YouTube star and fitness expert Joe Wicks says he felt the need to bare his body early on in his career – but now he’s found the grit to push back.
Whether it’s Chloë Grace Moretz facing pressure to enlarge her breasts as a teenager or Jennifer Aniston warding off constant “is she pregnant?” scrutiny, women in the public eye have a long and depressing history of being judged on the basis of their bodies.
But it’s not only women who are reduced and objectified according to how they look – as Joe Wicks MBE, the UK’s de facto body trainer, reminded us this week.
Wicks became an overnight sensation and the saviour of lockdown when he began doing free daily workouts on YouTube earlier this year.
But until PE with Joe became a hit in March, plus the hit book that came before that, he wasn’t that well known. And like many people in a similar situation, the trainer’s lack of profile meant he was open to being exploited in the early stages of his career.
“Getting shirtless in the press wasn’t an ego thing,” Wicks tells The Times in a new interview, referring to the many shoots in which he has appeared without his top on.
“Even really respectable papers would say, ‘Come on, get your kit off and hold this broccoli.’”
The fitness coach says that, because he was still in the process of building a public image, he felt under pressure to do what picture editors and stylists asked of him.
“When you’re coming up, it’s what you have to do,” he says. “You think, ‘Ah, I’d better do it or they might not want to interview me again.’”
Now that he is a familiar face on screens across Britain, however, Wicks feels more able to lay down his limits. “I just say no,” he says, of any shirtless requests that come his way.
Wicks’ experience will be familiar to anyone who has felt the burden to please in the course of growing their career – and it’s a pressure that plays out at all different levels.
It may, for instance, mean you work endless overtime to prove yourself as a newbie – as seen by the 40% of young adults who work 20 hours or more in unpaid extra shifts a week.
Or it could mean you behave in ways that feel uncomfortable to you, in order to make your mark – as happened to a young Romola Garai (and countless other actresses) with Harvey Weinstein at the start of her career.
“You had to be personally approved by him,” she recalled in a 2018 interview. “So I had to go to his hotel room in the Savoy, and he answered the door in his bathrobe. I was only 18. I felt violated by it, it has stayed very clearly in my memory.”
These incidents affect those at the centre of them in different ways, according to how they unfold.
Clearly, for Wicks, the pressure to go shirtless wasn’t a huge deal. But his message of pushing back is still key. The more secure you feel in yourself and your abilities, the more you feel able to draw a line on what you will and won’t accept in your career; no matter what the issue at hand is.
In The Times interview, Wicks also revealed that his fame has brought with it a more traumatic side, in the form of people who contact him via social media when they’re in a state of huge mental distress.
True to his heroic persona, Wicks stepped in to help a woman in this scenario once.
“Receiving suicidal DMs is stressful. It’s emotional,” he says. “When this woman reached out to me, I thought, ‘Even if it’s a cry for help, I can’t ignore this message.’ So I jumped on the phone to her. It was difficult because I didn’t know what to say – I’m not a professional. But I managed to talk her round a little bit.”
Wicks also admits that his lockdown PE sessions were emotionally draining: “some days I just didn’t want to do that, didn’t feel like it”. But with a record-breaking 955,185 people tuning into his workouts on one day alone, it’s lucky he kept up the graft.
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