Often, when we talk about the topic of body image, we’re discussing the struggles that women face in a culture that objectifies them. But body image is something men have to navigate, too. Society sets some pretty specific expectations for both sexes of what it means to be attractive. We invited four men to share their experiences with body image issues for Body Image Month.
What does it mean to be sexy?
Women may have our Heidi Klums, Beyonces, and Megan Foxes to contend with, but society’s idea of a sexy man is also narrow.
“Tall, athletic, muscular but lean,” says Shawn, 28, of Dayton, Ohio. “Even as the sexy man ages, he hides his paunch behind well-tailored suits and a silver fox grace. A combination of David Beckham, Jon Hamm, and George Clooney.”
“Men more recently have to be the perfect height,” observes Darin, 30, of Los Angeles, California. “In the media right now, it’s kind of a scruffy lumberjack thing.”
David, 30, of Covington, Kentucky distinctly recalls female friends of his saying they were looking for ”‘tall,’ ‘thin,’ ‘that v-line,’ ‘6-pack,’ and of course, the unspoken elephant in the room, penis size.”
He too has noticed the trend towards the scruffy look in pop culture. “Think about it – for the first time since the Victorian era, facial hair is becoming a common theme for attractiveness.”
Sexy is just as much about attitude as physical attributes.
“Men are expected to be tough but sensitive, athletic but not ‘muscle-bound’, clever and educated but not overly nerdy,” observes Patrick, 27, of Cincinnati, Ohio. “Of course these ideals are driven in large part by marketing telling us that if we don’t have the proper clothes, the new car, the exact amount of five o’clock shadow, that women will not be interested.”
The Mirror is a Battle We All Face
Men feel the pressure of these unrealistic standards just as women do. “When I look in the mirror I immediately begin evaluating and judging,” says Patrick. “Are my clothes current enough without trying too hard? Have I successfully trimmed my facial hair to maintain the appearance of a beard while obfuscating the places where hair stubbornly refuses to grow?”
“Pre-teen and teenage years took a toll on me,” says David. “I still occasionally react with the same wave of anxiety I did at 14 when I heard that I had a zit, or a stain on my shirt. It took until my late 20’s to really see the mirror clearly.”
“If I’ve been losing weight, I get a sense of pride about my appearance,” says Shawn. “If I’ve had a lot to eat or drink, or if I just weighed myself and have gained weight, I get disappointed or feel a sense of self-loathing.”
Physical fitness is one of the social expectations men find themselves up against. “I pose and flex and think about the time spent in the gym, and whether this summer six-pack abs will be enough to draw that pretty girl’s attention,” says Patrick.
Darin’s relationship with his body has had its share of drama. “I lost 400 pounds of exercise and diet seven years ago, so I weigh myself a lot. I also go to the gym twice a day. I still have extra skin, so I get judged a lot by others. I take a lot of photos to try to build myself up.”
Despite the dramatic weight loss, Darin still struggles with body dysmorphia. “I think that eating disorders and dysmorphia is a thing in men’s lives that does not get addressed .”
If the internalized shaming isn’t bad enough, there are the things people say to each other about appearance.
“Growing up, I weighed 545 pounds and was always called a woman or fat or lard-ass,” Darin recalls. “When I got skinny, I got made fun of for being too skinny.”
“Direct body shaming was something that I experienced mostly in grade school,” says Patrick. “The easy target was that I was much shorter than my classmates, and later that I wore my hair long and eventually dreadlocked. “
“Penis size is the other pressure from media,” says David. “The ‘compensating for something?’ joke is more real and weighs on man’s mind more than people realize.”
For David, junior high and high school were traumatic. “The ‘ugly duckling’ complex hit hard, as I didn’t look bad, but thought I did in reaction to receiving bullying treatment. It fostered a paranoia that I’d be thrown under the social bus. During these years was also the big marketing push from Abercrombie + Fitch and similar brands to favor the ‘in’ kids, and I clearly didn’t make the cut.”
David’s cultural roots also played into his perceptions about himself. “Finding myself surrounded by suburban, Jewish peers, most of the people I grew up with came from families that paid regular Synagogue dues, and observed and created in my brain an unrealistic mindset: if you aren’t Adam Sandler or a chiseled-jaw’d Lawyer/Doctor-to-be, you just won’t make the cut with success. My early pubescent crushes were within the confines of my brain socially assuming that I had to do everything to impress a Jewish woman. It took away from my confidence in myself.”
