We Need More Body Positivity For Men
By Kaylin Tran
The first movement for body positivity traces back to the mid-1800’s, when feminism rose and the Victorian Dress Reform Movement emerged to protest the use of corsets and tightlacing on women for body modification. It was the first of its kind to advocate for acceptance of all body types. About a century later, American author Lew Louderback published an essay to raise awareness about fat shaming. His piece, “More People Should Be Fat,” prompted the founding of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which encouraged doctors to avoid labelling all overweight patients as unhealthy and instead accept that health exists in different sizes.
In recent years, the movement for body positivity has been fueled by social media and activists passionate about enacting change. However, just as the movement began for and by women, the majority of current activism has been female-centered. From Ashley Graham to Jessamyn Stanley, amazing strides have been made by advocates to empower others, but there’s still more work to be done. A quick scroll through the hashtag #bodypositivity on Instagram results in photos that are nearly all of women, which emphasizes the need for more male representation in media, clothing companies and everyday life.
Just to be clear, in no way is this meant to disregard society’s harsh, sexist treatment of women throughout the years. Things such as blatant sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace to sexual objectification or the gender pay gap are certainly still pressing concerns. That being said, unfair and unrealistic expectations for men are also prevalent. Representation in media, especially films and television shows, enforces a high standard for men.
In terms of physical attractiveness, male leads are pressured to be muscular and fit. This expectation unfortunately transgresses outside of fictional storylines. Data gathered by Thrive Global, a website founded by Arianna Huffington that provides behavior change media for stressed or burnt out individuals, revealed that men who weren’t comfortable with their bodies made statements such as “I would like to be less skinny, only muscular men are portrayed in the media,” “men are always portrayed with six packs in male beauty and grooming adverts,” and “even tiny imperfections on the skin are corrected, which poses unrealistic expectations on both the self-image and desirable partners.”
“The Avengers” movie franchise is one of many pop culture examples that may deepen these insecurities. The actors have to undergo incredible efforts to maintain their physique when filming, but audience members only see the final result. Chris Hemsworth’s stunt double Bobby Holland Hanton told Buzzfeed that he had to eat up to 35 times a day, which means that Hanton could have spent roughly $36,000 a year on food. He started off by working out twice a day, but once they got closer to shooting, he would have to increase each session by another half hour and spend six days a week in the gym. Balancing his social life was another challenge he faced.
“It made me kind of unsociable in a way because you can’t go out with friends or family because you’re picking what you can and can’t [eat] in the menu,” he said to bodybuilding magazine Muscle and Fitness.
The pressure to stay fit isn’t limited to adult celebrities. Taylor Lautner, who was only 17 years old at the time, nearly lost his role as Jacob in the “Twilight” series when the director feared that he wouldn’t bulk up enough to fit the part. Television shows geared towards adolescents like “Riverdale” and “13 Reasons Why” have extremely fit adults in their mid-20’s and 30’s playing young teenagers, which skews teenagers’ expectations for what they should look and act like.
According to a study from Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than two-thirds of adolescent boys changed their eating to increase their muscle size or tone and more than 90% exercised more to increase their muscle mass. The study concluded that their body dissatisfaction was most likely influenced by social norms and media portrayal of muscularity.
The reason why these stereotypes are often reinforced has to do with societal expectations for men in general. Justin Baldoni, known for his role as Rafael in “Jane the Virgin,” explains how these expectations have impacted his career in Hollywood. His previous roles included dark or brooding characters that were often sexualized through shirtless scenes. His character Rafael is a reformed playboy. These were the types of roles he was typecast as, but he realized that such machismo characters were the complete opposite of his actual personality.
“For as long as I can remember, I've been told the kind of man that I should grow up to be,” said Baldoni in his 2017 speech for TEDWomen. “As a boy, all I wanted was to be accepted and liked by the other boys, but that acceptance meant I had to acquire this almost disgusted view of the feminine, and since we were told that feminine is the opposite of masculine, I either had to reject embodying any of these qualities or face rejection myself.”
This is what educator and activist Tony Porter calls the “man box,” which is a rigid set of characteristics and behaviors that define what it means to be a man. Stepping outside of those borders would undermine one’s masculinity.
Porter believes that the ingredients, so to speak, for the man box are as follows: “men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating—no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger—and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects.”
These gender roles are echoed throughout all aspects of daily life. From gender-typed toys (boys are given toy trucks and cars while girls receive dolls and tea sets) to marketing ploys (compare the dark-toned packaging for male hygiene products with the light, pastel-colored packing for female ones), the idea that men should be tough or dominating is impossible to escape. These ideals reduce their ability to speak up about issues with bullying, self-esteem, body image, sexuality and more. Toxic masculinity has caused men to be more likely to underreport symptoms of depression, according to Healthline, a website dedicated to covering all facets of physical and mental health from medical professionals. In fact, it can even exacerbate symptoms. Consequently, it breeds toxic and demanding standards for men—queer or straight, cis or trans—to adhere to.
It’s difficult for queer and trans individuals to be seen as men because they defy traditional expectations of gender norms. Others may view their “unconventional” means of gender identity or sexual orientation negatively. A study on the role of gender, masculinity threat and support for transgender rights revealed that “threatened masculinity is an even better predictor of opposition to transender rights than gender identity.”
Furthermore, there’s an internalized shame and fear that comes with being queer. The discrimination commonly directed towards these groups fuels a desire for them to seek acceptance.
“Part of the obsession some gay men have with their appearance definitely comes from seeking validation,” said gay vlogger David Leveseque to the BBC. “Gay people often don’t feel accepted. But, the thinking goes, if people think you’re good-looking, they like you. They look past your sexual orientation.”
This is why Jeff Ingold, Stonewall charity’s media manager, thinks it’s especially crucial to see diverse representation of queer individuals of all shapes and sizes in the media. There are few spaces for those who don’t fit the traditional Hollywood mold for male body types. Most companies fail to integrate big and tall clothing for more inclusivity (“plus size” is used for women, while “big and tall” is used for men). Bruce Sturgell noticed this gap in the market and decided to found Chubstr, a website for big and tall or plus-size men.
“I began [Chubstr] out of frustration of not being able to find clothes in my size that I actually wanted to wear," Sturgell told Fashionista, a source of fashion news, criticism and career advice. "I was only finding Hawaiian shirts with bad patterns or things like suits that my dad would want to wear. It wasn't catered to me."
It’s essential to normalize men who don’t have six-packs, are under six feet tall or have sensitive personalities. It’s important to see better representation in queer and trans communities, clothing stores and Hollywood films. Societal beauty standards are more female-focused, so it’s only natural that the body positive movement has worked incredibly hard to embrace women from all walks of life, but it’s time to show up for men too.
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.