I am a tall, skinny man. I have a lot of good friends, who tell me that I am kind and nice. Women have said I'm good looking and some have asked me out - but I always make my excuses. I can't talk to them and worry that if we went out, they would want to have sex - and that would mean seeing me naked. I hate my body. I would hate someone to laugh at me and I know girls don’t like skinny men. I do want to be in love, get married and have a family. I would like someone to share my life with. It makes me very angry if I think people are laughing at me for how I look. I wear clothes to seem bigger, but if I went out with someone and stripped off, they would see the truth. My sister told me that body- building might help, but I don’t want to do that. Please help.
You aren’t alone. I get a lot of emails from men who are anxious about their bodies. For some it’s a worry about being overweight; for others it’s about being short. Lots of men are anxious about penis size and shape; and there are those like you who dislike being too thin.
Drop the pressure
Most men who write to me describe pressures on them to be tall, well-built and handsome. Where does this come from? Everything including movies to magazines, peers and advertising. While we may not discuss it much, men do struggle with body image issues, eating disorders, self-harming and confidence.
Celebrating men’s diverse body shapes and sizes isn’t something we’re encouraged to do – although if you take the time too look you will find slim built athletes, models, actors and everyday men with bodies just like yours.
As it’s not always taken seriously - and with limited safe opportunities to talk about it - many men assume they are alone in their worries. Even when they seek help, the focus is rarely on body acceptance or welcoming diversity. It is always about slimming fat bodies down, or bulking thin bodies up. Quick fixes and predatory commercials all make already anxious men feel worse about their bodies.
Can you work out where the negative views you hold about your body come from?
Silencing your self-hatred
You talk about being afraid of people laughing at you and this making you feel angry but, as far as I can tell from your letter, nobody has actually done this. Imagine, someone did so. Or that a person approached you at work - or when you were out socialising - and said to your face some of the things you are telling yourself about your body.
You’d be disgusted and angry. It could end in an argument. You wouldn’t want someone else speaking to you the way you speak to yourself. So why do it?
Some people find that keeping a diary for a few weeks - noting how often they have negative thoughts (and what those thoughts are) - reveals how intrusive and damaging repeating harmful ideas can be.
Spotting this, and either replacing the negative thoughts with more positive ones, or saying firmly to yourself you won’t permit self-harming internal conversations, can give you a rest from the endless worrying about your looks.
Making your own cheer squad
It may sound naff, but having others on your side can be a big boost. You talk about having lots of friends. Is there anyone you trust to confide in about your worries?
Friends may also be able to objectively tell you about your good points, and may also give you a reality check. I bet you have friends who wish they were as tall as you, or want your body shape, even if you dislike it. You might also learn that they haven’t noticed your shape half as much as you have. Some people like to note down the kind things friends have said about them (again these can be a replacement for negative thinking).
Often, those giving advice to anyone anxious about their body suggest that if they have some kind of makeover they will look and feel better. You already know that you don’t wish to change your body shape through exercise or diet (although this is something other people try). You could explore what clothes make you feel comfortable and confident - and to stop using them as camouflage.
Your love life
You seem to have convinced yourself that you are unattractive and unwanted, but if you read back over your letter that is not the picture I get. What I read is a message from someone who is popular, who has a good friendship network, who is able to communicate with his friends, and is attractive to others – particularly those who have asked him out.
It is you who has decided that if you were to meet someone, they wouldn't like your body. You have no idea whether this is true, because fear has prevented you from trying to be with someone. Being aware of this might seem upsetting, but it also shows you that you have the power to either stay stuck in a fearful situation, or to stop overthinking things and just see what happens if you do say 'yes' when someone asks you out. Or approach someone you find attractive.
Remember, going on a date doesn’t mean that you will automatically see someone again. It may, or may not, work out. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up in a long-term relationship. And it never has to lead to sex - unless you want it to.
Taking back control
It isn’t easy to shake off confidence issues. There are very real pressures on men to conform to particular standards of masculinity. However, you’re not a passive bystander here.
If you are afraid of being laughed at, rejected, or judged for your body, it is worth noting that if someone does this when you socialise with or date them, then they are not a kind person - and definitely not right for you.
The same goes if you are being intimate. I’d hope by the time you were naked with someone, that you would have worked out if you liked them and they liked you. But if they were suddenly to be horrible, or make intrusive remarks about your body, that would be such a massive red flag and you’d hopefully never want to see them again. It would be their problem for being rude, not your problem for being of slim build.
Thinking about the worst that could happen – and what you would do were it to occur - reminds you that you don’t have to passively wait for someone to be as horrible to you as you are to yourself.
Who decides what's hot?
You’ve already written yourself off - and that’s not the best position to work from if you want to form a relationship. You have decided that you don’t like your body, but you haven’t considered that other people may find you attractive.
What you see as ‘skinny’ may be someone else’s ‘fit’. Why are you deciding for other people what they can like?
Yes, we all have different desires and preferences, and there will be people you meet who don’t go for tall, slim men. And there will be people who definitely do. There will be those who don’t focus on your height or weight because they are too busy enjoying your face, hands, clothes, personality, or how you made them laugh.
People will find you attractive if you give them the chance – in fact some of them have tried to ask you out. It was you who chose not to take things further.
You can’t prevent other people from acting badly, rudely or thoughtlessly. But you have absolute control over not having anything further do to with people who act in such a manner.
Getting outside help
If you are struggling with how you feel about your body, then you might want to consider confidence/assertiveness books and courses; trying sport, drama or dance to feel more at home in your body; thinking about ways to feel better; doing some dating homework; or seeing a dating or life coach.
If this is a chronic body image problem that is making it difficult for you to enjoy your life, and is accompanied by anxiety or depression – and if you have any worries your slim shape may be health-related – then your doctor can advise.
Therapy is possible, but currently very limited on the NHS. For body image problems there may be scope for referrals, but it might be better to refer yourself if a counsellor as the next step you need to help you feel stronger and more confident.
Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and sex researcher working in International Health Care and studying sex and relationships. She is The Telegraph’s agony aunt. Follow her on Twitter @drpetra.
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