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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt