As someone who’s been diagnosed as bulimic, it’s safe to say that negative body image is an issue that has personal resonance. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a condition characterised by a preoccupation or obsession with perceived flaws in one’s appearance. BDD is usually associated with girls and women, but recent studies have found that nearly as many men as women are unhappy with how they look.
A third of young British men say they need to alter their appearance because of the “picture perfect culture” on social media. The Mental Health Foundation and YouGov recently released a Body Image report. The results found that a third of LGBTQ people (33%) have experienced suicidal thoughts because of poor body image. This is more than double the number for heterosexual respondents who felt the same (11%). Each year, 1 in 330 people diagnosed with BDD commit suicide
Christopher Wollaton has written, and performs Brawn, a one-man play exploring these issues via the character of Ryan. At 50 minutes, it’s a snapshot monologue giving a window onto the mindset of a man in the grip of BDD.
He sports a range of recognised symptoms (comparing oneself to others, neurotically checking reflection in mirrors and wearing clothes to hide apparent flaws). There’s an authenticity to Wollaton’s script and performance that suggest the actor is familiar with the territory. He captures the seemingly contradictory aspects of the disorder- an outwardly confident, handsome man with an enviable physique, but internally tortured and paranoid about how others view him. Ryan’s close to achieving his Hollywood ideals, but internally, exists in a living Hell.
BDD usually hits hard in late adolescence (16-18 years). Mild symptoms of BDD often precede this from about the age of 12-14. We learn from Ryan that at school he was called a ‘lanky cabbage’ by the playground hunk. This bullying brute also gets the girl who’s captured Ryan’s heart. It becomes clear this is a catalyst for his psychological issues, which escalate and curdle as he becomes an academic failure and a social misfit.
Wollaton is an engaging performer and as he pumps weights, shirtless and sweaty, it can’t be denied that he’s easy on the eye. The character is also smart and eloquent, but his unfailing discipline makes him less sympathetic than he could be.
Ryan doesn’t go out drinking with the lads, due to the sugar in alcohol and an aversion to any food or drink that isn’t ‘clean’. He lacks the conflict of being tempted by cake, dreaming of pizza and having days where there’s zero motivation to lift one’s eyelids, let alone weights. The guilt and self-loathing that arises from such episodes could add another element of drama that might add to the play’s impact.
It’s a bold piece of new writing, tackling issues that among men are rarely reported or discussed. Stats suggest BDD can end in tragedy, and reality TV has seen its fair share of these consequences. Perhaps with a little development, Brawn could become truly explosive. Toxic and misleading social media is now normalised and endemic. Brawn is definitely on the right path, but could go in much harder and consequently, pack a more vicious punch.
Brawn is on until 3rd September at the King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street, Islington. https://kingsheadtheatre.com/whats-on/brawn
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 19th August 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★