Men May Have Body Image Problems, But Do Women Still Have it Worse?

My column at Jezebel this week looks at the remarkable recent uptick in media attention to guys with eating disorders: Can Plus-Size Male Models and Nude Photo Shoots Help Men’s Body Image? Excerpt:

Perhaps 1 in 4 of the 1.6 million Britons with an eating disorder are male, writes Joseph Stashko in the New Statesman. (The National Eating Disorders Association suggests that 1 in 10 anorexia or bulimia sufferers in the US are men, a discrepancy that may well be down to male under-reporting.) Stashko, who vividly describes his own battle with anorexia, laments that “any sufferer looking for help online will find they come across information almost exclusively tailored towards women…the fact that so little is written about male experiences of eating disorders compounds the issue and makes you feel even more like a weirdo who’s failed at being a man.”

A significant part of the problem Stashko describes isn’t just the absence of resources directed at men battling anorexia or bulimia. It’s that our images of male beauty and desirability are in some ways even more limited and unattainable than those offered to women. While we assume men are allowed greater leeway to be physically imperfect, how often do we see shirtless male models that are anything but perfectly ripped? As the fashion industry moves tentatively towards promoting a wider (and perhaps healthier) size continuum for female models, a soft body is still anathema for men in fashion. The tyranny of the six-pack is absolute.

A kerfuffle emerged in the Jezebel comments section (and on Jezebel’s Facebook page) about whether the male body image crisis is a real thing or a media fabrication designed to distract attention from women’s issues. Most folks seem to recognize that the issue is real; check out this terrific article in the Atlantic by Rebecca Wagner, or the remarkable story about singer D’Angelo’s struggles in GQ. Sexualization of boys is also a growing problem, as Amy Jussel and Spark Summit’s Bailey Shoemaker Richards make clear in this powerful essay.

As a great many commenters have said, suffering is not a zero-sum game. Acknowledging that men and boys also battle body shame and eating disorders needn’t mean ignoring the tremendous pain of women and girls. At the same time, I’m not claiming a false equivalence. When it comes to eating disorders, men make up between 10-25% of those afflicted; even allowing for masculine “tough guy” underreporting, virtually everyone agrees that more women than men struggle with these diseases. We can start to strategize to reach the men and boys who are suffering without ignoring the reality that the body image crisis is still heavily gendered.

A personal note: though I’d struggled with body shame since the time I first hit puberty, I didn’t start seriously dieting or compulsively exercising until I was 25. In the summer of 1992, my first wife and I separated. Depressed and lonely, I lost my appetite. I weighed about 180 pounds on my 6’1″ frame before the split; within three months I’d lost 35 pounds. As I dropped more and more weight, I found myself getting hooked on the thrill of the losing — and the high that came from my imagined self-control in limiting myself to under 1000 calories a day. I don’t know if I met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, but I certainly was engaged in borderline anorectic behavior.

As I got skinnier and skinnier (below 165 pounds, my facial features tend to become rather skeletal), more and more family and friends began to express concern. Some of my fellow UCLA graduate students spread the rumor that I had AIDS; several people sat me down for mini-interventions. No one — no one — told me I looked good. Everyone said “you’re much too thin,” or “please gain weight!” As a man, my eating disorder was discouraged and prompted alarm.

My female friends who struggled with similar disorders got very different reactions. As they lost weight to the point of emaciation, they got as many compliments as expressions of concern. In many instances, the praise and the encouragement continued even as these women damaged their health, a point made with brutal clarity in Carré Otis’ memoir, Beauty, Disrupted.

My self-loathing was terrible in 1992; my dieting extreme. There’s no point in trying to discern whether I had it “worse” or “easier” than my female peers who were also battling body dysmorphia. Yet there’s no doubt that in terms of public reaction, I had it much easier — evidence of my disease brought an avalanche of concern and worry, while the same evidence in my female friends brought toxic encouragement. My recovery was exponentially easier as a result of that male privilege.

Of course, that was 1992. The standards for both male and female beauty have gotten dramatically more extreme in the past 20 years. The ideal body is more unattainable than ever, and the number of male sufferers has risen demonstrably. But I still suspect that when it comes to social reinforcement/discouragement for eating disorders, women have it worse. Acknowledging that gendered reality, however, doesn’t make men’s pain any less authentic or any less deserving of our concern.

