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Memo to Jo Swinson: men have body image issues, too

The government's gender equality campaigns either ignore or stereotype men and boys.

Women's minister Jo Swinson speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem women's minister, has been making headlines this week after telling parents they shouldn't praise their daughters for their looks. Of course this wasn't the line she expected the media to take, the officially approved headline was "Government's Body Confidence Campaign celebrates success and welcomes new actions", but no one in the media was buying the spin.

There was a flurry of negative comments, most bizarrely from UKIP hopeful Janine Atkinson who launched into a lurid tirade about Tangoed orange women waddling down Britain's high streets, spilling out of their bras and leggings while merrily displaying their overweight midriffs to all and sundry.

It was a colourful reminder that when it comes to criticizing women’s appearance, some of the harshest critics are other women. Though in this case, most of the criticism was reserved for the quality of the Swinson’s advice and the very idea of politicians telling parents how to bring up their children.

Whatever the merits of her actions, a far more interesting question to consider is why is the campaign only focused on women and girls? According to the government’s own research, the issue of body confidence is linked to a broad range of weight-related problems. At one end of the scale, boosting someone’s body confidence can make it easier for people to shed a few kilos and become a healthier weight. At the other end, low body confidence is both a cause and an effect of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

When you look at the population as whole only 32 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women are considered to be a healthy weight. The majority of us are overweight (66 per cent for men and 57 per cent for women), while a small minority of us are underweight (2.2 per cent of men and 2.5 per cent of women). 

So if our sons are more likely to grow up to have unhealthy bodies, why are we only being advised to consider the way we parent our daughters? Body confidence is a gendered issue,  not in the sense that it only affects one gender, but in the sense that there are some gender differences in men’s and women‘s experience.

Teachers recently estimated that media portrayals of ideal body types in the media are reducing body confidence in both girls (78 per cent) and boys (51 per cent).

The number of boys with eating disorders, which are sometimes linked to body confidence, is also on the rise. Some researchers say that men with a greater preference for traditional masculine roles are more likely to be fixated with bulking up, while men who display a greater adherence to traditional feminine roles are more likely to have slimming disorders like anorexia nervosa.

Our relationship with our bodies is often shaped by our gender. Men in general are known to underestimate their body weight, while women tend to overestimate. As a result we have overweight men convincing themselves their unhealthy fat is "all muscle" while healthy women convince themselves that they need to lose weight.

We could interpret this as men being overly confident about their bodies, but a more resourceful way to look at the problem is to consider that men are disassociated from their bodies and in denial about their physical wellbeing. 

We could interpret this as men being overly confident about their bodies, but a more resourceful way to look at the problem is to consider that men are disassociated from their bodies and in denial about their physical wellbeing. 

All gender equality work starts from the premise that women and girls are unequal. It’s a false premise as there are areas where men and boys in general are unequal (health, education, homelessness, suicide rates, criminal justice, parental rights etc) and areas where some groups of men are less equal than some groups of women. 

You can see this thinking at play in the way we tackle domestic violence, sexual violence, parental rights and now body confidence. Earlier this month, I was one of eight experts invited to spend an hour with the women’s minister to discuss how we could engage men, particularly fathers, in this campaign. We weren’t asked how we could address the fact that the majority of men are an unhealthy weight or what dads could do to help their sons.

These questions weren’t on the agenda because it’s women and girls that have problems, not men and boys. Our role in gender equality work, if we’re not deemed to be a risk, is to be a resource to women and children.

Behind the headlines, Swinson and her team have begun to distinguish how the cultural pressures to strive for a physical ideal can negatively impact some women and girls. They’re not just looking at obesity and eating disorders; they are considering the impact that low body confidence has on women’s educational outcomes, economic participation and social wellbeing.

They are trying to bring about a cultural shift in the way that women are impacted by idealised gender stereotypes. In the process, they are seeking to enforce an ideal stereotype of men’s role in the debate, as protectors of our families who need to be taught how to say the appropriate things to our partners and daughters.

There is a missed opportunity here to help men consider how the cultural pressure to be an ideal man is linked to our physical, mental and social wellbeing. Of course that shouldn’t be the job of the women’s minister, but in the absence of a men’s minister, it is little wonder that the Government Equalities Office keeps creating gender equality campaigns that either ignore or stereotype men and boys.

If we want to challenge limiting gender stereotypes, then we need to remember that gender equality isn’t just for girls. 

Glen Poole is director of Helping Men