Body positivity and boys: What men really think about the movement
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When we think of the words body positivity, we typically imagine a slew of plus-size, curvy women lined up like the now epochal Dove ad — advocating for ideals of femininity to evolve and for society to embrace the nuances of individual and real beauty. But when we think of body image and the mental health associated with it, why don't we ever picture men?
Over the last few years, body positivity, body acceptance, and the psychological benefits of it all have emerged as contenders to the ideal versions of beauty, sex appeal, attraction, and gender roles — all of which have plagued our society for many former generations. But even with the influx of influencers in today's landscape (albeit female-centric again) — the slow but steady stream of change on our feeds and the advocacy of celebrities including Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, Ashley Graham, and countless others, it seems the dial has not switched remotely, if at all, when it comes to challenging the archetype for men and what is considered a positive and normalised body.
A study by the Australian Psychological Society found that one in ten people who suffer from anorexia are now men, with 17% of them admitting to being on what is considered an 'extreme diet' to achieve the 'perfect' male look. This endless search for the 'masculine' body type has also resulted in over 3% of teenage boys admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs and the overall dissatisfaction of men with their own selves, tripling from 15% to 45% over the last 25 years. And who can blame them, given the immense pressure to conform to notions of six packs and chiseled V lines, all popularised by the never-ending mudslide of content across our media platforms. The end result is suppression of self, low self-esteem, binge-eating, purging, and other many side-effects, all buried under the guise of male bravado. All of that impacts their mental health at equivalent rates as women's, but somehow, none of that ever gets vocalised. Yes, the year is 2020 but it appears the world still beckons change.
So how do real men, in every day situations handle the toxicity of overcoming 'manly' stereotypes and redefining a healthy image within themselves and in the circles around them? How have their unique experiences with childhood, manhood, media, and society shaped the way they see their own shape? Do they feel represented? Do they feel pressured? Do they feel overwhelmed? Buro. Singapore speaks to three men who are breaking down barriers in their own lives in hope of inspiring others and to bury the stigma around body and boys, as they share their views on the future of the body positivity movement.
Brian Phillips, 38
Management Consultant, New York City
"I was always the nerd in high school, skinny with wire-rimmed glasses. I've been called Urkel more times than I can count. I went to a typical American high school, where the jocks got all the girls and the attention while the rest of us felt like we had to live up to that archetype to have a shot. For years, I ate everything I could to gain weight and become that athletic guy everyone sees in the movies, but it just wasn't happening."
Now well-built and professionally successful, Brian Phillips reflects of the time where he wasn't as confident in who he was and the role his body image played in it. In particular, growing up with the American idealism around sports culture that celebrated football players, cheerleaders, and general athleticism — all the things that kept him shy through his formative years.
It wasn't until university that Phillips began to re-shape his own view of his masculinity and body. "When I got to college, I finally got contacts and started to see myself differently from the awkward kid in school who was good at academics and playing into that 'geeky' stereotype. I realised I can really express my own personality through my clothes and how I carry myself, which was when I started to come into my own and find my own style and confidence — with some fashion advice from my sister."
Through his 20s, Phillips found a newfound appreciation for body acceptance and freedom, starting his career and falling into the twenty-something pattern of work, friends, parties, and drinks. But it wasn't until his early thirties that he realised he hadn't fully evolved to respect his body and to look after it because he wanted to, not because society told him to. "My pants stopped fitting the way I wanted to, the shirts became tighter and I realised I needed to step it up for my own confidence and health. So I started working on it, not because anyone told me to, but because it helped my mental well-being and how I felt about myself. It's a double-edged sword sometimes though; now that I've actually lost the weight, I have to keep reminding myself it's okay to indulge once in a while. You get caught up in society's validation of your weight loss and you have to remind yourself you're not defined by it."
Being African-American, Phillips also wants other young boys and men particularly of his own heritage, to understand they don't need to abide by the arbitrary stereotypes placed on them socially and by the media.
"Black men in particular get classified into these unique archetypes of the 'cool guy', the 'rich guy', 'the rapper guy', 'the basketball guy'... and of course, that doesn't even include the other stereotypes about our other attributes. Everyone assumed I had to be good at basketball when I was growing up and in spite of being tall, I wasn't some champion player. It's okay to just be who you are and be the happiest version of that."
Ben James, 28
Curve male model and body positivity advocate, United Kingdom
Upon first glance, it's hard to imagine Ben James has ever faced any issues when it comes to body image. The 6'6 dark blonde model is the epitome of classically handsome, a notion happily perpetuated by his some 28,000 Instagram followers. Propelling to fame recently through his sizable following on Tik Tok (178,000 no less), James has become a viral internet sensation in the world of male body positivity. His multiple bite-sized videos often drive home the message of male body representation and re-defining terminology used to describe men's physiques.
When asked why he thinks his simple yet powerful content has resonated with so many, James keeps it simple.
"So many people who follow me have never had anyone say to them that their bodies are okay as they are. They don't have that voice of confidence telling them that acne, cellulite, stretch marks, a bit of body fat or whatever your insecurity is, is okay and a part of who you are. And if I can use my platform to help drive that message home, even if it's through 15-second TikTok videos to help them feel connected to embracing their so-called flaws, then that's great and that's what I'm here for."
