Thin is in: in search of the perfect male body

ARE MEN more body conscious now than they were 10 years ago?

Apparently yes. Infinitely more.

And it’s starting young — my eyes may have widened when my teenage daughter happened to mention recently that she knew boys who used hair-straighteners, but to her it was nothing unusual.

Males, it seems, are no longer impervious to the traditionally female-orientated dictum that looking good means something — and, more worryingly, that it’s good to be thin.

A significant proportion of contemporary male cultural icons: Russell Brand, Pete Doherty, Matt Smith and David Tennant, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Borrell of Razorlight, nearly all of the Kings of Leon and Nicholas Hoult …slim, if not to say thin.

Young men, it seems, are increasingly image conscious.

“The idea of a young man using a hair-straightener has a bit of shock and awe about it still,” says Ruth Ni Eidhin of Bodywhys, the national voluntary organisation dedicated to supporting the 200,000 people in Ireland affected by eating disorders. “However, what has happened, especially in the last few years, is the idea of men engaging in similar procedures to women in a bid to alter or improve their looks to match an ideal presented to them. This has become much more common.

“The whole idea of the male body as an object has become much more common,” she adds, pointing to the avalanche of screen and magazine images of male body ‘ideals’.

Look around you — the male body is increasingly being treated the way the female body has been for generations: “The female body is seen as something that can be squeezed and pushed to change into whatever shape society or the culture says it should be like and that’s happening with men now because increasingly, this is the message.”

Do men — normal, non-celebrity, non-model men — care?

Apparently they do. Incidences of eating disorders amongst men certainly appear to be on the rise.

Back in the mid-nineties, says Ni Eidhin, it was believed that males accounted for about 10% of anorexic and bulimic cases — today this figure is believed to be nearer 25%.

Traditionally the male physical ideal is the opposite of skinny. It is athletic, buff, big- shouldered, capable.

Until relatively recently, thin men were ashamed, or assumed to be ashamed, of their bodies. They were considered less masculine by dint of their thinness; the rare thin male cultural icons — Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker — made being thin part of their image, an expression of how disenfranchised they felt, how removed from the roaring cultural mainstream.

But now thin is the cultural mainstream. Thin is desirable. Men want it — men diet for it. Men will and do go under the knife in pursuit of it. Body image and weight — for some men at least — has become all-consuming.

“It is hard to know whether it’s a question of more men developing the problem or whether they are simply becoming more comfortable talking about it,” says Ni Eidhin. “However, we would notice more and more boys saying they are dissatisfied with their body image,” she reports.

Ni Eidhin adds that the Bodywhys Youth Development Officer who regularly visits schools, has reported that more young men seem to be having issues with body image.

On top of this public attitudes to cosmetic surgery and cosmetic medicine in Ireland are changing — cosmetic procedures are no longer seen primarily as female territory.

The demand from men to have a variety of procedures is also increasing, predicts Louise Braham, director of The Harley Medical Group (THMG) who says males now account for about 20% in the clinic’s Dublin liposuction procedures.

Already the company says, there’s been a growth in the number of men seeking cosmetic surgery across the country.

In fact there’s been an overall rise of about 19% in the number of Irish male patients seeking treatment in the last five years, while this year alone has seen a rise in the number of men undergoing rejuvenation procedures, with wrinkle-relaxing injections and fillers up 14%.

THMG has also experienced a hike in demand for male breast reduction surgery or gynaecomastia, as well as laser treatment for male acne sufferers and laser hair removal, especially amongst men who are involved in playing sport.

“Many men are conscious that their appearance may be a reason that they received or did not receive a promotion or new job. These men claim that they either want to look younger, healthier, or both in order to help their confidence and also assist them with their careers,” says Braham.

It’s a trend that’s set to continue, she believes, adding that increasingly men will seek anti-ageing or corrective treatment to improve the appearance of ears, or nose, or stomach.

It’s time to examine the situation analytically, believes Waterford GP Mark Rowe, author of The Men’s Health Book.

“There has been very little research done in this area in Ireland and as a topic, it warrants more time and research. There seems to be mainly a societal type pressure to have the perfect body and the pressure to have the size zero body or the perfect body which is all around us, is, I think transferring over to men.”

