‘It’s just as hard to be Ken as it is to be Barbie.’
I think I can honestly say that I have never met a person who is completely happy with how they look. My friends and I often fantasise about what cosmetic surgery we would get if we had the money. Sad, isn’t it? The stereotype is that women are more concerned about their body image than men are. However, with increasing societal pressures, such as the impact of social media, men have become just as self-conscious.
Within male friendship groups, men joke about each other’s appearance as a substitute for saying something affectionate or complimentary, as if jokingly criticising is a manly show of affection and giving a genuine compliment is unmanly. But when does this banter go too far and start to affect a person’s mental health?
Whether it’s bald-shaming, making fun of a beer belly, or Chewbacca banter about back hair, men’s natural reaction to this kind of self-esteem bashing is to shrug it off and dismiss it as harmless joking around, because that’s how men are expected to deal with it. But behind this self-deprecating humour is the fear of not measuring up.
What’s changed in recent times is where this body image pressure comes from, the intensity of it and the harm it’s doing. The blame lies mainly with the rise of social media and the harmful influences of apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, with the need for the approval and gratification of others through likes and comments online.
If I ask my male friends what they see as the ‘perfect male body’ they would say a low body fat content and lots of muscle with a narrow waist and large shoulders, giving the body that V-shape. Thirst-trap TV shows like Love Island show a production-line version of the male body – one that is ripped as hell, tall, tanned, with fake teeth and perfectly groomed hair. These shows, along with porn, have brainwashed men. This body type is unrealistic to achieve for anyone who does not have thousands of pounds at their disposal to chuck at personal trainers, beauticians and surgeons. I think I speak for many girls when I say that there is nothing remotely wrong with a dad bod!
From TV to magazines to children’s toys, boys are being exposed to unrealistic images of what a man’s body is supposed to look like from a young age. If you look at any men’s health magazine, the bodies are idealised, airbrushed, and tweaked to look ‘perfect’. Like the unrealistic measurements of the Barbie doll, action figures like G.I. Joe have become taller and more muscular – so much so that it would be impossible for any real man to have the same proportions.
Sadly, we are only now beginning to understand the impact of relentless social media bombardment. Muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia’, amongst men is on the increase, as are eating disorders and anxiety connected to appearance. The number of boys suffering from eating disorders has increased significantly in the last seven years. Figures from the statistics agency NHS Digital show that the number of boys going into hospitals with eating disorders in England, Scotland and Wales has nearly doubled since 2010. How can we ensure the boys and men we care about don’t become another body-dysmorphic statistic?
It is easier said than done, but men need to stop comparing themselves to media images of masculinity and the ‘perfect’ body. Limiting social media screen time and being selective on who to follow is a good start. It is imperative to recognise that we are living in an age of not only fake news, but fake lives too. These influencers that we follow on Instagram with their perfect bodies and perfect lives do not really exist. If you want happiness, you need to accept yourself.