We dedicate a lot of our publishing space to talking about body image. We mostly present the issue from a female perspective, as there is an overwhelming amount of power and money dedicated to dictating what women should look like, act like, how they should speak, and live their lives. Industries like fashion, fitness and advertising have done a stellar job at enforcing certain unrealistic standards, that we are only now seeing fissures and cracks in this once dominant veneer.
The body positive movement online has elevated conversations about diversity and body acceptance specifically within the fashion world, and it is having a marked effect. We’ve seen a number of major retailers and brands re-tooling their campaign messages to be more inclusive and show they understand reaching a wider consumer base is just basic business sense.
With all the attention placed on the way body image issues affect women, what about other demographics? Are men exempt from this epidemic? What about young children? We have shared a number of articles about the increased awareness of the effect on men. But there is a much bigger acknowledgement we need to share with our readers. It is time we stopped talking about body image and body negativity as an issue that only impacts a certain section of society, and realize it is a human issue exacerbated by a systemic problem.
A recent study out of the UK, conducted by the Advertising Association, surveyed 1,005 boys aged 8 – 18 around the country to explore their attitudes towards advertising and body image. They conducted workshops not only with the boys, but also with their parents, teachers and youth leaders to fully understand the cultural context of their answers.
The report titled “Picture of Health?” found 53% of boys felt advertising was a major contributor to the pressure to look good, 57% felt it was social media, and 80% said they were aware of image manipulation in the media. They also found 41% of the boys determined the way the media portrays men is “unrealistic”. However, 1 in 4 boys (42%) who thought the male images they saw were realistic also believed there is a “perfect body” to strive for, compared with just 16% of those who think male images are unrealistic. That last figure is nothing to brush over.
“This new research shows boys are increasingly worried about their appearance. We have to recognize that advertising and the wider media play some part in shaping how young people feel about themselves – both positively and negatively,” said Karen Fraser, Credos director.
The social media aspect of this survey is also very important, because it has become a source of body anxiety in a range of forms. To illustrate just how impactful social media can be, a male Instagram user conducted an experiment where he documented his thoughts and feelings about his body for 30 days straight.
Aaron Barksdale said in a post on Refinery29 he wanted to fill the void of male body image representation and challenge his own insecurities he has battled with.
“Being queer, dark-skinned, and skinny, I have never felt comfortable in my own skin, and until recently, I didn’t have the words to express that discomfort. To be a desirable gay man means to be masculine, white, and muscular, a standard that’s reinforced by images shared online,” he said.
“While I’m thrilled that the conversation is starting to change for women, I’m left wondering why there’s a relative lack of body-positive posts and accounts directed at men,” he added, before listing a few men who, like him, have joined the people-powered body image revolution.
The response was mixed, but mostly positive. He said there were a number of people who un-followed him probably because they thought he was spamming them with selfies, but Aaron suspects there was a deeper significance to hitting that button.
“For most people, men aren’t supposed to be transparent about body image or their insecurities, so seeing these things play out on Instagram may have been unsettling — after all, rigid perceptions of masculinity don’t allow for men to publicly explore these issues,” he said, hitting the nail on the head. But if more men like him are willing to speak out and break the taboo, the less likely we will see body image as just a “woman’s issue”.
Along with this realization must come the acknowledgment of how body image is seeping into people’s lives from a very young age. We constantly promote girls in STEM initiatives and projects that foster visual representations of role models who focus on things other than physical appearance, because there are now numerous studies showing young children expressing body dissatisfaction.
A UK survey of childcare workers found that they are hearing children as young as 3 talking about their bodies. The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) was the organization behind the study which asked 361 childcare workers to answer questions about how they hear children talk about body image.
Today.com reports some of the standout results from the study:
- 24 percent of childcare workers have heard children between ages 3-5 express unhappiness about their bodies
- 47 percent have heard negative body image statements from 6-10-year-olds
- 37 percent have heard children say “he/she is fat”
- 31 percent have heard children say “I am fat”
- 10 percent have heard children say “I am ugly”
- 16 percent have heard children say they wish they were as “pretty” or as “good” as another child
- 19 percent have witnessed children avoid food because they fear it will make them fat
“The results are worrying. By the age of 3 or 4 some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds — and even hold strong views — about how bodies should look,” said Jacqueline Harding, advisor to PACEY.
These results underscore how crucial the first few years of a child’s life are, and how it an set the trajectory for adulthood fr good or for bad. In 2015, Common Sense Media in the US conducted their own study with children and found similar results – children as young as 5 are developing issues with their body image.
Parents play a key role in helping children on the path to self-love and acceptance, and it cannot be an issue that is laid off for a later date. What kind of research is it going to take for the powerful advertising and fashion industries to understand the hugely negative impact they are having on men, women and children’s lives and commit to changing their approach to consumer marketing?
When it comes to gender equality, we are big believers in the “He For She” mantra that men play an important role in furthering the cause. But for body image, this IS their issue, and it is high time we start seeing body image talked about as a widespread societal problem instead. Our hope is that major brands, spokespeople, celebrities and even legislation begin to reflect the changing landscape brought about by social media and digital trends.
Let’s be part of a movement dedicated to ensure the next generation does not have to live under the outdated, unrealistic and frustrating dictates when it comes to defining what bodies should look like and how they should take up space in the world.