The term ‘body image’ refers to how you perceive your own body. Poor body image happens when we find flaws in our appearance due to social pressure, and start to feel insecure. Some symptoms of poor body image include- frequently comparing your body to that of others, feeling ashamed of your body, finding it difficult to accept compliments and being obsessed with changing your body.
Srikanth, a 23 year old medical student in Belgaum knows how difficult it can be. ‘I was always short and dark skinned’ he says. ‘People have made fun of me since I was a child.’ In school, studying hard helped Srikanth cope with the bullying. ‘I wasn’t good looking. People called me dark and ugly, but I was still the class topper.’ But in college, two things changed. First, Srikanth struggled to remain class topper because of fierce competition. Secondly, he started to notice women more often. Both these things made him insecure. ‘I liked a girl in my class, but I couldn’t tell her because I felt like I wasn’t good looking enough. To make things worse, I was no longer confident about academics. I felt terrible.’
When we talk about body image issues, we usually talk about women. But a few studies have suggested that men are just as likely to face body image issues. In fact, men actually find it harder to speak up about their insecurities, and are statistically less likely to seek help than women. One study even suggests that a whopping 95% of college age men are dissatisfied with their appearance, which can then affect academic performance, socialisation and mental health. Male body image is also commonly misunderstood. Many people assume that men are only insecure about wanting a ‘muscular’ body. But recent surveys show various aspects that men are insecure about- height, weight, facial features and acne. In the Indian context, skin color becomes another aspect.
Srikanth resorted to extreme measures to woo the girl he liked. After using creams and scrubs, he tried out a skin whitening treatment at a local salon. “They scrubbed my skin with chemicals. It burnt terribly and I got a rash on my skin for a few days.” Such skin treatments are common in India. It is estimated that around 60% of Indian women and 10% of Indian men use fairness products. Many of these creams and scrubs use harmful chemicals like mercury. But Indians still use them, because skin color can determine job opportunities, friendships and of course; love and marriage.
Fairness was once seen as a women’s issue, but now men face the brunt too. There are various fairness products now marketed towards men, which advertise fairer skin as a symbol of wellness, masculinity and romantic success. Tania* (name changed) runs an upscale skin treatment centre in Mumbai. She says that her male clientele for skin lightening has increased over the years- almost 30% of her clients are now men. ‘Most of them come in for treatment right before getting married.’ She says, ‘even men are facing the pressure now, they are worried about romantic rejection.’
The fear that he would not be worthy of love drove Srikanth into an episode of depression. “I didn’t think anyone could love me. I was ugly, my skin was dark. How would I get a girlfriend?” Our ideas of love and relationships are always closely tied to beauty. Because of the beauty standards in the media, men now have added pressures about their physique, and achieving the perfect six pack or ‘gym body.’ For many men, this is damaging. They end up going to extreme lengths to ‘fix’ their body, just to get into a relationship.
Fortunately, Srikanth was able to get help from the college counselor. He understood how years of body shaming had affected him. “It wasn’t just about that one girl I liked. From the time I was young, even my parents insulted me for my skin tone. When you grow up getting insulted for your looks, it’s hard to feel good about yourself as an adult.” The counselor helped Srikanth work through his issues and made him realise that there was nothing wrong with him, or how he looked. “I still don’t have a girlfriend,” Srikanth finally says, ‘but that’s ok. I do think that I will fall in love someday, I just have to be patient. And people of all skin colors, height and weight can find love.’
Srikanth also noticed how he wasn’t alone. Many of the men around him were insecure. Some used harmful lotions to become fairer, others injected steroids to get the ‘perfect’ male body. A lot of them felt unworthy of love. So how do we solve this problem? ‘Well after all these years, I finally realised that looks are not that important,’ Srikanth says. ‘I mean, some people care about looks. Some people don’t. And dark skin can be attractive, who says it can’t? But mostly I think it’s important to be a good person, have a good personality. Be yourself. That’s what really matters for a relationship.’