunity.
The debate that was created by Matthew’s article shows just how rife body image, identity and self-perception issues are within our society, especially within the gay community.
As a personal trainer, I work with clients from all genders, sexualities and backgrounds and come across these problems every day.
They can upset every aspect of a person’s life and can destroy anyone’s self-belief, happiness and confidence. They can hold people back from living their life to the full. And they can affect absolutely anyone, from the most beautiful to the most average of Joes.
But just how have these issues become so widespread in our society and community?
Over the past few decades, since the shift to a service-based economy and the rise of urban populations, traditional family and community links have gradually decreased. Because of this, society has become increasingly outward facing, using external factors to replace feelings such as security, happiness and fulfilment.
Entire industries were then built to help satisfy these needs and the power of the media and mass marketing led the population to crave anything that promises bigger houses, faster cars, more expensive clothes and sexier bodies.
The fitness industry alone sells millions each year in supplements, books or gym memberships that promise an increased sex appeal. By promoting an idealized version of our lives and our physiques, marketers worldwide have managed to create a culture of need and want that leave people feeling unfulfilled, unworthy and insecure.
The gay scene, as it is nowadays, does nothing to improve anyone’s confidence. Just as women are pressurized by media and society to look thin, it seems that men, especially gay men, are bombarded with ideas and perceptions of what we should look like.
Open any male-oriented magazine, from the lifestyle advice in Men’s Health to the gay chatter of Attitude or Boyz, and you will find a gallery of perfectly groomed, well oiled, muscular hunky men. This Greek god look has somehow become the look that we, as modern gay men, should work towards.
And this has a definite impact, subconscious and conscious, on our feelings, our thoughts and our emotions. We focus on what we are not, as opposed to what we already are. We bring ourselves down because we don’t look a certain way.
How many times have you looked at a male model and thought, 'I need to workout more?' How many times have you gazed at a go-go dancer and thought, 'I wish I had that body?' How many times have you stared at someone at the gym and thought 'I will be happier when I am a bit bigger.'
I would be lying if I were to say that these issues do not affect me. Don’t get me wrong; I love my body. I have learnt that it is capable of great feats of strength, movement, flexibility and endurance. But it has not always been the case.
Indeed, I started training years ago with the belief that improving my shape, becoming more masculine and strong looking, would fulfil me, make me feel better about myself and be the overall solution to all of my troubles.
Over the years, I realized that of course, it is not. The feelings of confidence, happiness or fulfilment have nothing to do with your body shape. I know beautiful looking men that are the most insecure people around. And in contrast, I know overweight people that are extremely secure and lead very fulfilling lives.
My toughest challenge as a personal trainer is not to help my clients transform their physiques, but rather to empower them to love their bodies and enjoy their training. How?
Understand what makes you feel insecure about your looks, what triggers negative emotions and what brings them to the surface. Develop an awareness of situations and environments that make you feel unworthy and take steps towards avoiding them – or change the way you feel about them.
Many of us exercise from a place of insecurity, for example 'I will be happier once I am bigger'. Understand just why you want to improve your physique. If the answer is to feel more confident and secure, then look at other ways to develop those feelings outside of the gym as well. Attend some courses or workshops such as The Velvet Journey, read some personal development books or see a life coach.
Realize just how great your own body is. Indeed, regardless of its current shape, size or form, it is an amazing piece of machinery. It contains an incredible amount of systems, levers, pistons and motors, that all work in unison to produce movements. It is capable of great strength, flexibility, speed, and stamina. It can learn any movement, and can adjust to any environment. It can be stimulated to grow or to shrink and will even adapt to any injury or imbalance. Be grateful to have a body in working condition – not everyone does.
Learn to accept and love your physique, then challenge yourself to make it even better. Commit to improving your body because you love yourself and want to be the best you can be, not because you feel insecure. Train for health, speed, agility, balance and strength. Eat well every day, drink plenty of water and get lots of rest. Respect and take care of your body – it will carry you through your entire life.
Focus on what you are and what you have achieved so far as opposed to what you are not. Don’t compare yourself to your friends, the people you see at the gym, the men on the magazine covers, etc.
Avoid considering yourself better or worse than anyone else, no matter what the circumstances. You are unique in this world so don’t waste your life worrying about how others perceive you. Be true to yourself; understand what it is that you really want and enjoy and work towards it. But don’t let your happiness depend on whether you achieve your goal or not.
The Velvet Journey is a company offering personal development workshops, wellbeing services and social activities, to help gay men lead more balanced, fulfilling and healthy lives.
Our first workshop, Be Yourself, Change Your World, was led by life coach Tony Selimi and covered topics such as body issues, the perception of self, acceptance and confidence. We offer free monthly meet-up sessions in Soho, in which Tony discusses a topic and gives people a taste of our workshops. The next one will be held on 24 July.