Men’s body dissatisfaction is serious: But we shouldn’t blame women for it

(A version of this blog was first published in The Conversation.com under a Creative Commons license.)


'Body dissatisfaction' is extensively reported among men and it’s harmful. The research base compellingly shows this. It is related to clinical disorders (e.g., depression) but also, and more commonly, punishing gym routines, overly strict dieting, and repetitive anxious thoughts. For example, as participants in mine and colleagues’ focus groups told me, body dissatisfaction can mean a waste of money: “you buy it, [try it and think it’s not flattering] and then you just never wear it’ (Peter), a waste of a good time: or “I would like [not have sex] and like my girlfriend would be like ‘Why? There’s no [reason].It’s not even a big deal’ like and I’d go like ‘oh it’s just me, I feel shit about [my stomach size]”’ (Gabriel) or even a waste of a promising career: “I used to be on a swimming team and now I don’t dare go into the pool anymore” (Nathan).

Are women to blame?

Effective support is needed to combat male body dissatisfaction. But it’s seriously hard to find. Just 3% of research published in a leading and international eating disorders journal attempted to actually prevent eating disorders. Similarly, there aren’t many existing programmes to reduce male body dissatisfaction and the ones that do exist tend to have limited benefits beyond 3 months after their delivery. This support is so lacking because the problem is treated in one of two ways. The first is treating body dissatisfaction as if it is individually caused so that if a man can change his behaviour or his thinking (e.g., stop ‘internalizing’ appearance pressures and avoid consuming appearance focussed media) than his body dissatisfaction should reduce. As Harvard Professor Bryn Austin writes about this approach: “[it is] needlessly limited in the potential to have a meaningful impact and even unethical, placing the burden solely on individuals while leaving toxic environments and societal bad actors unchallenged". 


The second way the problem is treated is as if it is caused purely by other people especially women. Since starting to research this topic in 2011, I have noticed a tendency to blame women for this problem by researchers, media commentators and individuals. As I detail in the below video, mothers are depicted as supposedly modelling unhealthy behaviours onto their sons, feminists onto innocent men and women on their well-meaning potential male dating partners. Not only is this unfair to women – who face more extensive and unrelenting appearance pressures than men – but it’s unfair to men with body dissatisfaction as it ignores the real cause of this.  

  

The real cause of men’s body dissatisfaction

We know what the real causes are. Just as we've seen a recent uptake in male dissatisfaction with muscles, hairline, wrinkles and body fat so too have we seen a heavy cultural and commercial promotion of unrealistic appearance standards. One of the most compelling examples of this, is the way toy manufacturers have added muscle and reduced the body fat  of successive editions of Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and GI Joe action dolls over the years. More generally, we can see a rise in businesses marking protein shakes, cosmetic surgery, 'man make up', and male cellulite creams. This is not a coincidence: in the words of Susie Orbach (2012): "businesses are mining our bodies for profits", or in other words promoting appearance insecurity to sell products. It is these that we must focus on and properly regulate if we are to reduce not only men’s body dissatisfaction but also women’s.

Glen Jankowski is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. He is interested in feminist-, anti-anti-racist-, and Marxist- approaches to psychology. He is a committee member of the BPS Psychology of Women and Equalities Section and blogs at: https://glenjankowski.wordpress.com


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