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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Americans are more likely to be attacked by far-right terrorists than Islamists

Trump says silent because “radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his voting base – and “white supremacist terrorists” are.

Remember how Donald Trump used to accuse the Democrats of political correctness on the subject of terrorism? “These are radical Islamic terrorists and she won’t even mention the word and nor will President Obama,” declaimed the then Republican presidential candidate in his second debate against Hillary Clinton in October 2016.

But what about Trump’s own political correctness? Over the course of his 14 months in office, the president has pointedly refused to use the term “white supremacist terrorist”. He has turned a blind eye to a wave of shootings, stabbings and bombings carried out not by radicalised Muslims but by radicalised white men. He has ignored the fact – documented in a range of studies – that Americans are much more likely to be the victims of a “white supremacist terrorist” than a “radical Islamic terrorist”. (According to the Investigative Fund, an independent journalism organisation, “far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost two to one.”)

And the reason for Trump’s PC position? It’s straightforward – if scary. “Radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his base. “White supremacist terrorists” are.

Don’t take my word for it. “Donald Trump is setting us free,” wrote a jubilant Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, last summer. “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups and extremists, agrees. “If 2016 was the year of white supremacists being electrified by the rise of Donald Trump, his inauguration in January sent them into a frenzy,” it noted. “They believed they finally had a sympathiser in the White House and an administration that would enact policies to match their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist ideas.” The SPLC pointed out that “hate crimes in the six largest US cities were up 20 per cent from 2016”.

According to the Extremist Crime Database, the far right carried out nine fatal attacks in the US in 2017. In February of that year, Adam Purinton shot two Indian men, one of whom was killed, at a restaurant in Kansas, reportedly yelling “get out of my country” and “terrorist” before opening fire.

In March 2017, James H Jackson, an avid reader of the Daily Stormer, fatally stabbed an elderly African-American man in New York, after travelling from Baltimore to kill as many black men as possible and “make a statement”, according to the authorities.

In May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, an admirer of both Trump and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was charged with stabbing two men to death on a train in Portland, Oregon, after they tried to prevent him from harassing two female passengers who appeared to be Muslim.

In August, James Fields Jr, a proud neo-Nazi, was charged with killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer after allegedly driving his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had gathered to protest against a white supremacist rally. (“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump would later remark .)

In December, a 17-year-old boy who had mowed a swastika into the grass of a community field was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s parents after they objected to their teenage daughter’s relationship with the youth because of his neo-Nazi views.

Yet hardly any of these fatal attacks by radicalised white men dominated the news headlines in the US in the same way that shootings or bombings by radicalised Muslims tend to. Aside from the killing of Heyer in Charlottesville, how many of these incidents had you even heard of? Researchers at Georgia State University found that terrorist attacks “by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 per cent more coverage than other attacks”. Muslims were responsible for 12.4 per cent of the terror attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 yet received 41.4 per cent of the news coverage. Is it any wonder that when most Americans think of terrorists they picture brown, not white, skins?

“Terrorism is one of the only areas where white people do most of the work and get none of the credit,” joked the comedian Ken Cheng in a viral tweet. But this is no joking matter for the Trump administration. Upon coming to office last year, White House officials briefed Reuters that they wanted to “revamp and rename a US government programme designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism… and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists.”

By June, the administration had announced it would be revoking federal funding for Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to deradicalising right-wing extremists, and a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was supposed to counter both violent Islamists and white supremacists.

Yet in May last year, an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI and the department for homeland security was obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, which warned that “white supremacists had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years”. It concluded that white supremacists “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year”.

And so they have. Just as George W Bush ignored intelligence about a growing threat from al-Qaeda in his first year in office, Trump spent 2017 ignoring warnings about the “persistent threat of lethal violence” from white supremacists.

“To solve a problem you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name,” declared Trump in his October 2016 debate with Clinton. Maybe, just for once, the president should take his own advice.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special