Men may joke around more about their appearance, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to body image issues.
Ever since my niece was born seven years ago, I’ve worried about what will happen when another girl teases her about some aspect of her appearance. The way I see it, there’s no chance that it won’t happen; by virtue of the fact that she’s female, my niece will at some point end up in a situation where another girl makes a comment about her body. The girl’s intention will be to hurt my niece’s feelings, and regardless of whether there’s any truth in the comment, the girl will more than likely succeed.
Part of me wishes I could lock her away in a tower somewhere and protect her from all the evils of the world, but I’ve seen Tangled so I’m well aware of how effective that plan really is. Still, the longer my niece can avoid having another girl tear her down on the basis of her appearance, the better. After all, women have a hard enough time accepting their bodies. The last thing any of us needs is for another woman—someone we’d normally want to think of as an ally in what seems to be society’s constant assault on our appearance—to tell us that we’re inadequate. Because even though we all reach a point where we’re pretty used to television, movies, advertising, and just about every other media source telling us we’re not thin enough, tall enough, short enough, blonde enough, brunette enough, light enough, dark enough, when that same message comes from a member of our peer group, it’s that much more personal and cutting.
The way I see it, there’s an unspoken (and slightly arbitrary) code of conduct governing the way women talk to each other about their own bodies. It’s not unlike the “I can say this because so-and-so is a member of my family” caveat that we all use to excuse ourselves before we criticize someone close to us in a way that we wouldn’t accept from outsiders. As a woman, it’s totally fine for me to joke or complain about my own body. In fact, this negative talk serves a purpose: If I’m in a social situation with other women, chances are good that I’m putting myself down in order to create a stronger bond between myself and my friends. (That’s not to say that I’m pretending to hate my body or some part of it simply for the sake of making friends—the feelings expressed in these bonding sessions are genuine.) And as if it weren’t bad enough that we’re bonding over putting ourselves down, we’re also vetting each other to make sure we don’t end up being friends with someone whose self-confidence is disproportionately generous in comparison to our own.
Negative talk about another woman’s body also has a specific function. Even when it’s couched in teasing or joking behavior, comments about another woman’s appearance are meant to create a clear separation between the targeted woman and the one (or ones) making the comments. For numerous reasons, one of the fastest and most effective ways to insult a woman is by insulting her appearance, and in many cases doing so constitutes a kind of declaration of war. Personally, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve resorted to this technique when fighting with a female friend or just trying to express how much I dislike some woman I’ve come into contact with. And out of all that comes this code; essentially it’s the dynamics that develop during middle school and high school endlessly replicating themselves throughout our lives.
The weird thing is that as much as I worry for my niece, until recently the thought that my nephew could suffer as a result of enduring the same kind of treatment never crossed my mind. And when I finally did take the time to think that there was really no reason why my nephew would be immune to the kind of insults that would hurt my niece, it was because the idea had been suggested to me, not because of any kind of insight I’d come to on my own. I like to think of myself as the sort of person who is sensitive to the way biases and stereotypes affect everyone, but I clearly missed the equality boat here.
This is especially embarrassing because there are a number of men in my life—family members, close friends, acquaintances—who have expressed some degree of body-related anxiety to me. Nevertheless, on days when I’m struggling with my own body image (which happen more often than I’d really like to admit), one of my go-to thoughts is how much easier life would be if I were male. As a man, I’d be free of all the anxiety and bullshit that I carry around with me everywhere I go. My eating disorder wouldn’t even exist and recovery would be a non-issue, I’d eat whatever I wanted without even thinking about it, and I’d exercise without wasting a minute wondering how many calories I might or might not burn. Because, you know, men have got it so easy.
Except they don’t.
I’m embarrassed by how quick I’ve been to think of men as being immune to body-related criticism. But I don’t think my assumptions about how little men worry about their bodies and appearance are uncommon in any way. In fact, I think the prevailing view is that when men are criticized for the way they look, the comments just roll off their backs. Women who get teased about their bodies develop eating disorders; men who get teased…well, does anyone really care? They’re fine, right?
After all, guys are always picking on each other, it’s fraternal. It’s how they relate to each other because they’re so bad at expressing their emotions. Besides, men aren’t under nearly the same amount of pressure as women to fit an idealized, unrealistic physical standard. What’s interesting to me is that while it’s widely recognized that women are subject to a high degree of pressure when it comes to their appearance, no one is really talking about how our dismissive attitudes toward men and body image force men into a position where they can’t really safely express any body-related anxiety they may feel. Doing so would be “unmanly,” a failure to live up to another kind of unrealistic standard. This standard has less to do with bust, waist, and hip measurements, and more to do with what society considers to be masculine behavior. Ultimately, the way both men and women relate to their physical appearance pits them against an ideal that only a select few will ever achieve.
I’m sure it comes as a surprise to no one that the generalizations we make when dealing with questions like these are reductive and damaging. And I’m well aware of how much I’m generalizing in trying to dissect these assumptions. But as image-related anxiety grows increasingly more prevalent (or at least more widely and openly reported and accurately diagnosed) in men, as demonstrated by the ever-larger numbers of men developing eating disorders and getting cosmetic surgery, I think that any discussion we can have about the harm our gender-related biases about appearance inflict can have value. Moreover, deconstructing these generalizations has the potential to help us discuss and better understand the significance of the body across the spectrum of gender, and break down the binary structure that currently governs our concept of how men and women relate to their appearance.
As the physical representation of our less-tangible selves, the body is a central part of who we are—when it is threatened or criticized, the effect is inevitably significant.
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.