Of vibrators, clitoridectomies, and the story behind the Hysteria movie

I’m back from baby hiatus with a new Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today: Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women’s Orgasms. Riffing on the popularity of the new movie Hysteria, the article looks at the different approaches to women’s bodies — and women’s pleasure — in Victorian England. Excerpt:

It’s as easy to celebrate Dr. Granville, the vibrator inventor and hero of the Hysteria movie, as it is to demonize his genital-mutilating contemporary, Dr. Baker-Brown. But the two Victorian physicians had much in common. Not only did both believe in hysteria as a legitimate medical condition, they both believed in men’s responsibility to exert complete mastery over women’s pleasure. One wanted to make women orgasm in his office, on his terms, and with his invention. The other wanted to ensure that women didn’t orgasm at all, thanks to his procedure. Their patients obviously experienced different results, and we’re rightly more outraged by Baker-Brown than by Granville. Those differences shouldn’t obscure the reality that each made his reputation by proposing new techniques to help men control women’s sexuality.

Granville and Baker-Brown agreed on something else: the dangers of female masturbation. It was only in the mid-19th century that medical texts began to discuss the clitoris and its evident purpose. Doctors were as troubled by its location as by its possibilities; why was the clitoris located within easy reach of the average woman’s fingers but not inside the vagina, where it would be more easily stimulated during intercourse? The obvious conclusion — that women are designed to experience sexual pleasure without relying on a man –- was enormously threatening to the medical establishment (and plenty of ordinary men as well.) Female masturbation (something that some male doctors had once considered impossible) represented women’s independence. Neither Granville nor Baker-Brown could countenance that.

Male Desire, Women’s Body Image

At Jezebel today, I look at men’s hunger to impress other men — and how that drives their sexual choices. Excerpt:

Eating disorders — and the broader problem of poor body image — aren’t unique to women, nor can they be attributed to one single cause. But it’s undeniable that whatever the truth about men’s desires, young women’s perception of “what guys want” plays a huge part in the pursuit of thinness. While the fashion industry deserves some blame for perpetuating an unattainable ideal, men’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of their own desires is a key aspect of the problem. In other words, it’s not that all men — or even most straight white men — genuinely prefer skinny women. It’s that for a great many men, having a thin, conventionally pretty girlfriend is a way to win status in the eyes of other men. It’s not actually about what they themselves want. Put simply, men and women alike confuse what it is that men are attracted to with what it is that men imagine will win them approval.

Writing in the Times last weekend, Alice Randall reminded us that what we lust after is at least partly socially conditioned. In “Why Black Women Are Fat,” Randall argues that many black women are unhealthily overweight because of their perceptions of black male desire: “How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one. But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.” Randall cites the 1967 Joe Tex hit Skinny Legs and All (a forerunner to the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot anthem Baby Got Back) and its dismissiveness of thin women as a reason why she grew up “praying for fat thighs.”

Though Randall acknowledges that obesity among black women has many causes, she leads off by fingering black women’s expectations of what black men want. Her article raises two obvious points. First, if black women are fearful of losing weight because of how their black male partners will react, surely the same thing is true in reverse for many American white women who fear gaining weight. Second, Randall’s claim about black men’s preference for fat makes it clear just how much male desire for specific body types is driven by culture rather than by evolution. (No one has yet discovered an “I prefer fat women” gene that’s dominant in black men and recessive in white dudes.) And if it’s cultural, then — as Randall suggests in her article — it can be changed, can’t it?

New Video from “Healthy is the New Skinny”

Healthy is the New Skinny and the Perfectly Unperfected Project have released two new videos. In the first, Katie Halchishick and I talk about the whole issue of authenticity and beauty — a discussion of real v. fake similar to the one I touched on in this Jezebel piece. The second looks at the issue of bullying in schools, and explains how the PUP program can be part of the solution.

Check out Real Beauty and Bullying in Schools.

Pushing Back Against the Real/Fake Trope

Today’s Genderal Interest column at Jezebel: Real Women Have… Bodies. It begins:

Last week, the UK lingerie chain Ann Summers launched a new campaign using what the company claims are “real women” from across England as its models. Theirs is the latest example of authenticity advertising, a trend that dates back to 2004, when Dove launched its iconic “Real Beauty” campaign. In the 21st century, “realness” is now a marketing mainstay. But it’s also become a divisive concept, as those who fall short of what’s “real” are inevitably derided as “fake.”

It’s been nearly a decade since the release of 2002’s Real Women Have Curves, the film that made America Ferrera a star and served as likely inspiration for what Dove would soon develop. As charming as the movie was, the darker implication of the phrase was hard to miss: if real women have curves, then perhaps women who don’t are “less real.” A new double-bind for women was born: those who met the skinny ideal could now be labeled “unreal,” and those who were still shamed for being heavy were now encouraged to take some sort of comfort in being more “legitimate” than their slender sisters. As a result, the real/fake dichotomy became as common — and in some ways, as toxic — as the old virgin/whore dynamic.

