Gok Wan Talks Body Confidence in the Digital Age
The go-to guy for teaching us to love the skin we’re in, Gok Wan has put being kind to yourself and others firmly in fashion. With the show that launched him into the nation’s homes How to Look Good Naked back, we chat to Gok about the topics he holds most passionately in his heart: body acceptance, appreciating life, and waking up to the mistreatment of LGBT+ communities across the globe
I first really considered the concept of ‘body confidence’ after watching Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked many years ago. With his now famous warmth and familiarity, Gok spent each episode working closely with the people who appeared on the Channel 4 show to understand their self-esteem struggles, and issues with their own reflections. He then challenged this by encouraging each person to view themselves positively, and by celebrating the features they were proud of.
How to Look Good Naked was feel-good TV with strong messages of body acceptance and self-love at its core, prompting discussions about self-image and body dissatisfaction in living rooms up and down the country.
First aired in 2006, it was at its height as Facebook was in its infancy, Instagram was years away from existing, and the words ‘selfie’ and ‘influencer’ were not yet commonplace in the public domain.
Now, Gok harnesses these social media platforms to informally continue the conversations around body confidence he started in the early noughties, and reaches more people than ever before on a daily basis.
Scrolling through Gok’s feed, one post in particular catches my eye. It reads: ‘Body confidence is not about waking up and loving every part of you. It’s about waking up and not hating every part of you.’
“We all have those moments, and for some of us, we have weeks, months or years where we feel so bad about our bodies,” Gok explains when I mention this quote. “Then we concentrate so much on goals like, ‘I am going to be 100% confident with my hair, my skin, my nails, my body, my weight,’ and sometimes that can be so unachievable.
“You’re already setting yourself up to fail, and what I want to say with that statement is just do baby steps. Give yourself a break, make your goals realistic, and then they won’t feel like such a daunting task.
“Work at just trying to appreciate, trying to accept, and have parts of your body you can welcome to the world every single day – instead of having to try to love every part of it, which could be massively unachievable.”
Now, 13 years after How to Look Good Naked first aired, Gok is every bit as passionate about helping people to feel better about themselves. However, Gok believes that there are some aspects of the continuing social media phenomenon that exacerbate issues around low self-esteem – and he’s particularly concerned about younger people who have never known a life without these platforms.
“We’re in a dangerous position at the moment; the majority of the images that we see are no longer just unrealistic, they’re computer generated, and people are aspiring to look that way. I don’t think the world knows what is beautiful any longer.
“We’re aspiring to be something that is completely artificial – it’s not real. And I think that’s really confusing to a lot of young people.
Work at just trying to appreciate, trying to accept, and have parts of your body you can welcome to the world every single day
“As a 45-year-old man who works in an industry that is governed by how we look, I can talk about this quite freely and understand the right and wrongs of that,” Gok explains. “However, if I’m a 13-year-old girl or boy, then I have no background knowledge, no research, and no references on this. I’m just thinking: ‘Why don’t I look that way?’ And I think that this can cause quite severe mental damage.”
Gok has real gravitas when he shares his opinion on these subjects, not only because of his professional background, but also because of his personal experience with eating disorders, stemming from his young adult years. And now, how does Gok view himself today?
He takes a moment before responding. “It’s a really difficult question to answer, because I am nowhere near 100% happy with my body – no way – but I have other things in my life that I feel so grateful for, and that I feel so proud of. My work, my relationships, and all of that gives me confidence, and actually has taken over how I felt about my body all those years ago.”
In Autumn 2019 he took these skills on the road with his One Size Fits All Tour (after filming the hotly-anticipated returning series of How to Look Good Naked). Gok is keen to point out that he is rewarded by continuing to spread the body confidence message up close and in person: “It’s not a selfless act doing One Size Fits All, I get a huge amount out of it.
“Even just talking about how I felt in the past about my body, how I feel about it now, the dangers of negative body image, and what that can do to you – I get a huge amount of confidence from that because I get to help people, to share their stories, and it confirms my beliefs and politics when it comes to the body confidence movement.”
Gok is driven to work on projects where he can make a difference. I’m reminded of the Gay Times Global Pride campaign he supported in 2018, helping to shed light on the appalling mistreatment of the LGBT+ community in countries across the world. Gok tells me sadly, this isn’t an issue that is going away.
He recalls returning from a press trip in Warsaw, Poland, where civil rights activist Elzbieta Podleśna, was arrested, and her laptop, phone, and private communications were seized. Her ‘crime’ was sharing an image of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo, to protest against the Church’s exclusion of the LGBT+ community from religion. “She had her entire work and her entire life, personally and professionally, investigated over this one image,” Gok says, with deep frustration in his voice.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. “We’re in such terrible shape at the moment. Look at the Sultan of Brunei and the death penalty for LGBT+ people,” he continues. “Now, they’re not going to enforce that as a law, but we kind of forget that actually you can still be arrested or beaten in that country for your sexuality.
“Just the fact that people are not being killed, it makes it kind of a positive, or a step in the right direction. Tha’s a problem that we’ve got with LGBT+ treatment – almost a reverse of the body confidence issue. We can’t just focus on the stuff that’s ‘kind of alright’, like the fact that it’s OK to get married in this country.
We need to fight for our brothers and sisters, so that all voices can be heard
“We’ve got to focus on the fact that our brothers and our sisters in the community, some of them are dying, some of them are being beaten or living in persecution in their own homes – unless they decide that they want to take asylum in a country where they can live freely as an LGBT+ person,” Gok says emphatically. “But then, not everybody wants to leave their country, their friends and their families.
“For those of us who are slightly more privileged, I think that we need to fight for our brothers and sisters, so that all voices can be heard.”
We’re with you all the way, Gok.
*Follow Gok Wan on Instagram @therealgokwan
To support LGBT+ communities across the world, visit allout.org, a global movement fighting for a world where no one has to make sacrifices because of who they are or who they love.