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 Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain