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The unspoken plight of male body image

Sam Smith speaks about about male body image (Source: marcen27 via Flickr)

By Emily Withers

With social media and online articles showing off perfect celebrity bodies, it has become common acceptance that the pressure on women and girls to look like runway models is too much. But little attention is given to the men and boys who are going through the exact same thing.

A 2016 survey found that 55% of boys aged 8-18 would change their diet to attain a certain body type, with pressure coming from friends, family and celebrities to conform to a specific look. While it is clear that we have a problem with the stigma surrounding male body image issues in our society, there seems to be little we are doing about it.

This year marks an unprecedented number of male celebrities opening up about their own body image issues, including singer Sam Smith, whose unashamedly honest Instagram post opened up conversation about services available for young men who are struggling with body image.

While the focus for women is often to lose weight to attain a ‘flat stomach’, men are statistically more likely to want to gain weight to become more muscular. These ideals of the male body are perpetuated by constant online images and magazine photoshoots of underwear models and celebrities. However, what is not emphasised by these images is that these body types are not attainable or healthy for all men, and may have been achieved by over exercising and obsessively tracking food intake.

Mental health experts agree that men have a harder time accessing communication regarding body image and talking through issues when they arise. While there has been wider acceptance of a range of body types in recent years, it seems that there is still some stigma surrounding male body image insecurities and allowing men to talk through their issues.

The stigma men feel surrounding body image is linked to a wider issue of male mental health. It is common to see powerful men in the media who fit the ‘strong’ image of an unbreakable hero. This stereotype is emphasised by common phrases like ‘man up’ and ‘crying like a little girl’. In these images, there is little room for showing poor mental health, and this may leave men feeling confused and embarrassed about having their own struggles.

In recent years, charities such as the Movember Foundation and Mind Cymru have been raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention for men. In Wales, the suicide rate for men is higher than any other part of the UK, where it is already three times more likely for men to kill themselves than women. It is clear that the stigma surrounding mental health problems in men has played a part in these figures.

So what can we do? Sharing personal stories of mental health and body image struggles not only helps others do the same, but normalises issues that are out of our control. There are numerous resources available online, through charities, and through the University that can inform you how to help others who may be struggling with their mental health. Opening up is the real way to ‘man up’.

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