Of course, it isn’t always about sex appeal. Men generally don’t have as much room for freedom of expression in the way they dress and style themselves. “I keep neatly groomed in part because I serve professional clients,” says Patrick. “They may not be as receptive to what I have to say unless my hair is combed and beard trimmed and shirt ironed.”
Owning Their Sexy
Conceiving of themselves as sexy, and facing the fear of being undesirable, is something men have to work at against these obstacles.
“Although I can sometimes acknowledge that I work hard at keeping my body fit, it is rare that I feel sexy unless I am or have very recently received praise in that way from a woman who I also find attractive,” says Patrick.
“When I start losing weight or getting in shape, I feel sexy,” says Shawn. “When I’m with an intimate partner and I can tell I’m giving her pleasure, I feel sexy. When I have a particularly good clothes or hair day, I feel sexy.”
As a gay man living in Los Angeles, Darin faces some of the additional pressures around appearances in the gay community. “I think we are the hardest on ourselves and to others, even at home. We have this expectation that we have to be perfect and desirable – we have to be the Greek gods. If you want to feel sexy and you want to have a perfect body and that makes you feel sexy, then go for it. We all have different types that we like. ”
Darin’s own journey has led him inward. “Body image is how you think and feel on the inside. I’ve learned that no matter how good-looking you might be, if you don’t have the personality, you won’t go far.”
“For me, I feel sexy when I shed the way I’m supposed to feel sexy,” says David. He had this story to share about how he came to define sexy for himself:
I was asked to wear a sexy cat outfit with tights for a local band’s music video on kind of a playful dare. They went the professional student media approach, where a film crew took shots for hours upon hours. Dawn ‘till dusk, here I was, a fat guy, in a sweaty, smelly and goofy gender-bending cat outfit and makeup, in public places at University of Cincinnati. I sort of had to train my brain as I fought the screaming urge to hide and that everyone would hate me.
What I didn’t realize is that for the final film scene, the band invited their whole social circle over to shoot a party sequence in the room with me. I was terrified, and shaking, until everyone showed up, and I was an immediate hit. Suddenly, without the monumental effort, girls gave me their numbers. I met other musicians and had no issue making friends that night, and it’s a mindset I keep with me now at all times.
Dismantle what you think ‘sexy is,’ pin the pieces onto your sleeve, and walk in a room with a smile. It works.”
Breaking the Silence
When we asked our volunteers what they would say to all other men about their body image, the message was clear: talk about it.
“That stoicism is hurting us all, dudes,” David says. “I want to be able to open up about our concerns as guys, and shed the need to ridicule. We could put our heads together and re-shape in our brains the man we want to look like or how to act. I bet that if the image would be more in line with how we already are, there’d be a healthy release of unfair projection on women’s bodies, resulting from our own frustrations and confusion.”
They also expressed a need to change the messages and images of male attractiveness, including the way men’s body issues are often waved off.
“Men’s body issue concerns are usually relegated to the butt of jokes (insecurity about penis size or beer gut), which are either waved off as “just the way things are” or actively treated like no big deal,” Shawn says. “Men being more vocal about their personal insecurities could go a long way to creating an understanding of our legitimate problems.”
“The biggest thing I would suggest is that they stop presenting the ‘fat husband / sexy wife’ pairing that permeates TV so virulently (The Honeymooners, Flintstones, Simpsons, Family Guy, anything starring Kevin James). It creates unrealistic expectations for all parties and can help defeat efforts at self-improvement.”
“Admittedly, it’s that sex-god motif,” David says about how he’d like to change the media’s portrayal of men. “The performance is a prominent thing on the minds of men, which leads to some unhealthy mindsets of how a man is ‘supposed to’ act in relation to sex. For me and a number of my peers, it hurt to think about how we wouldn’t be great men unless we showed less emotion, slept with only model-esque women, and rocked each of their worlds.”
Understanding Each Other Matters
By recognizing that body image struggles are universal, we can all do more to support each other in developing a healthy self-image and demonstrating that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. When it comes to the pressures women face on how they look, men are more aware and sympathetic than they might come off.
“I didn’t understand socially and in the past how much I disregarded or didn’t understand what women face until I asked,” says David. “Now I go the extra step to be mindful of the pressures any woman faces.”
“Never would I tell a woman to shave her body hair, or that she would be more attractive with larger breasts or a flatter stomach,” Patrick says about the women in his life. “I compliment and encourage self-expression regularly and never skip an opportunity to tell a friend that they are beautiful.”
That’s why we wanted to make sure we included men’s perspectives during Body Image Month 2015, in support of the mission of better understanding each other in the struggles we all face. There’s no need to be hard on each other, or ourselves, when instead we can find ways to be supportive.