As a country we’ve reached crisis point. Not only are mental health problems at an all-time high, but our body image is at an all-time low. According to a recent study commissioned for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, one in five UK adults having felt shame because of their body image – and the survey even made a link between low body confidence and suicide.
Although the study questioned both men and women, other recent statistics have show than men are unhappier about their bodies than they’ve ever been before. Statistics like the fact that one in three eating disorder patients is now male, and the fact that 38 per cent of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body underline this. There’s never been a better – or more urgent – time to talk about men’s increasingly negative attitude towards their body image, as well as the pressing need to start a conversation about how we speak about and portray men’s bodies in the public sphere.
In particular, men still have a long way to go to catch up with women in terms of body positivity. With 9.5 millions posts on Instagram alone for the #bodypositive hashtag, the movement has boomed on social media in the last few years. But alongside the millions of women posting positive messages about body acceptance, there’s only the occasional man taking part in the conservation.
What’s more, strong female role models have started to showcase different body types all over social media, and mainstream brands like H&M have used models with a more diverse selection of physiques in recent advertising campaigns. But men still have a long way to go to catch up with this, with images across TV, cinema, social media and advertising underlining a hugely traditional interpretation of the ideal masculine body type: lean yet muscular, strong yet not bulky. Something that is, ultimately, only achievable for a tiny fraction of the world.
‘There is still more pressure on women to conform to beauty standards than men,’ explains health coach Harri Rose, who specialises in body acceptance and rejecting diet culture. ‘That said, the beauty and “wellness” industry has been growing for the male market and this has resulted in more pressure on men to look a certain way to be attractive (fuelled greatly by Instagram gym and fitness culture, and shows such as Love Island). As with female beauty standards, the image held up for men, that of a lean, toned god-like figure, is as un-achievable for the average guy.’
“The image held up for men, that of a lean, toned god-like figure, is as un-achievable for the average guy”
And being unhappy with your body runs deeper than just disliking what you see in the mirror. Being constantly bombarded with an unrealistic masculine ‘ideal’ is causing men to feel shame and anxiety about their bodies around the country. What’s more, as the Mental Health Foundation’s survey shows, higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of developing unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.
With this in mind, it’s time to tackle this body negativity among men head on. ‘In order for these pressures to be outed, it is up to men to speak out about these increasing pressure on them to look a certain way,’ says Rose. ‘However, we sadly exist in a society where toxic masculinity gags many men from showing vulnerability or expressing emotions that might make them look ‘weak’. We all must battle this and shout that it actually takes bravery to show up in a way that shows your vulnerability. Being openly body positive on the internet as a man, especially a man in a bigger body, takes incredible courage because not only are you battling beauty standards but you’re also battling against gender stereotypes.’
Now is the perfect opportunity to show your support for the male body positivity movement, and ask for a greater range of male body types to be shown across the media space. More than anything, men have to take a leaf out of women’s book in terms of learning to celebrate different body types and speaking out about their anxieties and insecurities with their own bodies. Of course, battling against ingrained social norms and expectations is hard – but only by leaning into this growing problem will men be able to get to body acceptance.
For more information on body image and mental health, go to mentalhealth.org.uk