How The ‘Man Crisis’ Makes Women’s Perfectionism Worse

Hugo Schwyzer responds to a recent op-ed that attempts to assign blame for the growing number of women suffering from body image issues, and offers another source of their strife: male disengagement.

The body image crisis is a perennial hot topic in women’s magazines, but in 2012, it’s getting global attention like never before. From Rebecca Wagner’s major piece on male anorexics in the Atlantic to a special report in last weekend’s Guardian, mainstream media is— finally—acknowledging just how pervasive and destructive the pursuit of unattainable perfection has become. 

In an op-ed in Sunday’s Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks why so many people end up falling prey to “toxic self-hatred.” She notes that despite rising rates of eating disorders for men, the problem is still demonstrably worse for women. Alibhai-Brown decries the media culture that exacts a devastatingly high price, both from women in the public eye and from those who look to them for inspiration. She laments: “Across the globe, professional women, bright young girls, artists, and even magazine hacks cannot deal with their self-hatred except through self-punishment.”

I wish that were hyperbolic, but we all know it’s not.

Where Alibhai-Brown stumbles is in the assigning of responsibility for this tremendous female self-confidence crisis. She blames what she calls “the enemies within—female editors, businesswomen, and TV high priestesses who, for professional and personal gain, coldly destroy girls and women.” Though she admits that these powerful women have male collaborators, Alibhai-Brown leaves little doubt that these “enemies within” are chiefly to blame. 

There’s no question that internalized oppression is a very real phenomenon, just as there’s little doubt that more men than ever are starting to suffer from poor body image and eating disorders. But these realities, as important as they are, shouldn’t obscure the reality that there’s another force driving women’s intensifying pursuit of perfection: the much-hyped “man crisis.”  

Last month, Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan issued The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. Later this summer, Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women (based on her seminal 2010 Atlantic article) hits the shelves. These are merely the latest iterations in what’s become the standard media trope that while women are more successful than ever, men are floundering. Some (like Zimbardo) blame video games and porn, others (like Rosin) suggest that men are less capable of adapting to the rapid social demands of the modern workplace. Some blame feminism for blurring gender roles and leaving men without any clear sense of masculine identity. But as different as they are, all the voices peddling the narrative of a “man crisis” have one thing in common: They all argue that in this increasingly feminized world, successful men are becoming rarer and rarer. 

The same magazines that relentlessly promote thinness also center the importance of heterosexual love in women’s lives. With tips on how to lose weight sitting side by side with articles on how to spice up a dull sex life or how to navigate an office fling, women’s media has long reinforced the message that beauty and romantic fulfillment are closely correlated. Lately, of course, many of these same media outlets have featured stories on the male crisis, driving home the message that “good guys” are ever more difficult to find. The takeaway is an obvious one: If women want to compete for what they’re told is an ever-shrinking number of ambitious and attractive men, they’ve got to intensify their efforts to pursue physical perfection. Thus, this growing perception of “good guy scarcity” is what makes the body image crisis worse for women even as female participation in higher education and the workplace soars. 

The “male crisis” is not entirely a media creation. Some studies do indicate that boys really are falling behind girls in terms of academic (and, later, professional) achievement. Though there are many possible factors driving this decline in male achievement, the most basic explanation is that men are taught to devalue whatever it is that women are good at. Too many guys are taught to perform masculinity through doing whatever it is that women can’t (or won’t) do. When women had few opportunities to succeed in the workplace, financial and educational success was ipso facto proof of manhood. As young women become increasingly ambitious, ambition itself loses its masculine cachet. Boys and men drop out not because they can’t compete but because in the modern world, slackerdom has become the new talisman of masculinity.

It’s up to men to challenge this toxic narrative that rewards failure. But it’s also up to all of us to recognize the ways in which that male valorization of failure intensifies women’s competition around everything from college admissions to online dating. As more women and fewer men choose to be successful according to traditional metrics, that shrinking cadre of still-ambitious straight men can afford to be pickier than ever about the women they pursue. Given that many of those men still see women’s beauty as a yardstick with which to measure their own status, it’s not hard to see how the growing problem of male disengagement correlates with the severe (and growing) problems of female hyper-competitiveness, body dysmorphia, and anxiety.

Alibhai-Brown is right that the body image crisis is, by every measure, getting worse. She’s right too that many powerful women are complicit in the global spread of a cruelly unattainable female body ideal. But any list of the “enemies within” must also include those who encourage or justify men’s flight from responsibility and ambition.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, son, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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