Women, men and body image

Back in 2003, I wrote a piece for The F-Word on body image. I was in my late 20s and only just managing to get to grips with the fact that my body’s outward appearance didn’t match the image I had of it in my head. I had begun to summon the self-confidence to say that I was happy with the way I looked, despite the fact that hundreds of media images a day were trying to tell me I was abnormal. Slowly, I ditched the ‘fat days’ and fretting about the size of my belly, instead concentrating on how I felt rather than how I looked. When I went out at night and people told me I looked fantastic, I actually believed them. It was the first step to a happier me.

I have no idea if my own personal journey is the same as anyone else’s, and I also haven’t a clue as to whether it was something specific I did that fixed my own body image. Perhaps it’s something that just happens to a lot of women when they reach their 30s. I do know for sure now that I want to help other people through the same issues, but the problem is I don’t know how. What, if anything, can I say to make it better? I know someone truly gorgeous in her mid 20s who is going through the exact same thing I did ten years ago and, although it hurts to see her this way, I know just how she feels. No matter how many times her friends tell her she’s beautiful, she still feels fat. She says she wants to get slimmer for her own reasons which I really do hope is true, but any negativity I feel from her gets me worried that she’s on a path to body hatred.

I wonder if any of us would yearn to be a specific shape or size if there was a more varied mixture of people portrayed as acceptable in the media. I quit buying magazines and now no longer watch television programmes as they are broadcast, so my exposure to advertising was greatly reduced which I think helped me a lot at a time when I wasn’t confident enough to deal with it. The first step to feeling happy about your body is to stop comparing yourself to others. Just remember that the only person that you need to love you is you. Even, like me, you want to be loved by others, the first step is to love yourself. Why do you want to be thinner, younger or fitter? If it really will make you happy, then go for it, but don’t do it just to please anyone else. Chances are that what you need to be truly happy is simply confidence in all aspects of yourself.

A quick side-note: never ever think that all feminists disagree with physical self improvement. What I dislike is the idea that women are buying into the Beauty Myth and becoming self-hating consumers of all products/services they believe will lead them to this, largely unattainable, young thin ideal. If you love the adrenaline rush you get from exercise and want to be fit, great. If you want to cut out meat from your diet to become healthier, well, good for you. However, if you’re publicly whining about wanting to lose weight without giving your reasons, don’t be offended if we assume you’re being negative. We’ve all been there and just don’t want you making the same mistakes.

On re-reading my old article though, do you know what the really sad thing is about it? I said then that men are not under the same pressure to conform to specific ideals regarding body image but it appears that now, increasingly, they are. I’ve seen men’s insecurities rear their ugly heads first hand and, on telling Twitter I was going to blog on this subject, a male friend told me that he also struggles with body image issues but that guys rarely talk about it. A recent episode of Glee rather surprisingly tackled the subject extremely well, showing that the same pressures affect young men these days and even the fittest guys can still see themselves as fat. So, if this is now happening to more and more young people, what on earth can we do to stop it? Answers on a postcard, please.

Images by lipsticklori, taken in 2007 for an A-level photography project on women and food.

6 thoughts on “Women, men and body image

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  1. The boy worries about his fat sometimes. I love bellies, so we've agreed he'll keep his and I'll keep mine. 🙂

    I think ultimately the problem is that there's a social construct around women particularly getting together to complain about their bodies. It's almost a sick bonding technique. I figure if you want to change it, you'll go change it, not talk about how you wish it'd change. Complaining is the opposite of productive, and yet it's social currency among women. It's really unfortunate.

    Ultimately, being fit is about a lifestyle overhaul- a lifestyle overhaul that a lot of people are, frankly, too overworked and underpaid to make. It's not just exercising, though you need time and accessibility to make that work. It's also not eating processed foods, cooking your own meals, being able to buy fresh ingredients. It's about spending less time online and more outside. But, unfortunately, you don't get paid to do that, and often it's hard to carve out the energy and time to do so. So people give up, and the cycle begins afresh. Bah.

  2. It's such a difficult question to find an answer to. I think until we as a society learn to focus on health over size/shape there will be no end to the body image issues so many of us have now

  3. I'm fat.

    I'm not happy about that fact.

    I know WHY I'm fat, I don't exercise (at all?) and don't eat as healthily as I should. I know what to do if I want to lose weight.

    I'm ashamed, sometimes, of my weight. Sometimes I don't care (but even then, it's a facade, a blokish way of hiding my feelings).

    Deep down I'm not comfortable with my weight and, I'm very conscious of it as it's not the shape I 'should be'. I have no six-pack, not toned pecs or defined biceps. Everywhere I look in the media I see images that suggest I should look like that.

    I never will, and whilst I accept that I still struggle with it.

    So no, it's not just women.

  4. I agree with Kitty – there is a social construct about women bitching about their bodies! I am trying hard to stop doing this, but it's ingrained in me. I'm glad you're happier. I'm 25 and working on getting there but I'm kind of disappointed about how happy losing a few pounds has made me lately.


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