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Opinion – Stop excluding men from the body positivity conversation

The archaic mindset that vulnerability isn’t ‘manly’ – particularly regarding image and self-esteem – should not be an excuse for rejecting men from our efforts to challenge unrealistic beauty standards.

For as long as I’m able to remember, women have been the primary target of societal body critique.

Permeating almost every aspect of my day-to-day life, I’ve frequently faced immense pressure from my peers, mainstream media, and even my own conditioned mind to adopt destructive behaviours in order to change my appearance and ultimately cure my dissatisfaction towards it.

Why? Due to the ever-evolving yet persistently unrealistic beauty standards we’ve been collectively striving to achieve since, well, ever.

This, I’m aware, is all but common knowledge these days and one thing I’m sure of in my unabating quest to stop worrying about my personal self-image is that I’m not alone.

During the past 20 years, tides of public attitude have turned against ‘perfection,’ paving the way for a movement that actively celebrates us no matter our size.

A movement that allows me, a woman almost 25-years-of-age, to express so candidly my experience with chasing an ideal I know deep down does not exist.

What I’ve come to realise, however, is that despite how successful this community may be in making my fellow body-conscious ladies and I feel validated and heard, it – albeit unintentionally – disregards the fact that men are suffering just as much.

This isn’t to say that female beauty standards aren’t more demanding (that’s indisputable given the plethora of evidence which shows how regularly we are judged for our looks), but it explains why the majority of men I know so rarely disclose whether or not they too struggle with such issues.

Exacerbated tenfold by the concept of toxic masculinity, which advocates the suppression of emotions, men have been historically excluded from the body positivity conversation, fostering their growing sentiment of insufficiency. Now, the situation is getting out of control.

The stats speak for themselves really.

According to a 2017 study, male body image dissatisfaction has tripled in the last three decades, from 15% of the Western population to 45%.

It also found 78% to be wishing they were more muscular and one in three willing to sacrifice a year of their lives in exchange for their goal weight. Body dysmorphia, which sees individuals obsess over perceived flaws, affects men and women in identical numbers.

More recently, suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) launched a scheme with the intention of encouraging men to seek the help they need.

It revealed that two in five desire the ‘perfect body’ – deeming it more important than marriage or a relationship – 35% are unhappy with how they look, and 48% have had their mental health affected as a result.

Not only this, but a staggering 21% don’t feel comfortable discussing it whatsoever because it strikes at the male ago and raises fears their sexuality could be questioned.

Though cultural norms defining what a man ‘should’ be in terms of personality, appearance, and behaviour are largely to blame, the reasons for this are not specific to a single gender and surprisingly more akin to those plaguing women than you might think.

From health magazines demonising fatness and touting infinite ways to modify one’s physique to the sculpted gods of Love Island who are expected to be as polished as their female counterparts, men are inundated with messaging to bulk up the moment they hit adolescence.

Compounded by the digital world of #fitspo and #workout posts which promote bigorexia (a fixation with building muscle mass) and orthorexia (an addiction to clean eating) it’s enough to give anyone a complex.

But provided 54% of men agreed with CALM that this is unrepresentative of the average male body, where is the debate for them on this topic?

It isn’t difficult for me to recognise that some women I watch through a screen have either had work done or are altered by filters and photoshop, particularly in the wake of various initiatives pushing for improved transparency in this sphere and sororal calls-to-arms on social media demanding that brands acknowledge everyday women.

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However, with the notable exception of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty underwear line (which featured heavyset model Steven G in size 2XL boxer briefs), men’s bodies are seldom the focus of fashion’s responsibility to champion diverse shapes.

Even less so when it comes to online platforms inching away from rewarding the petite figures – with curves in all the ‘right’ places – and flawless faces of female celebrities and influencers we know aren’t authentic.

Still, it’s all too customary to witness the association of height, a six-pack, and chiselled jawline with male attractiveness on TikTok or Instagram. It leaves me wondering where the movement’s ‘self-love’ manifesto has disappeared to in this instance.

Dave Chawner, a stand-up comedian and author of Weight Expectations, has a theory.

‘Men are traditionally conditioned to hide how they feel about their body, but as our society gets better at dealing with mental health, we need to make sure that men’s body image isn’t left out of the narrative,’ he writes for GQ, explaining that after years of humiliation and being told body concerns are for women, or that they are trivial and vain, it’s no wonder men avoid confronting them.

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Invalidated in their struggle, they internalise the stereotypes women are tenaciously challenging and tend to assume that talking about it is pointless if they aren’t being taken seriously to begin with or run the risk of being shut down by degrading phrases like ‘don’t be a p***y’ and ‘tough it out.’

‘People also jump to conclusions that eating disorders exist solely in the female domain,’ he adds. ‘That, quite frankly, is not the case.’

With 25% of the 1.25 million UK citizens currently battling eating disorders believed to be men and the number of annual hospital admissions caused by this quadrupling since 2007, the gravity of this is clear.

Yet besides the few high-profile names such as Elton John and Zayn Malik who’ve opened up about their journeys with bulimia and anorexia, the subject still seems relatively taboo.

‘Many times I’ve wanted to reveal that I’m a lifelong dysmorphic, but I never have,’ divulged Christopher Eccleston in his autobiography. ‘I always thought of it as a filthy secret, because I’m northern, because I’m male and because I’m working class.’

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Eccleston’s story is a significant example of the destructive, cyclical nature of restrictive mindsets surrounding male body image, wherein victims spiral further into the notion that sharing is effeminate.

The ensuing loneliness, shrouded with shame and guilt, is amplified by society’s ingrained ideals of masculinity that prioritise false bravado over honest admissions of vulnerability (a quality that isn’t considered ‘manly’ to have).

Yes, the body positivity movement’s intent is well-meaning, but it’s imperative that men feel equally encompassed in its raison d’être to embrace all physical forms, irrespective of build.

‘We need to carve out a space for men to feel like they belong and that they have this safe space to open up without feeling like less of man,’ finishes Chawner. And he’s right.

It’s up to us as women to actively be allies to the men in our lives who are struggling. Without a better climate of support for them overall, their fight to find freedom from these issues will simply remain futile.

 

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