Two years ago, Ben Bidwell was the founder of a struggling tech startup, increasingly frustrated by failings beyond his control and disillusioned by the world of corporate business. Away from work, like many men, he spent hours in the gym obsessing over bigger muscles and the pursuit of approval – external validation outweighing his own sense of happiness.
Personally and professionally unfulfilled, Bidwell made the bold decision to break away from a life spent conforming to expectations. His blog, The Naked Professor, was born. Bidwell’s striking photos – stood naked facing a striking landmark – represent the vulnerability and self-connection he now sees as central to mental wellness. In his new work as a life coach and meditation teacher, Bidwell has swapped a life of conformity to one guided by being true to himself, and he is markedly happier for it.
RSNG What’s the idea behind The Naked Professor? BEN BIDWELL, LIFE COACH ‘The Naked Professor was a blog I created in July 2017 as a way to express myself. At the time I was running a tech company, but I felt very reliant on the tech guys who were producing the product. I wanted to create something that was mine, that I could control, because the tech that was being produced wasn't very good and I was powerless to impact it.’
‘I had started training as a life coach a couple of years before, and I had really grown as a person and changed my outlook on life. In that time I started writing about wellness and head space, and I knew through my tech company that to be successful you need to have a story – you need people to be engaged. There is a lot of noise online, so you need to be able to make stand out.’
‘A couple of years previous I had this photo taken in Yosemite National Park when I was just visiting there a few years ago. Me and my mate were just messing about, and I uploaded this naked photo to Instagram. It was against the backdrop of beautiful nature – blue skies and waterfalls – and it got quite a lot of attention (from mates taking the piss, to people saying it was quite cool).’
‘When I looked at that picture I realised it represented so much of what I was writing about in terms of vulnerability and self-expression, stripping away the masks we wear and being authentic. From that, The Naked Professor was born.’
You can be tough and strong as well as being in touch with your emotions
RSNG What’s the main message you’re trying to get across? BB ‘Growing up I was always taught that being a man was about being tough, strong, brave and athletic: all these stereotypical things to do with masculinity. As a result I thought being emotional, or talking openly about your emotions from a more vulnerable space, was to be less manly. What I'm trying to get across now is that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive: you can be tough and strong and all that stuff, as well as being in touch with your emotions. You can be empathetic, kind, caring, loving, and still be a man.’
RSNG Instagram is a platform that’s often criticised for promoting false realities, so how do you maintain a healthy relationship with it, and social media in general? BB ‘Social media can be very positive, but it can also be very damaging. It's up to each individual to manage their social media in a way that inspires them. That means choosing who you follow carefully and understanding that people are only sharing the best bits – it's not a true reflection of their life. I think we're often guilty of comparing our reality with someone else's non-reality. Look for people who are inspiring you to want to be a better version of yourself.’
RSNG Your podcast, The Naked Professors, is all about accessible, meaningful conversation – why should more men follow suit and open up? BB ‘I get that it’s something unfamiliar and our minds often tell us not to go to that space, but what I would say is that deep and raw connection with someone is the most powerful connection there is. When you see someone's heart and you see someone for who they really are, friendship can grow much stronger. If you're able to share some of your vulnerabilities with another person that sets you on the path to a much more fulfilling relationship. It's a case of being willing to be vulnerable and accepting that you're not perfect.’
We’re desperate to upgrade our mobile phones but we never upgrade our own internal operating systems
RSNG You’ve written about your own lack of body confidence in the past – is it an issue that’s about more than simply what’s on the surface? BB ‘Definitely. I changed my body at the age of 18, because my skinniness made me feel less of a man. I got muscles within six to nine months, but I didn't change how I actually felt; all I changed was people's perception of me from the outside. I always thought if I got big muscles I would feel more manly and then I would feel more content, but I felt exactly the same.’
‘That's when I realised I needed to stop trying to chase other people's approval. The change happened when I worked on body and mind, because I learned to stop trying to impress everyone else and simply work on impressing myself.’
RSNG How did you overcome your obsession with getting bigger? BB ‘Awareness is the first stage of change, and as soon as I focused on impressing myself rather than other people I was able to appreciate myself a lot more. When you remove the need for validation you stop feeling the need to walk into the gym and be the biggest guy in there, or get a job that you feel would impress other people. I started to focus on what would make me feel truly good about myself.’
RSNG What’s your relationship with exercise now? BB ‘I still go to the gym and train hard, but I do because it makes me feel good. When I workout I feel proud of myself and that, ultimately, is what I want to achieve – I want to feel proud of myself. Exercise still fits into my new way of thinking, because I want to treat my body with love and respect, but the reason I train now is not so I can walk into the gym and impress people: it's to impress and challenge myself.’
‘Don't get me wrong, validation from other people is a lovely thing – when someone says you look great, that’s nice – but first and foremost you need to make sure you impress yourself.’
RSNG Do you think we still have a way to go to remove the stigma around men’s mental health? BB ‘I think it's happening, but I think it's still very early days. We’re on it, physically; everyone's very aware of maintaining fitness and health. Now I hope we can accept that our minds can be worked on just as our bodies can. I heard a good quote the other day, which I think is apt: “We are desperate to upgrade our mobile phones, but we never upgrade our own internal operating systems.”’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Ben Bidwell discuss baring his body and soul.