In recent years, we’ve seen a growing awareness around body image issues and eating disorders. As a result, body positivity movements such as Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign have risen up to challenge societal attitudes, targeting the media’s portrayal of unrealistic beauty standards and the effects of social media on young girls. And of course, battling extreme insecurity, excessive dieting habits, and body dysmorphia in women is important. But why do we so often leave men out of the discussion?
Body image complexes and unhealthy eating patterns aren't female-only problems. It turns out that around 1 in 3 people struggling with an eating disorder is male, and behaviors like binge-eating and purging are nearly as common among men as they are among women. Approximately 10 million men suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating in the U.S., with male athletes 16 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than other men. What’s even more worrying is that these are just the cases that go reported.
1 in 3 people struggling with an eating disorder is male.
Introducing Plus-Size Male Models
In the West, much of the blame for rising body image dissatisfaction and a growing number of eating disorders among children has been directed at social media. Young women are now constantly exposed to images of photoshopped, size 0 Instagram influencers, often promoting an impossible ideal. To combat this, the fashion industry and cosmetic companies across the world have turned to plus-size female models to promote more realistic body types. Just this month Rihanna went a step further, selecting a plus-size male (US Size 2XL) to model boxers for her lingerie brand Savage X Fenty, aiming to fight unrealistic body expectations in a gender-inclusive way.
Are plus-size male models the solution?
Of course, I’m all for normalizing realistic yet healthy models, and I’m definitely against extreme photoshopping in the media. And while it’s great to open up a discussion about men and their struggles with body image, are plus-size male models the solution? I’m not too sure. Images of sculpted, muscular men online and in the media may increase the pressure on vulnerable individuals, reinforcing existing feelings of inadequacy — but there’s also a much deeper problem going on. And it’s one that plus-size models can’t fix.
Suffering in Silence
What we need to focus on are the deeper reasons why men suffer in silence. The unsettling reality is that 60% of men with eating disorders don’t seek professional help, leaving them with a higher risk of death than women due to a later diagnosis. Often, male silence around mental health is attributed to traditionally masculine traits being taken too far, for instance, a man’s strength and stoicism becoming an unwillingness to admit when he has a problem — particularly with a “feminized” mental health issue like an eating disorder.
60% of men with eating disorders don’t seek professional help.
But, not only are men often too embarrassed to admit their problems and appear vulnerable, but they’re also being told by society that they can’t suffer problems. At the same time as the men’s mental health narrative is being pushed, telling men to open up and seek help, so is the “male privilege” narrative, telling men to shut up and listen.
In a society that normalizes misandry, popularizing phrases like “men are trash,” “#killallmen,” “male privilege,” “mansplaining,” and “manterrupting,” are plus-size models really going to make men feel better about themselves? Men are even universally blamed for female body image issues as the perpetrators of patriarchal, unrealistic beauty standards. So how can we expect them to speak up about their own issues?
Ultimately, normalizing a healthy range of body weights for both men and women is a good thing, especially in the age of social media. But plus-size male models aren’t going to fix the deeper problem. And demonizing all masculine traits won’t encourage vulnerability, either. Instead, we should shift our focus toward involving men in discussions about body image and mental health, and seriously consider the effects of such widespread anti-male rhetoric online.
Together, we can support our men by looking out for excessive behaviors on an individual level, and by recognizing that, on a collective level, not all males live a privileged life by default. Eating disorders can affect anyone, but it’s mostly men who suffer alone.