A new study confirms what we know: That more men than the media typically portrays admit to being anxious and unconfident about their body image.
New Look have recently commissioned a One Poll survey of 2,000 British male adults. It found that more men admit to being anxious and unconfident about their body image than the press or online resources would suggest. Google records thousands of results for “women’s body confidence” online in contrast to only 8 results for “men’s body confidence” [include speech marks]. This fact probably resonates with a similar study commissioned by Central YMCA and the Succeed Foundation that found men fear being judged by male friends for exhibiting too much concern about their image resulting to stress over food intake and diet in secret.
With societies’ hand on the pulse of popularity, we’re often left to wonder — why don’t men ever talk about body image issues? Would they be deemed sensitive or weak if they discussed the dissatisfaction of their appearance? Would they not be looked at as protectors and/or leaders if they honestly admitted that they have physical insecurities? Has pop culture demoralized morality and influenced masculinity to the point that men have disassociated themselves with the authenticity of vulnerability?
Messages in the media about feeling and looking powerful have a huge influence on boys. Over the past 30 years, the ideal male physique has gained muscle and lost body fat. Now, online forums and blogs make it easy to seek and share information about diet and fitness that’s not always healthy.
Boys are encouraged at an early age to think that being a man and being strong go hand in hand. Halloween superhero costumes are padded to make 6-year-olds look like they have six-packs. As they grow older, the pressure to “man up” can sometimes lead to crash diets, over exercising, smoking, or even taking dangerous supplements. And in a culture that discourages boys from talking about their feelings, it can be that much harder for parents to detect their son’s body dissatisfaction.
Evidence shows that popular culture places burdens on both men’s and women’s wellbeing and self-esteem, often resulting in low confidence and self-consciousness. From a historical perspective people, have focused more on female body image because women are perceived to have more body image issues. But that’s not necessarily the case. The cultural expectation for men’s bodies has evolved in the last several decades. Because the conversation around body image has been so focused on the feminine perspective for so long, many guys may feel bad about their appearance, but they may not quite know what to do with those feelings.
In a separate survey, conducted by New Look, 35% of women surveyed claimed that they tend to feel unconfident about their bodies with figures being almost the same as for males. In fact, women appeared to be more confident about their body image than men: 37% to 35%. A similar study found that men now spend over three hours a week on average stressing over their image and feel the level of expectation upon them is rising. “It is true that in the overall evaluation of a person’s physical appearance is still more a part of how women are evaluated than men. There are more stringent standards for female beauty,” experts say. “But they think that the standards for men are equally hard to obtain in terms of muscularity leanness and youth.”
Novelist and biographer Frances Wilson mentions that men have always been preoccupied with their appearance, historically even more so than women but now it has become more acceptable and more visible. Wilson points to a creeping vogue towards the admiration of male beauty that hasn’t existed with such intensity before. ‘I think it’s a gender issue – as a society it’s become acceptable to admit we like male beauty. When I grew up, men were invisible and women were very visible, now it’s almost the reverse. Staring at a beautiful woman can be regarded as demeaning and undermining to her but staring at a beautiful man enhances his power. It’s about degrees of legitimate objectification.’
You need only look at the raft of pwhoar-some commentary over the actor Zac Efron’s latest striptease, the former rugby international Thom Evans’s underwear ad campaign, and at the success of the website TubeCrush for evidence that society’s eye is set firmly on what men look like.
Men’s grooming is one of the fastest growing sectors of the British beauty market, with men’s skincare estimated as worth £60 million last year, a rise of 20 per cent in the past five years. HSBC this year identified a new group of consumers called the ‘yummy’,young urban male professionals who spend their money on personal grooming and fitness.
Pressures to maintain their looks paired with the influence of well-groomed celebrities such as Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are thought to have led to the recent increase in spending habits.
On average men spend 81 minutes a day on personal grooming, including cleansing, toning and moisturising, shaving, styling hair and choosing clothes, the study found.
Women have their beauty regime down to a fine art and get hair, clothes and make-up done in just 75 minutes.
Personal trainer Matt Roberts also points to Britain’s tricky economic terrain as a catalyst for this focus on the physical. ‘I think the recession acted as a real shake-up for most men in terms of harnessing a competitive spirit that naturally bled into fitness and looks. It became about marking yourself as the dominant male and showing that you’re stronger, fitter, in better shape and more dynamic than the men around you.’
The New Look survey showed that the most common causes of men’s body insecurities are excess fat (26%), the waistline (18%), height, muscle size and definition and penis size. A similar survey conducted by Central YMCA and the Succeed Foundation has concluded that men when asked to rate their worries on different areas of their self-image were found to show most anxiety around fears they were overweight or had a beer belly (58%), yellowing teeth (20%) and concerns over lack of muscle (14%).
‘For the past 10 years eating disorders in men have been steadily rising,’ Sam Thomas, the founder and director of the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, says, citing last year’s report from the Royal College of Practitioners that found a 66 per cent rise in the number of men being treated for eating disorders. ‘Now studies from the NHS Information Centre show that approximately one quarter of all sufferers of eating disorders are male,’ he says.
Thomas points to celebrity culture as one reason that men today are feeling pressure about how they look. ‘There are two extremes of cases that we see. One is the traditional masculine image of what a man should look like – muscly, macho – and the opposite is the super slim. The difference between men and women is that women have one slim ideal, whereas men are expected to be both slim and defined and muscly.’
The fashion industry’s focus on a youth-centric, skinny boy image – almost as big a trend as their teenage female counterparts.
Other interesting findings from the survey included people from the North East region of the UK to be the most confident (with an average of 5.70 out of 10) in contrast to Wales with the least body confident women and the South East with the least body confident men.
Finally, another surprising result is that men appear to consistently get more bodily confident with age, aside from the 25-34 year old age group, who were found to have the least confidence in their bodies.
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–Photo: Karina Lamontagne/Flickr