Like women, men are now suf­fer­ing in their pur­suit of the ‘per­fect’ body

The ob­ses­sive quest to achieve a phys­i­cal ideal is taking a need­less toll on male health

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - Bar­bara Ellen

Is it progress for women if men are in­creas­ingly en­cour­aged to hate them­selves too? Con­sumer re­search from Min­tel found that 42% of younger men (16-24) now re­move their un­der­arm hair (a rise of 26% from 2016), while 46% of all men re­move body hair (up from 36% in 2016). Which means that young men are re­mov­ing body hair al­most as fre­quently as young women (29% of men v 34% of women). The rise is thought to be fu­elled by shows such as Love Is­land, as well as pop stars, sports­men and so­cial me­dia.

Clearly, I’m out of the loop, be­cause my first re­ac­tion to this was: “Men like creepy smooth Ken dolls – re­ally?” Apart from that, one could ask: why does the idea of men re­mov­ing their hair au­to­mat­i­cally make it more in­ter­est­ing? Women have long felt pres­sured to re­move their body hair. In fact, shorten that: women have sim­ply long felt pres­sured. While it has be­come more fash­ion­able for women to keep armpit and other body hair (ad­mit­tedly, this may be truer in more woke cir­cles), women are still way out in front in terms of both groom­ing and myr­iad other, more se­ri­ous is­sues re­lat­ing to body im­age.

Nev­er­the­less, ris­ing lev­els of male hair re­moval could be sig­nif­i­cant. Time was, there would be the oc­ca­sional mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle chal­leng­ing men to un­dergo wax­ing “to see how they liked hav­ing their hair ripped out by the roots”. Now, it seems that, like it or not, a lot of them are do­ing it, or at least re­mov­ing hair some­how. Nor could all of this be put down to in­no­cent fash­ion trends –wet-look hair gel, half-mast trousers, fake tan – or even a healthy urge to com­pete for sex­ual at­ten­tion. In re­cent years, anorexia in boys and men has been on the rise, and, while food dis­or­ders (and the re­port­ing of them) are as se­ri­ous and com­plex in males as they are in fe­males, un­healthy body ideals and poor self­im­age seem to be play­ing their part.

It would seem that younger males es­pe­cially are be­ing bom­barded with hy­per-ide­alised im­ages of not only what fe­males “should” look like, but also how they them­selves “should” look. By watch­ing those fit, hair­less (but pre­sum­ably sex­u­ally suc­cess­ful) spec­i­mens on tele­vi­sion pro­grammes or on so­cial me­dia, it’s as if the famed “male gaze” is be­ing sav­agely and piti­lessly turned back on them­selves.

In this way, it’s al­most as though a twisted form of gen­der equal­ity is be­ing achieved via the un­ex­pected medium of equal op­por­tu­ni­ties body is­sues. How­ever, was this ever the plan? Away from the most ra­bid (and gen­er­ally myth­i­cal) fem­i­nist agenda, was this state of what could be termed equal­ity of anx­i­ety what any­body wanted to achieve? Surely, the aim was for girls and women to be put un­der less pressure by so­ci­etal and com­mer­cial norms, not for boys and men to be put un­der more? Some­how, in­stead of body im­age pressure eas­ing on fe­males, it’s ris­ing in males. Far from equal­ity, it looks like a dis­as­ter.

Joel An­der­son/ ITV

Smooth op­er­a­tors: con­tes­tants from the last se­ries of Love Is­land.

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