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.

Virtual Models and the Tired Trope of the War Against Men

Two more pieces up today.

At GMP, I respond to Tom Matlack and to this Meghan Casserly piece in Forbes. See It’s Not the End of Men, and We Still Have Work to Do. Excerpt:

As reported this week, men with children are doing more housework than ever before. We’re up to spending 80% as much time as women do on chores. That’s an undeniable improvement over where we were a few short decades ago. But again, a trend in the right direction doesn’t mean the problem of inequality has been licked. And as that same study found, women are doing much more than those statistics suggest, largely because women spend much more time than men multi-tasking. The fact that we’re doing more than ever before doesn’t change the reality that we’re still not pulling our weight.

There’s a long tradition in men’s writing (see Freud, Sigmund) of complaining that women’s demands are excessive and irrational. The modern iteration of that tactic is to point out how hard men are trying. What more could women possibly want? Don’t women have more opportunities than ever before? Aren’t men doing more domestic chores and showing more affection than their fathers’ generation ever did? Why isn’t that enough? When are these shrews going to give us a break, give us a cookie, and let “good enough” be sufficient?

Individual men are not called to be martyrs. (I don’t know any women who expect them to be.) But we can do better than point endlessly to all the things we’ve done right, as if they constitute a credit balance sufficient to discharge the debts from all the places where we continue to fall short. And make no mistake, we are still falling short. That men are up to doing 80% of the work—and that women are up to earning 80 cents on our dollar—indicates progress. But to use a football analogy, it’s still the third quarter and though we’re catching up, we need another couple of touchdowns to win the game. And some men sound like they’re ready to hit the showers.

At Healthy is the New Skinny, my column looks at the H&M virtual models controversy. See All Women are Real…Unless They’re Digitally Generated. Excerpt:

But models are more than just walking and talking mannequins. For all the real problems in the beauty industry, there’s a growing awareness of the tremendous potential that real (as in human) models across the size spectrum have to inspire us to think differently about our bodies. More and more current and former models – including so many of our HNS ambassadors are speaking out in favor of a healthier approach to fashion. We’re seeing a new generation of models emerge who are genuine role models, willing to share their joys and their struggles and their tools for living happy and complete lives. No computer image can do that.

For the sake of those role models – and more importantly for the sake of the young people who need those role models – it’s worth pushing back against the current H&M campaign. If we’re ever going to return the beauty ideal to something that’s sane, healthy, and attainable, we need real, human women to show it to us.

Perfect Little Bitches? Two links

Two new columns in the last 24 hours.

This week’s Genderal Interest piece at Jezebel looks at the recent Canadian study of college-aged women and their reactions to scantily-clad peers: Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches. Excerpt:

Bitchiness (at least as defined by this study) is rooted in the same set of beliefs as the requirement in other parts of the world where women wear burqas. We demand that women cover up to protect men from temptation because we don’t believe that men are capable of self-control. We also pressure women to cover up as a sign of solidarity with other women; modesty is, as this research reminds us, promoted as currency for buying female friendship. By that calculus, revealing clothing gets interpreted as a sign of hostility towards other women. The “slut” is hated not just because she attracts male attention, but because she refuses to play by the “rules” that are supposed to keep women safe.

It’s not news that women are socialized to be competitive with each other. It’s not news that, as my students remind me, sisterhood is easier in winter. And it will continue to be the same old news until we name the real root of the problem: our collective refusal to believe that men are capable of being strong, responsible, reliable adults.

And at Healthy is the New Skinny, I’ve got a little comment about the one word I heard over and over again during a certain TV broadcast Tuesday night. Check out The Victoria’s Secret Show and Perfectionism. Excerpt:

But even as we broaden our definition of what is beautiful, our definition of perfection remains as unattainably narrow as ever. As the tweets and the Tumblr posts and the Facebook status updates made heartbreakingly clear Tuesday night, you can be healthy and beautiful at almost any size – but true “perfection” requires skinniness. As one commenter put it “Not every thin girl is perfect, but every perfect girl is thin.”

We all want to be inspired by what we see. But there’s a huge difference between encouraging the healthy pursuit of beauty and celebrating perfectionism. Girls today are under more academic, financial, and emotional pressure than ever before. A big part of the problem is that increasingly, role models (and make no mistake, fashion models are role models) aren’t admired merely for their looks or their achievements. They’re admired for their perfection, and for the suffering they may have endured to achieve 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.

A More Inclusive Spectrum of Beauty: Thinking about Plus-Size Modeling and the American Apparel Contest

Note: This is my personal post on the American Apparel controversy. For the “official editorial” I penned for Healthy is the New Skinny on the story, go here.

American Apparel’s “XL Model Contest” has concluded, and we await the company’s announcement of a winner. As of the close of voting last week, the leading contestant for the spot as AA’s first plus-size model was Nancy Upton, whose photo entries seemed cleverly designed to satirize the sexualized, over-exposed aesthetic for which the Los Angeles-based clothing company is notorious. (The CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.)

