Do you remember the movie “Princess Diaries?” All the “ugly duckling” Anne Hathaway had to do was take off her glasses and straighten her wild curls. Voila, we’re gazing at the princess.
Makeovers like this one are frequent in Hollywood movies. Too frequent, if you ask me. A previously invisible girl walks in, noticeably thinner and sexed-up, leaving the whole high school awed. And suddenly she is desirable, interesting and strong.
This classic trope drives many girls and women to unrealistic expectations about their looks. Countless seemingly perfect body images and makeover success stories we are bombarded with daily through digital and social media don’t make it easier. But in truth, attaining the picture-perfect body of a Hollywood actress or a Victoria’s Secret Model will not magically solve our problems. No, on the contrary, the pursuit of the impossible might lead us to the black hole of severe body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
While it is true that media usually targets women’s self-perception, making them more vulnerable to body-image pressure, the other side of the story often remains unattended. Well, the truth is that the pressure, as well as eating disorders, affect both genders. Yes, yes, males also quite often experience distress while looking in the mirror.
Dear readers, I want you to take a moment and think of a guy you’d call cool and handsome. Brad Pitt? Javier Bardem? The list is quite long, isn’t it? But does it include the “friendly neighbor”, the “nerdy classmate” and the “pot-bellied bartender” in the nearby pub? I highly doubt it. Because when we think of handsome, we picture certain features that had been fed to our minds.
That doesn’t make it easy for boys. Exposed from the early ages to the lean, muscular and successful prototypes of Captain America, Batman and Tony Stark, boys feel the pressure to be both thin and muscular simultaneously. Excessive obsession with lifting and the thriving gym culture push many to use steroids and put an immense strain on their bodies. The goal is usually to attain the effortlessly fit look of a Hollywood star.
But what we see on the silver screen is usually a product of extreme workouts and dehydration, combined with visual tricks, professional makeup and photoshop. Steroids and testosterone injections before filming also help actors look like ancient Greek Gods reincarnated.
The optical illusion of mass media brings us to an increased number of men suffering from the body and looks-related distress. The number of males suffering from eating disorders is increasing and amounts to ten million in the US alone.
The industry most prone to reinforcing unrealistic body-image and possibly harmful eating habits is modeling. We are used to seeing female models’ testimonies on the brutal working conditions they had to endure to get that precious spot on the catwalk.
But it is not so often that we hear male models open up about their lifestyle.
Jeremy Gitizzer, a former model with a dream six-pack, went on to become one of the first male anorexic patients to open up about his condition. He died in 2010, aged 38, weighing just 66 pounds (almost 30 kilograms).
Gitizzer was shockingly frank about the disease he was suffering from:
“The actual act of purging relieves anxiety—physiologically, it’s one of the things it does,” he said about voluntary starvation and vomiting typical for anorexia. Within months, he passed away.
Rob Richman, a recovering anorexic in London, points how patterns for male beauty ideals have changed throughout the years.
"In my early 30s I couldn't get clothes to fit me and I would have to buy girls' jeans; now I can get tiny sizes on the High Street. You're telling teenage boys to reach unrealistic and unhealthy sizes... We should allow men and women to be the different shapes and sizes they naturally are."
His further observation reflects on an interesting change we see about male anorexia.
"Now I'm never the only guy. Ten years ago if a guy went to his GP it's unlikely they would think of him having anorexia… Now all the ones with the really chronic levels are the men."
While it is admitted that the burden of conforming to beauty-standards still rests on female shoulders, shifting patterns in male self-perception are also visible. Men have a broader choice between the “muscular” and “skeletal” appearances, leading them all the way to the familiar black hole of harmful eating habits women have been experiencing since the sixties.
And men are slowly learning to speak up about their weakness. Eating disorders and body-related issues are finally shedding the “female” connotation.
“This isn’t about the fashion industry,” says Jamie Jewitt, 24, professional model for Dolce & Gabbana.
“This is a much wider issue about men, and about how and why men don’t talk to each other about their insecurities. It’s the whole alpha male thing. If you get a bunch of guys in a room everyone would try and assert their man status.”
The chase of perfection is an endless game of tag. We’re either “too thin” or “too fat”, there seems to be no middle ground.
It is a closed circle of Catch-22 and well, we are in the catch together: even those stars we marvel at are being called names and suffer from all too familiar insecurities.
Robert Pattinson was the biggest heartthrob when I was a teenager. Girls swooned at Edward Cullen, while boys wanted to be as effortlessly cool as the star. And look what he had to say:
"I don't have a six-pack and I hate going to the gym. I've been like that my whole life. I never want to take my shirt off,"
Would we ever believe that the seemingly perfect people we want to imitate are quite often as vulnerable as we are? The media wants us not to, but more and more stars speak up, saying that surprisingly, they are mere mortals and no Apollos walking among us.
“I’m sure I can’t relate to what females go through in Hollywood. I am sure I can’t.
But I do know what it feels like to eat emotionally… To be sad and make yourself happy with the food.
And then to be almost immediately sad again and now ashamed and then try to hide those feelings with more food. I know what that’s like. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s a very real one.“
These are words of the Guardian of the Galaxy, aka. Chris Pratt, the man you would want to resemble.
And he is in the catch, just like all of us.
*Cover Image: Entrepreneur