Men’s shapewear is more popular than ever, and Emilie Littlehales wonders what it says about men and body image.
Lately it feels like every time I think I’ve really gotten it (whatever it happens to be), something happens that ultimately shows me how wrong I was. I guess it’s one of those “the more you know, the more you realize you know nothing” things. Most recently, this has involved men and body image—something that seems to be an ongoing theme in my life of late.
I’m no stranger to the fact that men are just as susceptible to body image issues as women. I know that men and women may experience their bodies in different ways; that society is notorious for sending different messages about the ways in which one body is more wrong or more right than another; and that as a woman, I have a much better intuitive understanding of how these issues play themselves out among women than among men. That said, I still thought I had a pretty solid handle on things.
Then a couple weeks ago, I noticed that a close male friend had started to wear shapewear garments. I’d been aware that he’d struggled off and on with his weight and body image since before the time we met, but I was still taken aback by the idea that he’d spent time and money on one of these items.
Had this friend been female, I don’t know that I would have thought twice about the whole thing. At this point, shapewear is so common among women that even though I might have silently wished it didn’t exist and that things like this weren’t even important to us, I probably would have let it slide. Either that, or it would have come up in conversation naturally, as we talked about one of the many body-related things my female friends and I talk about: how our clothes fit, what someone will wear on a date, how bloated our periods make us feel, etc.
This friend isn’t female, though, and although his purchase could have been a harmless nod to vanity or curiosity (who among us hasn’t wondered what it would be like to lose a couple inches off the waist?), it caused alarm bells to go off in my head. What prompted the purchase? Was this an indication that my friend was feeling more uncomfortable with his body than he previously had? Would it be appropriate for me to say something to him? Would it help him to talk about it? Or was I blowing the whole thing out of proportion and making it into something far more important than it actually was?
A Google search for “shapewear for men” brings up 5,630,000 results, which isn’t hugely different from the number of results for women (7,940,000). Shapewear does seem to be a more mainstream item for women, sold at retailers like Macy’s, Sears, and Nordstrom, but it’s clear that men make up a pretty significant market for a variety of shapewear garments: girdles, full-torso slimming shirts, butt lifters, arm control shapers, and any number of contraptions designed to do the male equivalent of “lift and separate,” whatever that might be. Many of the male-oriented brands have distinctly masculine names, like RIPTFUSION or Equmen (emphasis mine), and Sculptees, and is also referred to as compression wear, a term with much more athletic connotations than the generic shapewear. Clearly, men’s shapewear isn’t any big secret.
In fact, back in 2010, The New York Times ran an article about how men’s shapewear was becoming just as big a joke as Spanx have been for women—you know, everyone wears them, but no one talks about it, so we’re all in on it, isn’t that funny.
And this, to me, is where the waters start to get murky: Men’s shapewear isn’t a big secret, except for those times when it is (which is pretty much all the time). If we all know the shapewear is there, does that make it any more appropriate for us to talk about it? Or do we all keep up the illusion that the shapewear is meant to create in the first place, appreciating the effect it has while simultaneously acting as though we don’t know it’s there?
Although men’s shapewear is becoming more and more mainstream, there’s still a stigma attached to it, as evidenced by an interview with Tim Gunn in which he declares that men should wear foundation garments, that he himself wears them, and that it’s OK to do so because “people don’t know.” He also notes that he buys his online so that—again—no one knows that he’s bought it. The whole thing operates according to a really strange dynamic wherein we can acknowledge that everyone is using this product that no one is supposed to know anyone is using. What’s the ultimate effect on the men who are using the garments? Does the average wearer feel ashamed or embarrassed? Does it just seem like a natural part of being a man?
My friend has made no mention of his shapewear—I’ve only noticed it because of our close relationship and the difference in his physique. Does he know that I know? Does he want me to know? The tension that exists between what is known and what isn’t, what is seen and what isn’t, and what is acknowledged and what isn’t obscures the issue at hand, which is whether this purchase is indicative of a problem that merits greater attention and care.
While there’s clearly not meant to be any shame in men’s shapewear, there can still be a great deal of shame involved in the way we all feel about our bodies. How do we deal with situations like this one, in which shapewear is being used not just to hide a bit of a tummy, but a more widespread and serious discomfort with ourselves? I thought I’d figured this all out, but I’m realizing that it’s all much more complicated than I originally thought.
Emilie Littlehales lives in New York City and works in academic publishing. She’s contributed to LUNA’s Chix Journal and Jezebel, and writes regularly for the RUNiverse and her personal blog, I Came to Run. She is interested in questions of body image, physical and mental health, gender roles, and sexuality, and especially the various ways in which they are shaped and affected by society’s expectations.
Photo from Spanx.com