“Are you staying up to work tonight?” I ask my over-worked housemate as I trail my blanket across the living room floor.
The repeats of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit have come to an end, and it’s time for this girl to get some shut eye.
“In a bit,” she replies. “I’ve got to find a video clip to play for my PHSE class. It’s on body image.” Housemate is a teacher and loves teaching PHSE to the young uns. “But I can’t quite find one that includes men as well. I want it to be inclusive.”
We spend the next twenty minutes or so trawling YouTube for appropriate clips but, to our dismay – and surprise – most videos focus solely on the female perspective. Men are largely omitted from the conversation.
It’s easy to frame body image and, body shaming and eating disorders as a predominately female issue. In our culture, beauty is viewed as a woman’s sole preoccupation. One only should look back through history for evidence that our bodies have never been our own, they’ve always belonged to someone else entirely, and that figure is usually male.
Turning to modern media, every other advert is trying to sell us something to make us look perfect – perfume, make-up, fashion, that hideous hair zapper thing that looks like it belongs in a medieval torture chamber – and don’t get me started on the gossip rags that insist on pointing out female flaws under the guise of ‘entertainment.’
But what we don’t realise, or refuse to acknowledge, is the gaping hole in the conversation. The reality is men have body image issues too and it’s imperative that we begin to talk about them. Conventionally men have been urged to laugh of ‘flaws’ and, whereas women have often been judged on their face value, they could fall back on intelligence, humour and achievements.
But something is happening. There’s a seismic change occurring which sees men falling prey to the same bullshit we’ve been having to put up with for eons. We could even argue that it’s always been this way but, owing to more outdated ideals of manliness, men have just never felt comfortable, or able, to talk about their body image.
Personally, I believe the rise in billboards and adverts depicting male celebrities and sporting stars as toned, muscular Adonis like creatures are partly to blame alongside changing attitudes to – and heavy focus on – the male form. Take Justin Bieber’s CK advert, or the ad campaign that Christiano Ronaldo posed for where his abs looked painted on.
Tbh, I’m not even sure its physically possible to be that ripped, unless you’re chiselled out of stone.
FYI it isn’t possible. They both later admitted to being heavily airbrushed. Male friends of mine have been more vocal over recent years regarding the parts they dislike about their bodies, from skinny arms, to slender torsos, to – most memorably – not being able to grow a decent beard (give it up, guys, not everyone looks good with a full beard. It’s like black lipstick on women. Some girls look straight out of Riot Girl band, others – and I include myself in this category – look like corpses).
Body shaming isn’t a female centred issue anymore. On the contrary, men are giving us a run for our money in the low self-esteem stakes. Take the “fat funny friend” archetype, for example, they’re a constant source of ridicule, the butt of every low-slung joke. Why is this any different from the mockery larger women receive? We’ve also become a nation of health nuts. It’s like we’ve suddenly decided to sit up and listen to the sage advice from health professionals regarding the fragile nature of our bodies.
But have we gone too far? Has education become cruel? I remember going to the GP and being measured for my BMI and being told I was overweight. I remember coming out, feeling really shit and thinking, ‘I really hope teenagers don’t get the same treatment.’ I was a woman in my twenties, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be told this in my younger years. It was like taking a bullet.
Studies are beginning to show that our treatment of larger people is beginning to rear its head in teenage boys, who now make up 1 in 10 eating disorder sufferers. This can result in depression, drug dependency – appetite suppressants, steroids – and dangerous, unhealthy lifestyles.
But on the upside, we are beginning to talk about it more openly. While scrolling through YouTube videos, Housemate and I stumbled across this great gem from American trio, the Try Guys, which sees them trying to recreate famous ad campaigns from heavily airbrushed, buff male celebs. It’s hilarious to watch as the guys attempt to recreate the images but surprisingly poignant, particularly when one member of the team decides that actually, he prefers his own body type to that of the retouched image, and another, rather sadly, proclaimed that he still only saw the features he disliked and was saddened that the airbrushing had not altered more of his natural shape.
While I do not personally believe that beauty or body standards or used to confine and define men’s lives the way they are women’s, it is a subject worthy of great attention, and – much like Housemate intends – we need to begin teaching our boys – and men – that there are many different body shapes and ideas of beauty, and all of them are fabulous.