The road less traveled: looking at men’s body image

vintagebodybuilder_bigI have a lot of male friends and colleagues. They’re, for the most part, really good people who care about themselves and about the people around them. They get it when I talk about what it is to be a fat girl in a thin world, and they’ve even added really valuable insight into the body image issues that I’ve confronted over the past few years.

But here’s the thing: we know women are bombarded with unrealistic images every single day, and that the pressure on them to  look good is tremendous. And many of us know it’s total crap and we need to redefine what femininity, beauty and human value are. But when you think about it, how often does this come up in connection with men?

The answer is not often, in my experience. And don’t get me wrong: I’ve had enough feminism conversations to curl your hair, and not much makes me as angry as when we’re like, “Hey, violence against women is a really shitty thing that needs to be stopped,” and your token MRA in the room writes back, “But what about me?! I asked a woman out the other day and she slapped me in the face! Men are mistreated, too!” In fact, little makes me want to curl up in a ball and weep more for the future of humankind than this total and utter lack of perspective and lack of understanding that some things are really just a scale and severity issue. But I think at the same time, there is a time and a place for these things (the time and place for that guy was not on an article documenting how many women+ experience gender-based violence), and I can hardly claim to be any kind of authority on body image if I tell the fellas, “Sorry, but you just don’t matter.”

So today we’re going to talk about men. We’re going to talk about how gay men simply don’t get realistic representations that they can relate to in film and magazines, body-wise, and are constantly made to feel less than. We’re going to talk about how straight men have a box they’re meant to fit into, aren’t allowed to say what they really think, and if they do…well, I guess they’re just not men. And we’re going to talk about how some men don’t identify as queer, but really, really like to wear a dress from time to time, and how confusing that is for (seemingly) everyone on Earth.

Gay men in the media

Picture as typical a gay male character as you can from a TV show, reality TV or fictional. Let me describe him to you: he’s young, tall, muscular, good-looking, cisgender, has great hair, a good sense of fashion, and he’s most likely white. How did I do?

This is most often how gay men are portrayed in the media, and it’s kind of disgusting. It’s not like gay men like that don’t exist, but when you saturate a medium with the same images over and over again, they become an expectation. So if you’re the short, fat, black gay trans man who’s starting to bald, where do you go from there?

Much as women are suffering from the pressures of being thin and beautiful, gay men are also suffering from being told that they need to be ripped and well-groomed. Even things that try to get on the side of the gay male population uphold this stereotype (and a lot of others, for that matter). Have you see the Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriends bit by College Humor? Check it out:

In the queer community, men are hit extra hard by eating disorders. There are so many theories as to why this is, but gay men are even more likely to have eating disorders than young, straight, white women (the demographic usually associated with eating disorders). And while people like to think that eating disorders are a women’s problem, that’s really not helping anything. It’s believed that only a fraction of men who have these disorders actually seek help, because of the stigma attached to men in connection with eating disorders.

So how about this: let’s talk about more diversity in gay men than the ones who are tall, thin, white, cisgender, ripped, good-looking, fashionable, rich, great at cooking and Broadway performers. It’s really not that hard.

The man box

For a man to be a man, he has to act like a man. Didn’t you know this?

Tony Porter’s TED Talk (linked again here) is a good summary of what the man box is. It’s a really narrow set of rules that men have to abide by, or else their masculinity is called into question. So emotions, aside from anger, are unacceptable if you’re a man. That means that expressing things like insecurity and a lack of confidence is utterly forbidden. Imperfections aren’t allowed. Men need to be emotionally, physically and mentally strong at all times, and that means being ripped, as well as being independent. You can’t rely on anyone or anything. If you do, you’re weak.

But there’s a serious problem with that model: it’s a lie. Nobody can be independent of everyone else, all the time. And so what happens is that men will tend towards “taking care of themselves” by depending instead on superficial things. You can’t depend too much on your buddies, right? Let’s depend instead on the gym to make us physically strong. Let’s depend on the car dealership to hook us up with enviable wheels, and the fanciest store we can find to sell us a suit that makes us feel hot. This is the problem with constantly feeding men the line that they need to be independent and strong.

Sometimes men just want to find meaning in things that expose their vulnerabilities. Sometimes men want to embrace their son and cry with him. Sometimes men want to tell a woman, “You know what? I know I have a fancy car, but really, I feel scared all the time, and right now I’m scared that you’ll turn me down.” But this is unimaginable. No real man would do that, right?

What does this have to do with body image? A lot. The way we see ourselves profoundly impacts the way we see our bodies. If you see yourself as worthy of love, you will treat your body well and love it. If you’re constantly afraid of rejection, of letting some kind of emotion slip, or of saying the wrong thing, you’ll also be afraid of your body being rejected, recognizing your own insecurities, or deviating even slightly from how your body is supposed to look.

Think about the images we see every day on the covers of magazines, in advertisements, and on television. The portrayal of serious straight male leads is fairly uniform: athletic and muscular, in charge of the situation, and able to (often effortlessly) get the girl. Think James Bond, superhero movies, and action/thrillers. When we turn to straight men in comedies (by definition a genre where you need to be able to laugh at them), that’s where you get your gangly, not very good-looking, clumsy men who bumble around and might get the girl in the end if they’re lucky (think Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler). There’s typically a sharp contrast between the cool guy and the not-so-cool guy. And even when there isn’t, it’s not that the cool guy is getting closer to the funny guy; it’s the other way around. Funny guys become cool when they get buff, for instance. (Not that this series is really worth using as an example of anything, but did we notice that as soon as Jacob got buff in Twilight, Bella was all over him? And did we notice that Taylor Lautner’s real-life fan base exploded at that point?) And this is only looking at cis male leads; even considering putting trans men in mainstream roles is unthinkable at this point, which can be devastating to trans men who need “opportunity models” (as Laverne Cox would put it).

