After a car accident left him inactive in a hospital and his parents announced their divorce, Chris Evans found himself rapidly gaining weight. At the age of only fourteen he began to exercise obsessively, looking up to idols such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stalone, who ‘had everything worked out.’ His daily exercise routine involved waking up at 5:00am to go for a run up the mountain for an hour and a half. This was followed by another hour-long workout and continuous bicep curls until the point of fatigue. Despite this, the image he saw in the mirror was never one that pleased him; small faults would become overwhelming in his mind. His struggle with body dysmorphia only began to change when he ripped his bicep muscles and was forced to stop exercising.
Years after this happened, the Islywn MP is telling his story across news networks in an effort to raise awareness of the issue and encourage others to seek help.
This story, however, doesn’t stand alone. It is one of several stories over the past few months, which show MPs opening up about emotional struggles they’ve gone through related to mental health, physical health or sexuality. Two weeks earlier, former MP Mark Oaten came out in an interview with BBC Radio 5, speaking of his struggles with coming to terms with his identity after being outed in 2006. In December, MP Lloyd Russel-Moyle announced in a moving speech that he was HIV positive, the first MP to make this public in the House of Commons.
Before these stories, the first time MPs had opened up about such personal issues on such a large scale came in 2012 when a debate on mental health in the House of Commons encouraged a number of politicians to speak about their own experiences with mental health. At that time, the debate was hailed as a historical and well overdue moment, which promised a new acceptance of mental health discussion.
So, do the recent articles signal a trend? So far, it is hard to say for sure. Three articles are hardly enough to base such claims on. However, the fact that they were published at all definitely demonstrates an underlying change in the nature of society. Mental health and sexuality are two topics which are slowly becoming more accepted and normalised, both in everyday life and in the lives of those under media examination. Twenty years ago, any politician who had come forward in the way Evans, Oaten and Russell-Moyle have would have risked their political career and reputation. Now, despite some remaining old-fashioned views, it is generally seen as a strength to come forward and seek help.
Like anyone else in a position of influence, politicians have the power to change the public’s perceptions of mental and physical health issues, proving that they are no limitation to success. Similarly for LGBT+ politicians, who can demonstrate to young people that their sexuality should have no influence on how they are treated. Evans looked up to Stalone and Schwarzenegger because they had it all together, but alternative idols who can admit weakness and struggles provide a much healthier alternative for the next generation. Politicians also have a large platform on which to raise awareness (such as preventative health checks or treatment) and the power to solidify these social changes into law.
There are two potential risks in this situation, however. Despite the public’s changing views, their personal issues of politicians can become the entirety of their identity, which risks their reputation and support base. Secondly, if a trend emerges, politicians may become unfairly expected to expose parts of their personal identity prior to their election; such as their sexuality or physical health problems. Such intimate subjects should always remain at the discretion of the individual to discuss. It is my hopes, however, that these problems will be resolved as acceptance of such issues grows.
So here’s to the future: only that can show us if these changing norms will continue. However, the past few months have been an exciting display of what is possible when our political leaders open up about personal issues. For the next generation, we must hope that the rift between personal and political can be managed and balanced in those instances when it has the potential to help so many people.