Men are more self aware and more image conscious now than before, he says, which in some ways can be a good thing, though he notices a “growing focus” on the issue of cosmetic surgery amongst men.

“However, most men still very much bury their head in the sand with regard to their own health and are still reluctant to get checked out. Too often men are leaving it too late to go to the doctor.”

There is an inherent contradiction, he believes — on the one hand there is a growing minority who “are more self aware and “into” their looks, but on the other, the majority are still neglecting their health.

At the same time, the pressure to be skinny hasn’t necessarily replaced the cultural imperative for men to be buff.

The muscular male ideal has somehow, simultaneously, remained current. Men’s Health — a monthly men’s glossy magazine which boasts robust circulation figures has built its brand on cover image featuring extremely well-toned blokes — take über-successful male model David Gandy, a toned, muscular Essex boy who frolicked semi-naked in a rowing boat for a 2007 Dolce & Gabbana perfume ad.

“There is an increasing acceptance that young men go to the gym,” says Ni Eidhin.

A shift has also occurred in sports she believes — playing a game is now, it seems, no longer quite enough. These days the priority is also on using the game to build yourself up.

“There is a focus on being very ‘built’ and having a lot of muscle. Magazines aimed at young men devote a lot of space to diet and how it impacts on your appearance and your body,” says Ni Eidhn, who says there still appears to be a false perception that eating disorders only happen to girls.

Yet Bodywhys is getting more calls and emails from parents of young men and also from young men on the issue of body image than it would have 10 years ago: “Statistics are not available, but the experience of a young man who contacts us is that men have eating disorders. There is also a false perception that eating disorders only happen to girls and it is a stereotype and a block in terms of getting help,” says Ni Eidhin.

What do women think of all this?

Let’s be honest: we have to work hard not to cackle, and scream: “Welcome to our nightmare, suckers!”

We’ve been subject to these pressures for centuries, expected to grow and shrink and entirely redefine our body shape depending on prevailing diktats on what is and isn’t hot.

Men, have not helped with their endless, casual objectification, their lads’ magazines and their inability not to deliver a relentless commentary on every aspect of our physical being.

We’ve struggled between polar physical ideals for decades: between the intimidatingly severe and extremely thin architecture of the catwalk model, and the super-tanned, curvaceousness of the glamour girl.

Men: Do you know what it’s like to turn 12 and find your body subject to the scrutiny of the entire world? Do you know what it’s like to be constantly judged by the opposite sex and (perhaps more harshly) by your own? To be conditioned to view your body in such a way that you regularly find yourself in a public space (a park, a train carriage, or walking down a street) rating the legs, or bellies, or upper arms of everyone you pass in terms of the merits and failings of your own? Do you know how self-conscious that makes you, how disarmed, how confused, how dissatisfied, how vulnerable?

Yes, it’s hard not to relish even the slighted tinge of schadenfreude. But, observes Ni Eidhin, society needs a sense of responsibility towards its young image-conscious men, because the situation has become “a bit of a double edged sword”.

If society is willing to have messages about men’s bodies being shaped a certain way or having a specific look, then we need at least to be willing to accept that that kind of message is going to have an impact on men.

“We need to support them as a result. A lot of the pressure is coming from the media and from celebrity role models.”

During the World Cup, for instance, she says, a glossy magazine ran a cover picture of two World Cup footballers dressed in just their shorts and showing off very toned bodies : “They would not have been as toned 20 years ago in the sport and they would certainly not have been the norm, but all male athletes are expected to be very toned nowadays.”

This filters down: “There are hundreds of magazine images of young men who are very slim, etc., and it does have an impact. In recent years young men are being bombarded with these images of toned, muscular, well-built bodies.”

Over time, she believes, research will show that men are being affected by these images in much the same way as images of skinny or even skeletal catwalk models affect women.

So we’re left with two polarised ideals on masculine beauty — the pressure to be slender and the pull to be buff.

These pressures call men in two different directions — leaving those who buy in to it with a vulnerability towards eating disorders, a general sense of inadequacy, and, to women, at any rate, a horribly familiar degree of self-consciousness.

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