Menu Close

Why aren’t we worried about the ‘beach body’ message we’re sending to men?

A man’s identity was once largely drawn from work, family and perhaps sport. Today, men are given the task of designing and maintaining an identity from a multitude of alternatives offered by products they can buy and images they are shown in the media. The supposed reward for all this is social and psychological well-being. As many marketers would have it, “look good, feel good”.

But this shift has brought the kind of pressure to conform to a certain image and body shape that was previously directed at almost solely at women. Recent adverts for Protein World weight-loss products that featured a highly toned, bikini-clad model were criticised as an attempt to exploit women’s body insecurities and shame them into buying the products. These were accompanied by similarly revealing but largely unnoticed ads for men. While these don’t carry the same sexist legacy of women’s objectification, they do replicate some of the same body shaming issues.

Beach body ready? Protein World

Men have always been concerned with their appearance to some degree. Some sub-cultures such as the Teddy Boys and Mods have been particularly interested in their appearance, donning snappy suits and Brylcreeming their hair. But what distinguishes the modern era is the breadth and depth of this fascination. Grooming and fashion products aimed at men today far exceeds in number what was available to their forefathers and are used far more extensively by a greater age range of men from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The market for male grooming products has boomed in recent years and has only slowed more recently thanks to the popularity of beards. Though industry reports should be treated with a degree of scepticism, market research by cosmetics manufacturers suggests a majority of men place a high degree of importance on their appearance. And doing so is thought to be more acceptable today than in previous generations.

Men’s products have also entered domains once thought to be the preserve of women, such as self-tanning, body hair removal and make-up use. Men can now buy shine-reduction powders, lipstick-shaped concealers, eyelash glazes with mascara wands, shape-and-shine nail sets and tinted shimmer face bronzers. In order for men to consume these typically feminised items they tend to be labelled “for men” and have masculine names that emphasise performance and technical characteristics. The companies that manufacture these products have in some cases seen sales triple or even quadruple over the last decade.

Although we are lacking research to provide a definitive answer for why this culture shift has happened, various explanations have been put forward: fashion and image influences from the growing visibility of gay cultures; equality pressures from feminist movements; marketers seeking new avenues to sell products by confronting men on a daily basis with stylised images of other men’s bodies. Prominent pictures of the likes of David Beckham and other muscular celebrities in their underwear have helped to firmly establish the presence of the men’s bodies as objects to be eroticised and consumed.

All Beckham’s fault? leezie5/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

This cultural change may well have come at a price. The number of men diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia has risen by nearly 30% in the past 15 years. Plastic surgery among men also rose by almost 60% between 2008 and 2013. It declined by 15% again last year but plastic surgeons blamed this trend on the increasing popularity of beards and a more rugged look.

Research suggests that of those men who do seek plastic surgery up to 33% may suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, a condition where sufferers become obsessed with what they see as defects in their appearance. These mental health issues have complex origins but it is difficult to ignore the correlation between their popularity and the growing pressure on men to look a certain way.

In search of the ideal body some men are opting to use prescription medications, often with dangerous consequences. The internet provides easy access to prescription drugs such as steroids and hormones, often at a low cost. Unsupervised use of these drugs can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects from vomiting and high blood pressure to liver damage and increased risk of heart attacks. There are also mental health effects such as mood swings, depression and memory loss.

We don’t have the data to know exactly how many men take body modification substances, which can include non-prescription drugs such as laxatives and large amounts of caffeine. But research suggests as many as 25% of male gym users in the US have done so within the last three years.

To challenge these practices and protect men from the negative health impacts of body pressures we need more information to be available about safe and healthy methods of image management. We also need to see more bodies in the media and marketing that don’t fit with the “beach ready” ideal.

The Advertising Standards Agency recently ruled the Protein World ads were not socially irresponsible, prompting objections from those who argue the campaign objectifies women. But we should also to take seriously the effects on men of being bombarded with so many pictures of musclebound models in their underwear.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 122,600 academics and researchers from 3,932 institutions.

Register now