Danny's story: a fixation on body image and deep feelings of shame
It’s hard for any young person to experience a mental health problem, the shame and embarrassment generated from experiencing these difficulties can be unbearable beyond measure.
My mental health, shame and embarrassment
I found myself in the same tumultuous situation that many young people with a mental health problem find themselves, but for me, the shame and embarrassment went even deeper. I was a male with a mental health disorder which generated a fixation on my body image. I was always told by society that having a body image disorder was a female issue and a male free zone. I was a male, I had to be strong, uncaring of the image I showed the world and free of any concern around my body image.
The 'need' to change my body image
I was fourteen years old when my thinking started to change around my body image. I had just moved from a small middle school in rural Northumberland to an inner-city private school. It was a massive transition for me, everyone around me looked so much better than I did – they were more intelligent, more popular and better looking. Something in my head seemed to fixate on the need to change my body image and I thought that if I looked better then I would be successful.
Seeking validation on social media
I started seeking validation from peers on social media, but unfortunately the feedback I received ridiculed my appearance, picking it apart from my spotty skin to my chubby build. This was the confirmation to me that I needed to change and become like the people at my new school. That feeling of not being good enough started to eat me up and with that, the determination to look better became stronger. I started to spend hours in front of the mirror, coming out of class to check my reflection and exercising more to lose weight. I became more distant and spent all my hours improving my perceived defects which inevitably led me to the fall I was about to experience.
Dropping out of school and fixating on body image
The time I was spending on my appearance meant that I had fallen behind in my classes, I started to withdraw from social situations and become more fixated on achieving the perfect body image. At the age of 15 I dropped out of school and started a path of spending six months housebound with my only outlook focusing on my appearance.
I would start to spend up to 10 hours a day in the mirror scrutinising my appearance for even the smallest of imperfections, I started to take up to 200 photos a day of myself to check for flaws and I reduced my food intake by purging after meals. This time is not pleasant to talk about, but it exemplifies how cruel a body image disorder can be. I was getting up early every morning at 6am and staying up till 1am the following day spending hours over my reflection. As you can imagine this made me extremely tired, irritable and at times, tearful.
Hitting my rock-bottom
It got to the point when I just couldn’t do it anymore, I lay on my bed, looking up at the rain dropping on the window – I felt so tired, so fed-up of the life I was living and just wanted everything to stop. This was my lowest point and what happened next would be my rock-bottom.
I ended up in Accident and Emergency with my tearful parents by my side and it was oh so clear that help needed to come fast.
Experiencing Body Dysmorphic Disorder
This is the start of the happy part, after hitting rock-bottom I managed to get on a research programme at the Maudsley Hospital in London. They were doing research into an illness called Body Dysmorphic Disorder, the illness that I would soon find out was causing me this non-stop distress. I started therapy seasons doing exposure tasks, having my phone taken of me so I couldn’t take photos of myself, reintroducing social, busy environments and increasing my food in-take. After 12 seasons of incredible therapy I started to recover. It took time and even after the therapy cycle was finished it would take a year before I started to gain back my life fully.
8 years after my recovery
I write this 8 years after recovery, my life is very different now – I am a student at the University of York, I am Head of Campaigns at Parliament Street, a political think-tank and Vice-Chair of a male eating disorders charity. It’s hard to imagine any of this being possible without the help of the Maudsley Hospital in London, without my family, but most importantly without me opening up as a male about my body image issues.
Opening up about body image as a male
Opening up about a body image issue as a male can seem impossible, but for all the disabling narratives around males not experiencing body image problems and that by having a body image disorder it challenges your masculinity I say this - the most powerful, bold and brave act any man can do is opening up and sharing their struggles. That’s what makes you strong and no one should tell anyone otherwise.
Practical tips to improve how you think and feel about your body
- Spring-clean your apps on your smartphone.