This was originally published on Gay Life Magazine.
Acting the illness: We chat to Alfie Browne-Sykes about body image and what it’s like playing a character with Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
Alfie Browne-Sykes has been playing Hollyoaks hunk Jason Roscoe since 2013. Since arriving, his four brothers have proven themselves as the resident ladies men and bad-boys, but this is something Jason hasn’t really lived up to; he’s sweet, sensitive and wouldn’t do a thing wrong.
Coming from a household full of hunks isn’t quite as nice as it might sound, though. With so much testosterone and muscle, he’s always faced that extra bit of pressure to live up to his brothers’ macho ways. And it’s showing – he’s been struggling with his looks on-screen for quite some time, even taking steroids in secret to help grow his muscles and suffering from the effects of an overdose.
“When he looks in the mirror he sees this skinny, pathetic kid,” says Alfie, “He wants to be like his older brother Joe, a big, macho kind of guy, full of muscle, but no matter what he does all he ever sees is a skinny out of shape person.
“It’s completely irrational, he’s seeing something completely different to what everyone else is seeing.”
These are symptoms of BDD. As with many sufferers, the condition has been appearing slowly in Jason for quite some time. In the past, he’s been seen breaking a mirror and ripping down images of himself in underwear from a window.
“That was literally the seed of it. That little idea was planted in his head from them little tiny digs at how he looks. It’s a normal thing that kids do to each other growing up; they take the mick out of other people’s imperfections.
“But Jason’s the sort of person who wouldn’t argue back, he’s sensitive. I’m not saying it’s right to humiliate other people, but instead of taking it a bit more light-heartedly, he did take it to heart and it’s developed into his condition now.
“It might start with you just spending a little bit more time looking in the mirror each morning and before you know it you’re spending hours in the mirror looking at yourself in disgust because you can’t see what you want to see.
“Jason’s condition is focused purely on his physicality and he thinks he’s too small, [but] it can go into anything. I was speaking to a guy who knew someone who cut the ends of his own fingers off because he wasn’t happy with the length of them.”
“At the minute, Jason won’t listen to what anyone else has to say. In his own head he is right, he is disgusting and everyone else needs to realise this. But obviously that is completely not the case.”
It can be very difficult for sufferers of BDD to express how they’re feeling – sometimes because they think that what they’re seeing in the mirror is reality and sometimes because people they’re close to just don’t understand. This is an issue Alfie feels Jason has faced.
“Whenever he has tried to express how he’s feeling to his brothers or any family members, they kind of see it as vanity and they don’t realise that he’s got a serious mental illness. Especially with boys, it’s seen as vanity and it’s completely not. Boys with body dysmorphia do genuinely see something completely different and other people can’t understand it.”
BDD featureIt’s common for eating disorders to develop in sufferers of body dysmorphia, as they both come under the same umbrella of mental illnesses. And while a lot of people haven’t heard of body dysmorphia, it’s actually very common and can start affecting people from very young ages. So how is Alfie finding playing a character with such a serious mental illness?
“It was quite difficult at first because for me it was something that I really wanted to get right. If I was going to be playing someone with a mental illness, I wanted to get it 100 per cent right, so it was a bit nerve-wracking at first.
“Then, I researched all about it and spoke to a man who suffered from body dysmorphia and it really opened my eyes to what they go through and really helped me out with playing the character.”
Alfie’s own experience with body image related pressures have also helped him to get into character and understand the condition.
“When I was a bit younger I used to box. I was quite light for my age and I didn’t get that many boxing matches, so I used to spend hours each night training because I wanted to put on weight.
“It wasn’t anything serious, but I can see how the pressure of trying to put weight on for a boxing match can easily turn into obsession. You can then from that be obsessed with how you look and that’s how it all starts.“
Charities such as Beat, which provides support to adults and young people with eating disorders, as well as Time To Change, which is a mental-health anti-stigma programme run by MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, have been working closely with Hollyoaks and Alfie on this storyline and can offer help and guidance to anyone who might be suffering.
Hollyoaks is on Channel 4, week-nights at 6:30pm.
You can read more about BDD in the special edition of Gay Life magazine out soon.