International Men’s Day – Are We Ignoring Men and Their Struggles with Body Image?

12 mins read

Today is international men’s day; a day in which we celebrate the great men in our lives and in history, but also a day in which we can reflect on the perhaps more hidden challenges on being a man. In recent years it has been highlighted just how much some men suffer with their mental health. For instance, it is well known that men’s suicide rates are considerably higher than that of women. Of course, there are many reasons and debates as to what exactly effects someone’s mental health, and I have no intention of trying to outline why we sometimes suffer with it, because ultimately, who really ever understands that about themselves?

There is one issue in which men are more often than not overlooked, and it regards body image in the media. Historically, women have been the sex who has been oppressed in the media; however, due to changing attitudes and the feminist movement the portrayals of women within the media is slowly but surely starting to improve. We are now seeing women of all sizes and ethnicities – that’s not to say this issue is not still relevant for women, as the lack of representation of body image within the media and the mental effects that come with it for women is shocking, but the issue of women and body image in the media is more recognised as an issue. Unfair portrayals of the male body image in media aren’t getting the same attention and we aren’t seeing much diversity when it comes to the male body. Men in magazines, social media and TV are being shown to be in the likeness of Greek statues: muscular, broad, tall, not too hairy and never balding. This, we know, is just not normal.

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The Mental Health Foundation conducted a study at the end of 2019 about men and their body image. It looked at over 2,000 18+ men in the UK and found that one in five men (21%) said their body image concerns have caused them to dress differently to hide their physique. One in ten men had stated they have had suicidal thoughts about how they perceive their body, and one in twenty had admitted to self-harming due to body image concerns. Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Mark Rowland, commented on the study saying that “Body image is often seen as an issue that only affects women, but it is clear from our data that it is effecting millions of men of men in the UK as well.”  Rowland continued, “Men are also being surrounded by images of idealised body types…it is important we realise the significant negative impact a media environment can have on our mental health.” It wasn’t just this study that uncovered many men’s clear anxieties about their body image. In 2012, a study was undertaken by the Guardian which found that 80.7% of the men they talked to spoke in a way which promoted anxiety about their body image, compared with 75% of women.

But, where does this body image anxiety start? Well, you could argue that it comes from where most of us start absorbing media. A good example of this is Disney movies. It is no secret that Disney films give us very unrealistic expectations of life and body image. Disney are guilty of animating their heroes and heroines to have the ‘ideal’ body, but this is not something that just affects little girls. Have you ever wondered how it affects young boys too? Not many people, including myself at times, ever really think about Disney from the male perspective. In fact, even when doing research on male Disney characters online, what seemed to come up was numerous articles ranking the hottest male Disney characters from worst to best; compared to doing research on Disney princesses, in which there were far more interesting articles on Disney princess that are feminists or bosses.

Disney princes are always tall, muscular, big, and historically – like Disney princesses – are almost always white. As a result of watching Disney movies from a young age, they have a significant impact on how we view the rest of the world. This can have an effect on how boys view masculinity, simply because all of the Disney princes present the narrative of being strong and heroic. When I was younger, I definitely wanted to be like a Disney princess! So, it’s easy to imagine that young boys also want to look like Prince Charming, Aladdin or Hercules. Disney affects both men and women when we are young, it teaches us what we should look like and how we should act as we grow older, and I also noticed how Disney villains, in particular male villains or villain sidekicks, often take on a very different body type to their royal counterparts. Many of these villains are very skinny and tall, like Jaffar in Aladdin, or are very small and fat like LeFou in Beauty and the Beast. This again could perhaps be connected to why young boys may grow up to associate their body type as being unattractive. Either way, it would be good if more research could be done on how Disney affects young boys too. With all that being said, it is good to see that Disney is trying to improve upon this issue.

Boys and men are also subjected to an idealised male body type in magazines, on TV and on social media. There are endless examples of this, but one that keeps popping up was body image in advertisements. Adverts on TV have always been guilty of sexualising and portraying the ‘perfect’ male and female body. Our ability to make decisions comes from the right side of the brain, which unlike the left side, is more focused on visuals. Therefore, what we buy can often be based on what we see as visually pleasing. In many adverts the male body is often portrayed as a sex object and indeed it tends to be only one body type that appears in these adverts. Showing this body type is a way of attracting customers. Especially in recent years, it is perhaps becoming more common for men to be seen with less clothes in adverts and it is something that people do not raise as a problem perhaps as much as we should. Diet coke has had a massive history of sexualising the ideal male physique. In the early 1980s, there was a popular diet coke advert called “Diet Coke Break”, which consisted of a group of women in an office staring at half naked workman on a building sight. This concept was again repeated in 2013 in an advert called “sexy gardener”, which similarly consisted of a group of women starting at a half-naked gardener; however, this advert included intense shots of the actor’s body and again emphasises the idea that he is desirable. Both of these adverts were made with the intention of being funny and there are of course many other adverts that take sexualising of the ideal male body too far, but it does make you wonder what guys think when watching these adverts and indeed what the rection would be in the role were switched.

The effects of adverts like the ones aired by Diet coke, have been proven to have a substantial impact on young men’s body image and confidence. In a study conducted by Credos Advertising Agency BBC, 53% of 18-year-old boys felt their body image pressures came from advertising. This study also explored why young boys find it so difficult to open up about their body insecurities. Many involved in the study (over 1,000 participants) said they find it hard to discuss their body concerns. One male teacher explained to the researcher why he thinks this is, “With girls, when somebody says you’re fat, the natural rection is the girl cries and the others feel guilty… with boys there’s a lot more banter. You can see they’re often hurt but the expectation is to laugh and shrug it off.” This seems to be a common theme that men are not encouraged to open up about their anxieties and consequently, it adds pressure to see all these male bodies in the media but not really feel like you can talk to anyone about it. It’s time to stop presuming that men are not allowed to be sensitive, and that only women have insecurities about their bodies. This is a load of rubbish.

So, let’s celebrate men today and try and work on encouraging each other to open up more. The pressures of masculinity and staying silent is still a problem that hasn’t improved and many male celebrities such as Dennis Quaid, Zayn Malik, Robert Patterson and Elton John have come forward opening up about their challenges with mental health and eating disorders, all as result of pressures on their body image. Chris Pratt stated that, “Just because I am a male doesn’t mean I’m impervious to your whispers. Body shaming hurts.” Happy International men’s day to everyone, and to those men who might feel they are struggling with their body image, we love you!

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