Insofar as we talk about the impact the media has on women’s body image (which, of course, is definitely worth talking about), it’s also important to recognize media messaging about men. In ads that have both male and female models, for instance, there is always a very different message sent about men than that sent about women, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both harmful. In keeping with the straight male theme, take, for instance, the ads below:

If you don’t see a trend, you probably aren’t trying very hard. The men are ripped. They’re ripped, and they’ve got women around them. It’s not a huge logical leap to then feel like being ripped is how men get women to be around them. You may also notice that men are seldom fully dressed when they’re interacting with women in the ad. Why would they be? Then you can’t see their bodies. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the fashion/cosmetics industry makes money off of insecurity. It’s very good for business for people to feel inadequate because then they buy lots of stuff to make up for it. Not ripped? Buy our clothes so you still look good enough to get the girl! Hair not shiny enough? Get our amazing shampoo/gel/whatever to make your hair look perfect! It’s what we’re fed every day, and in an attempt to keep us dependent on the products that big corporations would love us to keep buying.

Talking about this stuff is hard for straight men, because they’re not supposed to. It’s especially hard for straight men to seek help for eating disorders, because stereotypes make them fear they’ll be thought of as less of a man if they tell anyone about their eating disorder. (Part of this ties back to how things associated with women, or the effeminization of men, is seen as a reduction of value. Some pretty messed up stuff that definitely needs to be looked at.)

Male gender expression

I once knew a guy who was a straight, cis male who liked wearing women’s clothing. He would try to explain this to people, and even people who didn’t laugh or try to belittle him (which was a pitifully small number because people can be really big assholes) still had trouble wrapping their heads around the idea. If he wasn’t gay or trans, why on Earth was he dressing in women’s clothing?

The answer at the end of the day is simple: because he wants to. It feels right to him, and it’s really nobody’s business, as long as he’s not hurting anyone else in the process. (And if you’re one of those awful people who says, “Well, it is hurting me, because it hurts my eyes!” just do us all a favour and fuck off.) Body image and gender expression have a strong link. If we don’t feel like you’re expressing our gender properly, we tend to lash out at ourselves, often taking it out on our bodies. After all, our bodies are how we most overtly express our gender, for the most part. How can we feel positive about our body if it feels like our body is in conflict with how we actually feel?

What we often tend to forget is that gender is a construct. I’m not talking about biology. (Biology is biology; you’re not going to birth a kid without ovaries, and I know that.) I’m talking about gender, which is a set of rules that society constructs for us to live by. Usually, based on what’s between our legs, a doctor decides which category we fit into when we’re born and society raises us according to those rules. But the thing is, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I go to a party, and my friend says, “Oh, hey, George! Have you met Lia?” I don’t whip out my vagina and say, “Here you go! Now you have!” Our genitals have nothing to do with who we are as humans, nothing to do with how we think and feel. They have very little to do with the decisions we make. And so isn’t it kind of ridiculous to think that because I’ve got a vagina, I need to fall into only one of two categories?

I would suggest that we stop looking at gender as a binary, and start realizing that it is entirely fluid. Just because I don’t shave my armpits doesn’t mean I don’t feel like a woman. And just because a man likes wearing dresses from time to time doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel like a man.

Moving forward

In short: can we stop telling people how they have to be? I demand this for women, and I think it’s important to demand this for men and non-binary folk while we’re at it. We need more diversity in the media. We need realistic portrayal of currently marginalized groups. We need to embrace our own feelings about our body, judgement be damned, and make sure people know that judgement is unacceptable. We need to call people out on their hate and oppression. And perhaps most importantly, we need to call ourselves out on our hate and oppression (whether it’s directed at others or ourselves).

Men’s bodies are not a one-size-fits-all thing. Let’s act like it.


About Lia

Lia is a fat-positive social justice activist who's got a particular penchant for tough gender issues. She's a passionate vegan cook, dabbling crafter and avid gardener, and spends as much time as she can with good people in cafés, talking body and gender politics.

2 comments on “The road less traveled: looking at men’s body image

  1. Thanks for this post. I like that you didn’t frame things with the victim paradigm, which though it applies in certain contexts is often overused. Challenging male gender roles is important, and I think this can be done in a positive manner as you’ve done here. But of course challenging gender roles isn’t what MRAs are about (quite the opposite), though their promotion of traditional gender roles is oddly approached with the victim paradigm applied to the historically powerful gender.

  2. Thank you, Siegfried. I appreciate your take on MRAs, and agree that much of the rhetoric does little to challenge existing gender roles. It’s unfortunate, because there are so many men’s issues that are really important to talk about, but because of really short-sighted philosophies or the victim paradigm, as you mentioned, a lot of people hear someone bring up men’s issues and just stop listening because they’re used to it turning into shenanigans. MRAs are as harmful to solving men’s problems as they are to solving women’s, if you ask me.

    Thanks again for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

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