What Happened When A Man Documented His Body Image On Instagram For 30 Days

I remember being 8 or 9 years old and running around the house without a shirt on when a family friend playfully suggested that I needed a bra. I've always been thin and doughy, and my skinny-fat physique was a strong contrast to those of the naturally athletic and toned men in my family.

From that moment on, I felt self-conscious about my body. I would obsessively brood over my lack of abs or undefined pecs in the mirror. Summer days at the pool were a tedious chore, and I would avoid getting in the water so I wouldn't have to take off my shirt.

Although many men struggle with body image, it's a topic that is often dismissed as a non-issue for "real” men. And as a gay, cisgender man, my personal journey has been incredibly difficult, because I'm always comparing my body to men I'm attracted to, and even I am guilty of subconsciously shaming overweight queer men. Of course, it has nothing to do with their size; it's an act of self-loathing.

Being queer, dark-skinned, and skinny, I have never felt comfortable in my own skin, and until recently, I didn't have the words to express that discomfort. To be a desirable gay man means to be masculine, white, and muscular, a standard that’s reinforced by images shared online.

This is the age of the “Instagram thot,” in which people post scantily clad photos, videos, and GIFs to gain followers and validation. But the pendulum often swings the other way, too. While Instagram is a place where people manipulate body-image expectation with flattering filters, angles, and Photoshop, it’s also become a place where users can promote body positivity and diversity. We often hear about women tackling body image on Instagram to encourage themselves and others to feel more comfortable about how they look. In fact, there are several teens and celebrities (like Kesha and Iskra Lawrence) whose responses to body-shaming bullies on Instagram have gone viral.

I’m left wondering why there’s a relative lack of body-positive posts and accounts directed at men.

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And while I’m thrilled that the conversation is starting to change for women, I’m left wondering why there’s a relative lack of body-positive posts and accounts directed at men. There are a few men showcasing alternative body types, like Michael-Anthony Spearman, a.k.a. @thebigfashionguy, but there just aren’t many accounts like Spearman’s — and the handful that exist are far outweighed by those portraying ripped dudes showing off fitness-model physiques. In a recent Men’s Health article, Evan Ross Katz summed up my Instagram experience perfectly: “The more you scroll, the worse you feel.”

While I’m sure many women can relate to that sentiment, as well as my struggle with body image, the experience isn’t necessarily the same across genders. So I decided to help fill the void of male body-image representation and challenge myself to face my own self-esteem issues head-on by doing what I feared most: posting shirtless selfies on Instagram. For 30 days straight, I took a daily shirtless picture of myself and uploaded it to Instagram for all of my followers to see (and presumably judge). The point was not to have others approve of my body with comments and likes, but to find a greater sense of self-esteem by practicing a body-positive attitude. By putting myself out there, I was also hoping to encourage others to love their own bodies, even if they don’t look like those ripped men in sweatpants, either.
Posing for the first rounds of pictures felt awkward. I’m no stranger to taking a selfie, but prior to this challenge, I only had two shirtless pictures on my Instagram feed and both were curated and filtered post-workout photos. For this project, I shot pictures around my apartment or gym locker room in various, sometimes unflattering, angles that exposed my upper body — and not just parts that made me feel comfortable. I wanted to be completely open about how my body looked and to eventually be okay with that, even if it meant my pecs looked like underboob or my abs looked like they contained a food baby instead of a six-pack. None of the pictures were meant to be sexual, although there's a bit of innuendo in semi-nude selfies no matter what you do.

Throughout this period, I made no changes to my regular routine of diet and exercise. This experiment was not meant to be a before-and-after account of a physical transformation, but a documentation of how my self-esteem improved from sharing my thoughts and feelings about my body.
The responses from my followers, who were quite aware of what I was doing, though perhaps not the reason for it, were quite varied. Some people were disappointed that I was consumed by the "gay Adonis" complex; they thought I was a victim of an unattainable and unrealistic goal. But my intent was quite the opposite: I was hoping that these images would counter the idea that anyone needs the perfect body to feel beautiful.

I also noticed a decline in my followers, which may have been a result of simply annoying people with uncharacteristic over-sharing. But I also suspect that my unfollows came from a different place: For most people, men aren’t supposed to be transparent about body image or their insecurities, so seeing these things play out on Instagram may have been unsettling — after all, rigid perceptions of masculinity don’t allow for men to publicly explore these issues.
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Unapologetic for the muscles I do or don't have #queer #bodypositivity #30daychallenge #day21

A photo posted by Le Chat Noir (@sharks_dale) on

Luckily, however, many people supported my Instagram endeavor and praised my willingness to put my vulnerabilities on display for mass consumption and internet archives. Since my profile is public, a few strangers stumbled upon my photos and left encouraging comments, like, “Sending positive vibes your way.” Many of them left an emoji to show their support or just liked the photo in quiet solidarity.

At the beginning of the project, I was very timid about posting these photos. It would have been different if I were just posting a couple of pictures here and there, but to commit to laying myself and my body insecurities bare for a whole month felt like a huge undertaking. As the project progressed, however, looking at myself in the mirror or through the camera lens felt like less of an obligation and more like a celebration of how I look and who I am. Each picture holds my Blackness, my thinness, my queerness, and both my femininity and masculinity — all elements of myself that I have had to reckon with while documenting my body on Instagram.
The final picture, posted on the 30th day, is one of me on a beach during a recent all-gay cruise I took to the Bahamas. I’m grinning as I stand shirtless with my hands atop my head. Looking at the picture now, I feel like a weight has been taken off my shoulders. Over those 30 days, I more or less let go of the need to avoid pools or beaches; I stopped feeling a fearful attachment to wearing shirts; and I quit obsessing over what I ate and punishing myself for not being "perfect." And that bit of progress felt more freeing than I could have imagined when I posted that first shirtless selfie at the beginning of the month.

Of course, I still can't say I feel 100% confident about my body, but I do feel like this project provided me with a cathartic release. It's as if I'm no longer hiding something. Although I wouldn’t do this same challenge again, I’m less afraid of showing my torso, and I worry less about how people might judge me. And more importantly, I’m hopeful that I’m just one of many men out there starting to share their struggles with body image on Instagram (and beyond). It’s time that men become more comfortable having these conversations.

Whether or not I’m contributing to a larger trend of men speaking out about body insecurities, I’m just happy that, after 30 days of publicly delving into my own self-acceptance, I can finally say that "no shirt" really means "no problem" — even when there’s #nofilter.

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