While we wait to find out if Upton will be declared the winner, the media coverage of the contest (and the guerrilla campaign to undermine its intent) has been intense. Lost in the discussion, however, are the voices of professional plus-size models — all of whom had long been openly spurned by American Apparel – at least until the sudden contest offer. (It’s not much of an offer, of course: just a trip to L.A. and a photoshoot. No guarantee of an actual contract.)

(As co-founder of the Perfectly Unperfected Project and a director of the Healthy is the New Skinny program I work closely with the plus-size modeling community. I serve as an adviser to Natural Models LA, a new agency that not only represents straight-size and plus-size models but also pushes for more opportunities for “talent” in the industry’s “no woman’s land” — too small for plus, too “big” for straight-size. Natural just put out a new promo video featuring several of our L.A. based team members.)

Many professional plus-size models did make the decision to enter the contest, despite the fat-shaming language AA chose to use in their promotions (like invitations to send in photos of “you and your junk”). As of the close of the contest, two good friends of the Healthy is the New Skinny campaign, Erin Tinsley and Hillary Officer, were trailing just behind Upton. Unlike the apparent winner, Tinsley and Officer took the contest seriously, overcoming real misgivings about American Apparel’s deserved reputation in order to enter.

Why would professional plus-size models enter a contest in which there’s little chance of a payout? For publicity, sure, but also because the plus-size modeling community is eager to expose the American (and global) public to a more inclusive spectrum of what is beautiful. In an industry where so many models are unhealthily thin (though to be fair, not every size two model is unhealthy), plus-size models want to offer a vision that is both more attainable and more realistic while still retaining glamor.

But this attempt to broaden the spectrum of beauty regularly meets with ridicule, anger, and pushback. The ridicule comes from some of the more reactionary wings of the industry, including the organizers of last year’s New York Fashion Week who told plus-size denim designer Jessica Svoboda that they “didn’t want to see a bunch of elephants stomping on our runway.” The anger comes, with no small degree of justification, from many women who are horrified that plus-size models are still so, well, small. Working with Healthy is the New Skinny, I often hear comments like this: “This makes me feel so bad. I’m a size 18 and if even the larger plus-size models are smaller than me, what does that make me? A whale?” Or: “I expect plus-size models to represent real women and girls. We all know that high fashion models are much thinner than normal, and that they have unattainable bodies for most of us. But plus-size models should look more like the average. If size 8 or even 10 is plus-size, that’s just wrong.”

And the pushback comes from those who are critical of the notion that the modeling industry can be redeemed. For many of my feminist allies, for example, broadening the beauty standard is putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. Meghan Murphy writes this week:

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it)…

In other words, the fashion and modeling industries are so fundamentally at odds with women’s real liberation and happiness that any attempt to try to transform these businesses will either meet with failure or be slickly co-opted. Best not to try.

I’ve never liked American Apparel’s clothing, and honestly, find Dov Charney to be the creep de résistance of the rag trade. I don’t like the way the XL campaign was promoted, and I admit to admiring the clever and creative way in which Nancy Upton satirized the whole process. Despite that, I also stand in strong support of the individual professionals like Erin and Hillary who entered the contest seriously. Modeling is, after all, a profession like any other; it requires skill as well as beauty. (AA would have done best to reach out directly to an agency that books plus-size models.)

I also remain passionately committed to the principle of incremental transformation. Organizational or personal change happens through a combination of external pressure and internal reflection. The campaigns I’m involved in work both within and without the modeling and fashion industries, pushing relentlessly, creatively, and to some, frustratingly gradually for a more inclusive, healthier, more sustainable (and attainable) vision of beauty. To the extent that the conversation around the AA campaign moves us closer to achieving that vision by broadening opportunities for women to model outside of the traditional size-range, this is real progress.

Beauty and Health Happen on a Wider Spectrum than We Think: Thoughts on Codie Young

My Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at the Codie Young controversy, and the latest blow-up over size-zero models: Codie’s Not the Problem. Excerpt:

The modeling world this week was abuzz this week with the story of Codie Young, the Australian teen model who was pulled from the British “Topshop” advertising campaign after complaints that she was too skinny. Newspapers and magazines and pundits debated: was Codie anorexic? Some commenters complained that she was a grossly unhealthy size zero, while Topshop insisted that she was a healthy size eight. (All of this got extra confusing because of the difference between European and American sizes.)…

…The issue isn’t skinny models, or size zero models, or whether Codie Young is healthy or not. The issue is that we don’t see enough body size diversity in advertising, on the runways, and on television. There really are some healthy size zero models (Codie may be one). There are also healthy and beautiful models sizes 12, 14, or 18 models out there – -but we see them so much more rarely.

Our frustration shouldn’t be directed at Codie. It should be directed at an industry that says that girls with bodies like hers are the girls who deserve the most work, the most covers, the acclamation as the most beautiful of all. Beauty and fitness can be found across a wide spectrum of size. And we need to see models representing every point on that continuum.

Read the whole thing.