Children need to know they don’t have to be sexy or successful to be loved. Let’s start by valuing ourselves and each other.
- By: Glen Poole
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 21 May 2013 19.00 BST
- By: Glen Poole
Boys as young as 10 are beginning to worry about their body image. Photograph: Corbis Sygma
The news that the number of girls and boys in the UK with eating disorders is on the rise is a timely reminder that we have a body image problem. However, it’s not a problem we can hope to solve unless we consider the role that perceptions of gender play in the nation’s emotional wellbeing.
According to new research led by Dr Nadia Micali of University College London, the number of diagnosed cases of eating disorders rose 13% between 2003 and 2009. While the majority of cases are still found in girls and young women, there is a growing awareness that this is a male issue too. Indeed, the highest rates of new cases are found among boys aged 10 to 14.
In March, teachers claimed that the promotion of ideal body types in the media is reducing both boys’ and girls’ confidence in their own physiques, a problem that is estimated to affect 78% of girls and 51% of boys.
There’s a well-worn but useful saying in gender debates that while men look at women as sex objects, women look at men as success objects. In simplified terms this translates into ideal cultural images of men who are strong and successful and of women who are sexy and slim. It is perhaps not surprising then that men in general are known to underestimate their body weight, while women tend to overestimate. As a result we have men convincing themselves “it’s all muscle” and women convincing themselves “it’s all fat”. Part of the issue, according the American feminist Hugo Schwyzer is that too often we’re taught that “men are revolting and women are flawless” – and those extreme perspectives are damaging to both and girls and boys transitioning into adulthood.
Of course, there is always a danger in reducing any problem to a simplistic gender binary as this not only excludes the experiences of LGBT people, but also gives the impression that all men are x and all women are y. There are both men and women who defy these general trends and men in particular seem to experience a broad diversity of gendered experiences when it comes to eating disorders.
Recent research from Australia found that men with a high drive for muscularity, as manifested in the muscle dysmorphia of “bigorexia”, had a greater preference for traditional masculine roles, whereas men with a high desire for thinness (as in anorexia nervosa) displayed greater adherence to traditional feminine roles.
According to Dr Stuart Murray, who led the study:
“This does not mean that the men with anorexia were any less masculine, nor that the men with muscle dysmorphia were less feminine. It is, however, an indication of the increasing pressures men are under to define their masculinity in the modern world.”
It’s interesting to note that while anorexia in some men and boys seems to be linked to a rejection of traditional masculinity, anorexia in some girls is sometimes explained as a rejection of femininity. It appears that the body image anxiety suffered by children is often caused either by striving for an unachievable gender ideal, or fighting against a perceived gendered norm.
The sexualisation of young girls is now a common topic of debate and we need to recognise that boys face pressure too. One study found that men were more likely to feel dissatisfied with their own bodies after they were exposed to pictures of muscular men, while another revealed that men’s body self-esteem was linked to how hopeful they felt about romantic relationships. Interviews with teenage boys (paywalled link)obsessed with bulking up reveal the aphrodisiacal motivation that is forged in girls’ responses to images of muscular models and celebrities on facebook.
Being a success symbol (or a sex symbol) in the game of relationships will always be a driver for young men and women. So how do we create a culture where boys and girls don’t feel the need to damage their bodies in an attempt to feel happy in their own skin? Last week I was invited to the Government Equalities Office with representatives of charities such as Men Get Eating Disorders Too to discuss body image and the role of fathers as potential change agents. I was left with the thought that if we want adults to be role models who show children that they don’t have to be sexy or successful to be loved and valued, then we adults need to start by valuing ourselves and each other irrespective of gender. I don’t believe that we do show our children that men and women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds are loved and valued in equal measure. And until we do, we may struggle to be the role models who can convince them that striving to be a sex object (or a success object) is not the healthiest road to personal happiness.