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

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

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

Women's minister Jo Swinson speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.