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The Rising Tide of Men Suffering Body Image Anxiety

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I'm delighted to be asked by Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities, to contribute to this blog series on body confidence that will run throughout 2012, as part of the government's body confidence campaign.

For countless years the female of the species has been under enormous pressure about her appearance, and the struggle only appears to have got worse in recent years.

It appears that the contagion of body image insecurity that has historically afflicted women is beginning to infect men. Last year Central YMCA collaborated with the Centre for Appearance Research and the Succeed Foundation to undertake a major piece of research to better understand men's attitudes to their appearance.

Body image anxiety is no longer confined to women and our study appeared to confirm this:

  • Almost four in five men said they wanted to be more muscular with two in three reporting that they felt their chest and arms weren't muscular enough.
  • As many as four in five men engage in BodyTalk and most say that it affects them negatively - "causes feeling of regret and self-disgust", "makes me feel very conscious" and "reinforces negative self-image" were just some of the comments made.
  • One in four men in our study admitted that body image anxiety may prevent them from exercising or going to the gym.
  • Gay men were more predisposed to body image anxiety - whereas one third of men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body, the figure was much higher for gay men, and almost 10% of gay men would sacrifice a decade of life to achieve the body 'ideal'.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to make the best of what you've got and the increase in male beautification may appear harmless. But aping the ideal and becoming obsessed with appearance are arguably unhealthy and in many cases futile.

Conversation can develop into concern which could ultimately tip into obsession, and prompt unhealthy behaviours; whether this is over-exercising, disordered eating or resorting to quick fixes. There is certainly a marketplace that has developed in recent years to 'help' men on their way, in the quest for the body beautiful.

Around one third of men in our study admitted to using protein supplements. This is despite conflicting evidence as to their efficacy. In 2011, the NHS concluded that claims around protein supplementation resulting in improved muscle mass and strength for athletes are largely unsubstantiated.

On the black market steroid abuse continues to be an underground pursuit and therefore one of the challenges is it is difficult to monitor. However, figures from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs suggest there has been a steady increase in the number of young people who have tried them.

Equally invasive is cosmetic surgery and while the number of men undergoing this is much lower than women, it is on the rise - last year cosmetic surgery rates for men increased by 5.6%, no doubt fuelled in part by marketing and advertising that make what is at the end of the day a surgical procedure appear as convenient and everyday as getting a haircut.

All of these are perhaps symptoms of an underlying issue in which men are increasingly associating self-esteem and body satisfaction. Given that we live in an appearance saturated society, fuelled by the explosion in social media and digital technology, perhaps this isn't that shocking? However appearance is just one attribute of an individual and the situation is exacerbated by a very narrow definition of what the 'ideal' should be. Indeed the 'ideal' isn't healthy ideal. It's not even based on sexual attraction - men often think that women want their men to be more muscular than women actually do.

The YMCA's perspective on all of this is very simple - we question the relentless focus on appearance, value diversity in all its glory and recognise the importance of health in mind, body and spirit. Body confidence doesn't come just from the body you have, it's a state of mind as well.

So how can we change mindsets, particularly when men are now following women down this well-trod path? Education is key; so too is the development of positive role models - Central YMCA is involved in initiatives focused on these areas.

We are also grateful to the energy of parliamentarians such as Jo Swinson MP who are providing a much needed catalyst for change. Together with Jo, Central YMCA established an All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image which has just completed an Inquiry into the causes and consequences of body image anxiety. The group will report in late spring and will contain a number of recommendations which we hope will help us tackle this growing obsession with the body beautiful. For men. For women. For every body.

For more information on Central YMCA's Campaign for Body Confidence, please go to: www.ymca.co.uk/bodyconfidence

This post forms part of the UK government's blog series on body confidence which will run throughout 2012.

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