For female-identifying people the struggle with body image has been a long and storied affair, documented in every magazine, movie, and tv show we’ve seen. Much emphasis has been placed on being thin, young, and flawless. And anyone straying from a very narrow band on the spectrum runs the risk of being mocked, shamed, picked apart, and left drained, dejected, or even suicidal. The weight loss industry has grown to tap into the culture of fear and self-consciousness about our bodies to the tune of $66.3 BILLION in 2017 alone.
There are signs of change happening, but in 2019 the norm is still young, white, and thin.
A similar issue that is now making its way into the spotlight is male-identifying people and their struggle with body image. A discussion of body image in male culture cannot really be separated from a discussion about toxic masculinity and the toll it takes on young men on a daily basis. But for the sake of this post, I’d like to focus specifically on pop culture representation of what a handsome, virile, relevant man is supposed to look like. And much like for the ladies, the ideal for men is more often than not young, muscular, and white with a full head of hair.
The men’s hair loss and replacement industry was valued at $2.3 BILLION in 2017, with 397,048 hair loss replacement procedures happening in 2014 alone.
Men are just as vulnerable to the images of what a “real man” should look like as women are to what a “real woman” should look like. However, men are less likely to talk about their insecurities or seek out help and will instead struggle alone with the personal effects.
As a queer man, I have seen this issue from a unique perspective. Straight men will definitely get more of a pass from society in terms of what an average body will look like. Just look at any sitcom like “King of Queens” where a skinny wife is paired with a larger husband. But even in this regard, there is an assumed inherent comedic sight gag to having a “beautiful” woman married to a “fat” husband. In gay culture, a premium is still placed on being well muscled or rail thin. Anything that deviates is considered a subculture, like bears or daddies, and isn’t really considered a norm.
No matter your place on the gender spectrum, body image is something we all struggle with.
A heartening trend that has appeared in recent years is the body positivity trend. Models and advocates who don’t fit into the narrow bands of what is usually thought of as “beautiful” are being more visible and more vocal in terms of loving their bodies and making the case that you can be healthy, happy, and attractive no matter your body type. Although this call to love yourself is a step in the right direction, does it really address the underlying issue? Is forcing yourself to “love your body” at all times really a healthy alternative?
I recently read an article “Should We Swap ‘Body Positivity’ for ‘Body Neutrality” and it raised some valid concerns. In the article, the author writes “…instead of fighting to love our flaws, we learn to just accept them. For many people, the idea of loving their bodies unconditionally just isn’t achievable, but celebrating our bodies on the days when we feel good, and accepting it on the days when we don’t, is the positive premise that neutrality presents.” As a life coach, this resonates with me on many levels. Body positivity has the connotation that we should love ourselves no matter what. And any phrase that has the word should in it rings alarm bells for me. Yes, there is value in loving who you are, but when it becomes an imperative to be positive about it at all times there is more room for “failure” and a backslide into unhealthy thought patterns and habits.
On the other hand, body neutrality or acceptance doesn’t include any stringent requirements. With neutrality and acceptance, you can embrace and love your body on days when you’re feeling it, and on those days where you aren’t quite at 100%, you can still look at yourself in the mirror and accept yourself exactly as you are. Because people aren’t perfect. Bodies aren’t perfect. Those celebrities and models who are held up as the examples of what “perfect” is…really aren’t. They have armies of make up artists, and trainers, and nutritionists, and photographers helping them look “perfect”. It’s their job to look as perfect as they can. They get paid for it.
But what about the rest of us? Without the armies of help to look our “best”, we are all left as the universe made us… natural. And the more we all can begin to see ourselves in that natural light and ACCEPT that image, the more we can reach out and accept each other exactly as we are, and the more the weight of trying to be perfect and all the “shoulds” begin to melt away.
And that is a solid step on a new path to happiness and success.