Read the whole thing.

Redefining the Hot Man

I have a piece up at Good Men Project today, looking at the new Man as Object exhibit at SOMARTS San Francisco. It’s an exciting initiative. We May Be Hotter than We Know looks at this exhibit. An excerpt:

Among many other things, I work as a director of a modeling and management agency, Natural Models LA. We represent female models across a broad spectrum of size, from 2 to 20, though most of the women whom we’ve signed are between 12-16. The plus-size modeling business has been around for 35 years, and is both increasingly lucrative and increasingly influential within the broader beauty industry. Though it’s taken a long time, and we still have a long way to go, we’ve succeeded in creating at least some “counter-images” in the media, images that remind us that female beauty is not just found in one size or shape. The co-founder and CEO of our agency, Katie Halchishick, was recently featured in this now-iconic shot in O Magazine. Though in many ways things are “worse” for women, we are slowly getting the chance to see female bodies that deviate from the narrow ideal but which are, nonetheless, stunningly beautiful.

But we’re not “there yet” with men. There is no equivalent “plus-size” division for men. (The few fashion editorials that have featured “larger” men have used amateurs, not professional male plus-size models, who don’t really exist yet.) While agencies like ours work hard to expand the spectrum of what is considered beautiful for women, young men are reminded that if they want to be “hot,” they have little choice but to pursue a single “ripped” ideal.

Of course, we know that not every woman is attracted to young hairless men with six-packs. We also know—even many young men know—that women can be attracted to boyfriends and husbands who have soft tummies or scrawny arms. But we tend to represent that attraction as rooted in romantic connection. In other words, if a woman is turned on by her husband’s concave chest, it’s because she’s so in love with him that even his flaws become virtues. Love is blind, we say, and point to the imperfect bodies of well-loved men to prove it.

In the Daily Mail, and in Jezebel on Men Being Ogled

The Daily Mail runs a story built around the “mean girls” Jezebel piece — and ends up suggesting the opposite of my original conclusion.

And at Jezebel, a second story for the week: Can Men Handle Being Ogled? . Excerpt:

Not so long ago, psychologists insisted that most women simply weren’t visually aroused. Women, we were told, might have an aesthetic appreciation for a handsome guy, but they weren’t actively lusting after what they saw. After twenty years of being given permission to gaze on the hot and shirtless (from Marky Mark to Taylor Lautner), women have become more vocal than ever before about what they like to look at — and what they’re thinking about when they look. The old myth that women aren’t visual has been debunked by everyone from Sex and the City to the writers and readers at this very site.

This doesn’t mean that women’s desire is the primary cause of poor male body image. Men’s own misinterpretation of what women want is far more of the problem. (For example, many men don’t realize that their girlfriends might lust after Lautner or Gosling — and still be attracted to their own less-than-perfect male partners. These guys don’t get that desire isn’t a zero-sum game). But whatever the cause, the problem is getting worse. Male vanity, it seems, is here to stay. And the old hope that men’s experience of being objectified might lead them to stop objectifying women has proved spectacularly false.656

More on Fat Talk at Healthy Is the New Skinny

It’s Fat Talk Free Week again and I’ve got a couple of posts on the subject of body image and words up at Healthy is the New Skinny today. An excerpt:

You know what’s a big component of self-acceptance? Changing the way we talk about food.

How often do you hear a girl say: “Oh my God, I was so bad at lunch today!” Does she mean she robbed a little old lady on the street? Hardly. You hear that kind of talk, and you know whoever is saying those words ate something delicious (and fattening.) Similarly, if you hear a young woman (or, just maybe, a young man) say “You know, I’ve been good all week”, you know she isn’t referring to having done her homework. It means that she stuck to the diet she set for herself.

But here’s the thing: we need to lose the moral language of food. It’s okay to use the words “good” or “bad” to refer to how food tastes. But it’s not helpful to judge ourselves so harshly every time we indulge in something that is delicious but loaded with sugar or fat. And we’re not really better people every time we hold ourselves back from eating what we long to eat. You’ve heard it said “you are what you eat”, but some of us take that much too far. What we eat affects our bodies, our minds, our health – but eating fattening things doesn’t make someone “bad”, and following a strict diet doesn’t make anyone “good.”