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.
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".