Washboard abs and crash diets: how the beauty industry is hurting men

We ask each other: "do you even lift, bro?" It’s about being big or being shredded. Preferably both.

Timothy Smith
7 August 2015

In recent years the beauty industry has targeted men more. Credit: Shutterstock.

This summer a now infamous advert – posted up around the London underground - gained national attention. Using a slim, blonde bikini model to sell diet products, the advert asked women: 'are you beach body ready?' It was an obvious part of a broader advertising tactic: profiting through the policing of women's bodies.

The ad deserved criticism. May Gibbs, who organized a Facebook campaign deriding the ad, said: "We know there is no 'ideal' body. Everyone is different and everyone's bodies are ready when they say they are."There were widespread complaints about the use of an unrealistic, airbrushed image, and the marketing of largely unattainable beauty norms. Rebecca Field, a spokesperson for eating disorder charity Beat, noted that whilst such ads do not cause eating disorders outright, they ‘could have a harmful effect’ on those who are ‘susceptible to eating disorders.’

Men are often the ones setting these standards and exploiting women's bodies for gain. But in recent years the beauty industry has begun to target men more.

From 2007-2012 the sale of beauty products targeted at men sky rocketed by a massive 70%. Men are increasingly concerned with their appearances and are lapping up beauty industry products like never before. Though men in the public eye, such as high profile politicians, can still get away with being ‘out of shape’, generally our appearances are now much more scrutinized.

Footballers like Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, for example, are often body shamed by the press and football fans alike. The Daily Star titled Rooney ‘Captain Fatso’, after Norway’s captain Vegard Forren described him as ‘chubby.’ Celebrities like comedian Russell Howard, who once fit into the skinny, 'nerdy' norm, have undergone major body transformations. Even DJ and singer-songwriter Calvin Harris is now modelling for Calvin Klein, having recently significantly altered his body. This is despite the fact that fitness is very separate to physical appearance, as multiple studies have shown.

Today it is commonplace to see incredibly ripped men adorning advertising space on the London Underground or big billboards. These pressures mean that men are becoming as insecure about their bodies as women have long been made to be. I have lost large amounts of weight – it has a massive psychological impact. You never feel big enough, or ripped enough, even if both are a contradiction in terms. Magazines like Men's Health and GQ are constantly advertising the latest crash diet or 'six week six pack plan.' Muscle for Life magazine emphasizes ‘ideal body measurements', while Men’s Health’s best summer bodies all involved celebrities with six packs, a big chest and big arms. This ideal of male beauty is seen as healthy and fashionable.

There is a huge emphasis in British 'lad culture' or American ‘jock culture’ on being 'shredded' for summer holidays. Men going on ultra-extreme no-carb crash diets in order to get the body they desire for their boozy beach holidays, even though doing this is not healthy.

Those who do not conform to an ideal of masculine 'rippedness', are written off as lazy, useless and not 'manly'. How much you can bench press and how big your chest is is linked to a hypermasculine ideal. We ask each other: "do you even lift, bro?" It’s about being big or being shredded. Preferably both.

But the cost of this is damning. 11% of those who admit to having eating disorders are male, while a far higher number of men likely suffer from disordered eating. But eating disorders are not often talked about by men, nor are related male body image insecurities. Many men are suffering from body image problems, including eating disorders such as bulimia or body dysmorphia, related to not being 'big enough'. UK Thai boxer Greg Wootton told me that that he and another fighter took a Hello magazine tick box test on 'signs of anorexia'. “Being a fighter we ticked quite a lot of the boxes, nine out of ten”, he said, “it can mess people up for a long time.”

Lots of men I speak to admit to feeling huge pressure to look a certain way, hoping to gain acceptance from friends and lovers: skipping meals and counting calories. Some have a 'binge and purge' mentality, over-eating and then punishing themselves in the gym the next day. While cutting weight for amateur Thai boxing fights, I have experienced an unhealthy relationship with food. This resulted from severe diets as well as a related body image expectation. At times when my body image is bad I will often train with a rain coat on, whilst others use sweat suits to increase the exertion.

Advertising plays a crucial role in normalizing certain body ideals that are simply unsustainable by repeatedly showing us images of ultra thin, or ultra muscular men and women. Victoria Secret’s model Adriana Lima has spoken about how she uses water cutting methods (similar to those used by professional fighters) to 'slim down' for photo shoots. Water cutting involves manipulating water in-take over a few days, depriving the body of water to remove a layer of it. This increases the appearance of muscle definition, but is highly dangerous. In 2013 one mixed martial artist died from cutting water weight for a fight. Bodies modified in this way are unrealistic, despite the way they are shown as a norm and as something to work towards.

When discussing fitness plans, weight loss and diets there needs to be far more emphasis on how we feel internally, rather than how we look. It is possible to look thin or fit, while actually being grossly unhealthy. Any fighter who steps on the scales at the weigh in to meet a certain weight category is at their weakest, as a result of water cutting, even if they do look 'ripped' and fierce. As Wooten said: “I need to work on the fact that I shouldn’t always look how I do at the weigh in when you’re not actually healthy, you don’t have any water and you’re f**king dehydrated.” Even so, he said, the positive reinforcement he gets from others while water cutting plays with his idea of how his body should look.

More emphasis needs to be put on personal well-being and as a society we need to re-condition ourselves not to make snap judgements about people based on their physical appearance or perceived weight. Feeling good on the inside is far more important than how we look externally. We should also look to value other people based on who they are, rather than what they look like. People who are different to traditional body norms are not lazy or slobbish. By policing these things we're merely creating a web of insecurity for ourselves and for those around us.

We all need to have an honest discussion with ourselves and with each other about how we feel and how that is more important than how we look. We can’t hold ourselves and other people to these unhealthy expectations of what ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ is. People have different body shapes. Eating food will impact one person differently to another. We can’t all look the same: life would be boring if we did.

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