Interview: Cliff Joannou; Image: Men Art by Graham Martin (left) & Francisco Gomez de Villaboa (right)
Max Hovey had just finished sixth form when his Instagram profile caught fire; his channel racking up thousands of likes and tens of thousands of followers as the then-18-year-old began sharing brooding, arresting selfies and body shots that gave the impression of a confident young gay man living life to the full.
"The problem with this is that my whole profile was a lie," admits Max.
In the Attitude Body Issue - out now to download and to order globally - Max reveals how the pressure to keep up appearances as an Instagram influencer drove him to breaking point, as he became obsessed with filtering and editing his face and body in pursuit of the 'perfect' picture.
"I spent a lot of my time on social media comparing myself to other people and the way they look, not realising that their images were, too, heavily edited", admits Max, who is currently followed on Instagram by more than 125,000 people.
Max Hovey (Photography: Francisco Gomez de Villaboa)
"So I simply started editing mine, not thinking about the impact this would have on those following me."
The now-22-year-old goes on: "Every single image was face-tuned within an inch of its life, and it haunts me to this day. I was so unsatisfied with myself and felt I would never achieve the image that so many influencers were projecting, that I just chose to edit it, even my body.
"But, I loved it. I loved the attention, I was finally being accepted and wanted; it became like a drug.
"Turns out I didn’t love it — I was addicted to it."
Max's constant worries about his Instagram appearance and engagement levels quickly began to crush his self-confidence and damage his mental health, but with his online success seemingly defined by thirsty likes and flirty attention from legions of admirers, the cycle proved almost impossible to break.
"I always knew that editing my photos was wrong, but I was so insecure that I couldn’t not," Max sighs.
"It was horrible. I spent every day hating the way that I looked, and that’s why I edited it all. It was truly awful. I’d have 400 photos taken, and rather than just picking one I liked, I’d pick the one that had the most ‘potential’ with editing. I’d even avoid certain backgrounds to ensure things wouldn’t get warped in editing.
Max Hovey used to heavily edit images of himself as he pursued 'masculine' body ideals (Image: Men Art by Graham Martin)
"It was the most depressing time of my life as my whole existence was focused on how other people saw me, and all I was doing was making both myself and other people feel worse."
Despite perpetuating the problem of unrealistic body expectations on social media, Max was also victim to it himself, having been bombarding with seemingly unretouched images from a sea of model-esque, 'aspirational' Instagrammers.
When the pandemic hit, Max was finally able to take the time to re-evaluate how he was using social media, and decided to finally ditch the filters and editing and begin sharing his real face, body and life in all its unedited glory.
"I started to realise that the things that I was most insecure about, I was only perpetuating them online. I was indirectly making other people’s insecurities worse by making myself look so ‘perfect’," he says.
"I realised that working out, going to the gym and my whole persona was not based on self-love and confidence; it was arrogance, egocentric and narcissistic. I recognise that now.
"Reflecting on my past online presence is what drives me to help the change I do today. I’ve been on the other side, and it’s the worst place I’ve ever been."
The reward-based way image-based social media sites such as Instagram are structured mean the problem of unrealistic body expectations runs deep, and the issue is a two-way street: Max says he's lost "tens of thousands of followers" since he began sharing unfiltered images and using his platform to promote body positivity.
Max says he's happier and more self-confident now than he's ever been (Photography: Francisco Gomez de Villaboa)
"I’ve even had the odd person message me, telling me to get back to the gym, to get my abs back", he reveals. "At first, receiving messages like this broke me. I felt unwanted and disgusting. But this is what really hit me in my journey. I thought, why do I feel less valid because I’ve gained weight? It then hit me how much of my self-worth I was attaching to my body image.
"Now, people that follow me, do so for me. I even receive half as many likes. But I’ve turned them off now, as I want people to focus on the messages I’m putting out there and not the attention I’m getting. I don’t edit any photos now. I pick the one I look the most happy in, or the one that just reflects how I’m feeling and just post it. It feels liberating.
He adds: "I think, why the fuck was I editing my body? I was in great shape, and it was shit to think that even then I was unhappy. It’s weird because by society’s standard I’m no longer in shape and am the happiest I’ve ever been, but back then I was really depressed."
As well as re-focusing his Instagram profilee as a place to champion mental wellness and body confidence, Max has also started a blog, Happy Smiley, to give others a platform to share their own experiences.
"I’m proud of Happy Smiley", grins Max. "I’m proud that I started my own little blog and turned it into a community of diverse voices and stories.
He adds: "I just wanted to create a place on social media and online that was supportive. Social media can be a dark place at times, so it became my mission to bring a little bit of light to it."
Having freed himself from the shackles of FaceTune, Max is still on an ongoing mission to love every part of himself - but even on the difficult days, he's able to appreciate how much better he feels after opting out of the image-based influencer cycle.
"I remind myself that my physical image doesn’t define me", he declares. "The way I look should in no way be correlated with my happiness... My physical appearance should not determine my overall happiness and life satisfaction."
Read the full interview in the Attitude Body Issue, out now.