It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Clayton Echard's bare torso was plastered across television screens as he starred as the Season 26 lead of The Bachelor, so it might have come as a surprise to many when the former NFL athlete opened up about his struggle with body dysmorphia. Despite the rock-hard abs and confident smile, however, Echard tells Yahoo Life about his difficult journey with body image and how toxic masculinity played a role.
"Men don't care about their appearance. They're rugged, they're brutes, you know, they go out and they make the money and they're physical when they need to be. But if they have emotions, they suppress them. They deal with them themselves. They're tough enough to not need any external help, they're able to handle their own emotions internally," he says. "That was the narrative growing up, for probably not just me, but other men as well. And when you constantly hammer that narrative in, it's set in stone. Then next thing you know, men don't know how to talk about it because they've never had the conversations because they were told, or at least were fearful that, 'Hey, if I speak up about this, I'm going to be perceived as less of a man.' So I would rather just suppress it instead."
Echard recalls this being his internal dialogue when he began to struggle with body image in seventh grade — an experience he wrote in-depth about for the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). He explains that it was during those pivotal years that he caught himself comparing his body to others his age.
"If we had pool parties and I took off my shirt, I felt that their bodies looked so much better than mine did, even though I worked out twice as long as they did. So it was really aggravating and frustrating because I felt that … I felt sorry for myself and I was upset that I just couldn't have a body like everyone else," he says, as he remembers thinking, "Why was my body so much different?"
He wrote about how he would "pinch my stomach or sides every morning in front of the mirror" before heading to middle school, and continue to do so throughout the day "hyper-focusing on what I thought was a flaw, a defect, seeing myself as fat and gross."
He later got teased by teammates on his college football team, who called him "Bad Body Ech," he wrote. "On bus rides to games, going over a bump, I was constantly aware of my fat jiggling. The incessant thinking about my body just added up and added up and I couldn’t push it out of my mind. It tore me down."
Echard tells Yahoo Life that the negative impact of his self-loathing became impossible to bear.
"I was having kind of a bubble up effect. It wasn't just body dysmorphia, but it was the body dysmorphia leading into anxiety, depression and compounding with other issues that I was having. I was at a place where I started having very dark thoughts," he says. "Ultimately, I'm thankful, but I told myself, 'I am not going to give up. I need to fight through this, you have it in you.' So I started to fight back and say 'How can I control this narrative that I have in my head? What steps can I take?'"
Through his own research online, Echard was able to put a name to what he was experiencing. "I didn't even know what that term [body dysmorphia] was until college and when I found there was a term and I found there were other people that struggle with it and I found that just as many men struggle with it as women, I was shocked because I thought, well, this is not the narrative that I had in my head prior," he recalls.
Echard says he sought out resources like the ADAA, where body dysmorphic disorder is defined as "a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance," to find support and a therapist. "Through seeking that professional advice and having these conversations, it started to shift that narrative like, Wait, everything that I’ve believed since I was a kid was somewhat of a lie. But I believed it because that's what I was told," he says.
Being on social media as an adult and through his own experience in the spotlight, Echard realized that the struggle is ongoing. "Social media just, honestly, intensified those feelings," he says. "I downloaded it like a year and a half ago, I started following fitness accounts and it was just detrimental to my mental health. I started seeing what I wished my body would look like, but realizing that it didn't look that way. And filters and all this don't help with it as well."
Behind the scenes of The Bachelor he worked on confronting parts of the filming process that triggered him.
"When it came to my body dysmorphia, they didn't realize that I had that. Of course, we were on the beach and I was shirtless, and I had some close up shots and you know, getting all those shots for TV. But when they realized that I struggle with that, they did come to me and they did say, 'Hey, listen. If it's something you struggle with, going forward, we want to be very sensitive to this, so let us know what you're comfortable with and what you're not,'" Echard explains. "While there were things that I wasn't happy with, that was something that I was very pleased with. They seemingly were very sensitive to my body dysmorphia and were willing to work with me on that. So I was very thankful in that realm."
Since his time on the show came to an end, he's been doing even more publicly to shed light on the reality of men struggling with body image and mental health. Through media appearances, advocacy work and even his social media posts, Echard has not only addressed his journey but has been vulnerable in sharing intimate details of it.
"I think the more specific you can be the better," he says about how he shares his experience. "Because on one end, yes, maybe you're so specific that that's only the way that it manifests for you. But for others, that might be exactly what they're doing and they don't know it. And I think me talking about pinching my sides and staring in the mirror every single day when I wake up ... I think it really resonates. It's a matter of being as specific as possible because this might just trigger somebody in a positive way where they go, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not alone, I do this exact same thing. So maybe I'll be OK. Because if he's OK, and I'm doing the same thing he was doing then maybe there is a light in the tunnel for me as well.'"
Although Echard doesn't claim to be on the other side of this difficult journey, he knows that speaking out about it is another step in the right direction.
"I used to hate who I was. I hated my body, and therefore I hated myself as an individual," he says. "I now am content with the way that I look, I think I'm coming to terms with the fact that my body is my body and that's what makes me unique. So I'm on that path to that self-love right now and I just feel that the more I speak about it, the more people that I have these conversations with, my eyes are open to more and more ways to better manage my own body dysmorphia."
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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