20/08/2014 11:00 BST | Updated 19/10/2014 06:59 BST

Ken's Got Issues Too: Let's Talk About Male Beauty Standards

2014-08-19-6862993563_f67aa23ea0_o.jpgMascara eyes, willowy limbs, and vomit-stained basins: these are the summonings of modern beauty concerns in a world that's obsessed with the female body. With eating disorders on the rise and the media refusing to budge in its portrayal of the 'perfect woman,' Western beauty standards seem as stratospheric as they've ever been. That's not to suggest they've reigned unchecked for the past years: feminism has evolved into something of a twenty-first-century fad for which the womanly figure serves the ever-present centrepiece for discussions on beauty politics.

As much is true of the current music industry alone, with songs like Lily Allen's 'Hard Out Here' calling our expectations of modern women into serious and scathing question. Colbie Caillat's 'Try' suits the most recent example, as a heartfelt consolation to those affected by society's impossible standards of beauty--standards to which we are all susceptible. I liked the song, and I'm glad it received the attention it deserved, but a stop by its critically-acclaimed music video raised an important question for me: What about all the men? In all of three minutes and fifty-one seconds the video failed to reveal a single male actor, or in fact acknowledge male beauty standards at all. I duly noted the same in Beyoncé's 'Pretty Hurts' and Meghan Trainor's 'All About That Bass'.

A lot of people are quick to argue that beauty standards barely, if at all, apply to men--and by this I'm unsurprised considering our general attitude towards them. The literati often grumble at the Latin-based adjective uxorious, given to men excessively submissive to their wives, on account of there being no corresponding word for women too submissive to their husbands. This suggests obedience is reprehensible in the case of men while anticipated in the case of women--and we're right to take issue with that--but let's turn our attention to the word fop, a noun pertaining to men excessively concerned with their appearance. Again there's no corresponding word for a woman so inclined, and this illustrates our tendency to assume beauty concerns in women while spurning those that happen to emerge in men (and I think that's a feminist issue).

It seems this dismissal of male beauty issues has become so ingrained in society that we're no longer equipped to notice when a man might have a problem. Who, after all, is going to question a fervid gym junkie when there are women willingly starving themselves in their own homes? Or an undersized teenage boy when there are girls refusing school because they're outgrowing their uniforms? I'd say every flavour of body problem is worth our attention, and this means we need to start discussing the men who are at the gym--right now--mutilating their bodies at the bench press, risking heart disease and kidney problems with their protein shakes, and spending half their lives in sportswear in the process.


Among our many misconceptions of male beauty is our inference that lean and muscular men are in good shape, and that there's therefore little to worry about. This is like suggesting women's body issues aren't a problem because slimming down is good for them. In truth, however, most of the guys bulking up at the gym are doing it wrong, and for the wrong reasons: they're looking for muscle mass, not physical health, and are perfectly willing to abuse their bodies in their pursuit of it. Pediatrics concluded recently that men see the 'toned and muscular body as the ideal,' with 67% of those surveyed claiming devotion to strict diets and heavy gym sessions. A further 35% admitted to using protein shakes, and another 6% to using steroids. Keeping fit--in terms of health--is as important as keeping slim, but in the same way there are good and bad ways of getting skinny, there are also good and bad ways of hitting the gym.

But this isn't just about crippled muscles and dodgy steroids--it's about beauty issues and the way in which they're imposed as a woman's problem. We spend a lot of time discussing dieting propaganda and stick-thin Vogue models, but what of society's pervasive muscle hype and sinewy Men's Fitness covers? What of the constant shaming of the thin, short, and slender? There's no doubt that the female appearance has endured a scrutiny greater than that suffered by men, but to present these matters as endemic to the female sex is to lock us both in the past and draw lines that should have never been drawn in the first place. In opening our eyes to the broader scope of society's beauty epidemic we might just start making some headway in redressing it. Because dangerous beauty standards are a human issue--not a women's issue.