Recently signed with the UK's largest modelling agency MiLk Model Management, it's not hard to see why the charismatic James has made a dent. His passion stems from the authenticity of his own mental health and body acceptance journey, formerly weighing 175kg through his twenties and standing at 6'6 by the age of sixteen. In a culture that fetishises tall men, James shares a different perspective on being defined by his height.
"My height is pretty much the topic of any conversation with someone as soon as I meet them and it has been since I was a teenager. I'm more comfortable in my body now, but as an awkward teenager, you feel like you stand out for all the wrong reasons when how tall you are keeps getting pointed out and all you want to do is fit in."
Having lost over 40kg, the former Commercial Director for a tech start-up in Europe, James embraced modelling as a way of exploring his own body image and bringing representation to the forefront for men such as himself who fall under the 'Plus-size Male Model' category. Ironically, two and a half years later after having modelled for brands including Ted Baker, Calvin Klein, Lacoste, and Jacamo, James is now most often criticised for not being 'big enough' or 'fat enough' to be considered plus-size.
"People have this really warped view of what plus-size constitutes for both men and women. Anything above a size medium is usually considered plus-size in the fashion world, so first and foremost, it's an industry classification. But more than that, people are so used to seeing the most extreme versions of what curve looks like regardless of gender so they can't recognize the in-between. To some extent, you can't even blame them because that's what the media shows. Of course it sells more to have someone really large on the cover of a magazine or on your feed, because it drives controversy and conversation, which drives engagement and publicity. That's why when we see a normal, healthy person who doesn't conform to the typical six-pack male athletic ideal or thinness, we find it unusual."
Whilst James now enjoys having a laugh at the throngs of newfound females fans leaving little to the imagination in his comments section (we blushed for him), Ben celebrates his success through the unique opportunity he's been given to play a role in impacting his followers' mental health in a positive manner, often personally responding to people's requests for advice and motivation. He takes the effort to ensure he's sensitive and careful with language, a kindness many didn't afford him during his own body evolution journey.
"Even if I can change one person's perception of male or female body image, be it for themselves or someone else, that to me is success. That's one less person thinking they have to conform to some bullshit ideal that's been set up for them to live up to and to embrace being happy with exactly who they are."
Ultimately for James, acceptance and positivity are key to cultivating a healthy body and mind and he quips, "You don't need to become a butterfly to feel like you've achieved body positivity. What's so wrong about being happy as a caterpillar anyway?"
Shaun Tupaz, 32
Fitness influencer, comedian, and radio host, Singapore
A radio host and producer on the hit show, 'Glenn and the Flying Dutchman', Shaun Tupaz is also a talented comedian, spin instructor, and most of all, an advocate for embracing your body in all its glory — so much so that he calls himself a 'fatness' influencer. On any given night, you'll find Shaun in between lunges and laughs, dressed in glittery dresses and heels during his comedy shows to skin tight lycra.
For Tupaz, this confidence and advocacy has been a journey longtime coming. As is a reality for many men but left unsaid, he resorted to self-harm and suffered an eating disorder, before recognising he couldn't continue on the path he was on.
"My body positivity journey began rather late, I went through the army, started to train for myself and then did a Men's Health cover shoot — I put myself through crazy amounts of stress and unnecessary pressure only to realise I wasn't in it for me. I wasn't happy on the inside, I was starving myself, and cutting myself off from friends and family. I was alone and focused only on what others would think of me. That is no way to live life."
Battling a lack of body diversity in the Singaporean media and influencer circles, coupled with social pressures to conform to the idea of being a 'hot guy', Shaun recognised there was a clear gap in the market when it came to the conversation and representation of confident, healthy, and body positive men.
"We don't really have a body positivity community in Singapore. Sure, we have a few body positive personalities out there and I am thankful for their voices. But we're very much only at the start, we still have thousands of men out here with the mindset of "do whatever it takes to look good for others". Many of them work out or go on extreme diets from the position of self-hate, rather than self-improvement and their efforts come from a place of judgement. They feel they're not worthy, usually because they've been called names or bullied into wanting to change who they are. You can't approach fitness or body acceptance from a place of hate. You need to love yourself and the people around you to achieve stable change and that is an ongoing battle."
On calling himself a 'fatness' influencer, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the word "fat". The social norm has taught us that skinny is good and fat is bad. It doesn't take into consideration that there are multiple factors such as genes, upbringing, socioeconomic status, and many more. Without factoring these, we become trained to judge people on their weight and metric systems, rather than their depth. When held against the regular system, my BMI says I'm overweight. I don't have a six pack or 10% body fat — all the supposed things that society would deem worthy for someone in media. But put me in a race, I'll run faster, put me on a bike, I'll spin with groove, put me in a strip club, I'll take the pole and your money. It's not how you look, it's what you value. And I value fitness and the journey."
"My hope is for all of us to be just 5% kinder. For each and every one of us to be kind to ourselves and to be kind to the people around us. We need to build and support communities that promote body positivity and do it unapologetically. Take a look at what you're consuming on social media and then ask yourself, does it help you love you? If not, find a routine that does. There are lots of us out there spreading body love and unity, so reach out."