• Jennifer Barnick

Toxic Beauty Standards Are Harming Our Boys Too

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth claims that efforts to be thin and pretty undermine women. But one of the biggest myths about the beauty myth is that it’s female. Boys suffer from unrealistic beauty standards, too, and the problem starts early.”

—Cara Natterson, pediatrician, author of the New York Times article The Beauty Myth for Boys, Dec. 3, 2019

We have, on the whole, been leaning towards lifting the burden of toxic beauty standards from our young daughters to reduce the risk of body hatred and body insecurity that can lead to mental illness and dangerous disordered eating. Beauty bloggers, women’s fashion and fitness magazines, performers, and even fashion designers have opened up their pages, runways, and images of beauty to mirror what real girls and real women look like around the world. While there is still a long way to go, the conversation is loud, varied, and clear in its message: we want our girls and women healthy and happy.

The problem is that boys and men have been entirely left out of the issue—and they are suffering, often silently, as a result. In an incredibly insightful article, high school reporter Conner Bernier writes, “There are plus-sized models and models of all different body types, but most of these instances have one thing in common: they are mostly directed at women. Rarely do I see a male model who is not beautiful, or perfect skin, abs, and a small waist.” Conner goes on in his article to make clear the often never heard, boy experience of living in this world of ever-constant images of male perfection, “All of my life I have struggled with my self-image, always thinking, negatively about the way my body looks and how I feel when I look in the mirror.” (The Harmful Beauty Standards for Men by Connor Bernier, Oct. 28, 2020, Bellefonte Area High School’s Red and White, bahsredandwhite.com) This honest account is perfectly in line with Dr. Natterson’s, “As long as I have been a pediatrician, boys have told me—usually in not so many words—that they feel the exact same body pressures girls do, just in different directions.” (The Beauty Myth for Boys by Cara Natterson, M.D., Dec. 3, 2019, nytimes.com)

There is an increasing call to embrace girls and women in all their wonderful shapes, shades, and features because body image issues cause real problems—dangerous problems. Disordered eating, anxiety, depression, suicide, social anxiety, and self-harm are just a few of the hazardous and sometimes deadly effects of toxic and unattainable beauty standards. And to be clear, boys are being affected as much as the girls—they are just more silent about it—which can make their plight all the more dangerous. “We’re equal-opportunities body dysmorphic in 2020: The number of men getting treatment for eating disorders increased by 70% between 2010 and 2016, according to NHS [National Health Service for the U.K.] statistics, and last year the children’s society Good Childhood report revealed that one in 12 boys are unhappy with their appearance.” (I Worry for My Teenage Boys—the Beauty Standards for Young Men are Out of Control by Emma Beddington, Jan. 28, 2020, the guardian.com) Additionally, men and boys are often presented with models, influencers, performers, and actors who diet and train for months on end and often fast from food and water for one illusive, perfect photo or movie role. Cases of near-deadly dehydration are on the rise—showing that male beauty standards carry their own set of dangers. “In 2017, Hugh Jackman entered the great canon of celebrity-diet lore as he revealed his routine leading up to the shirtless scenes in Logan. Jackman, who portrayed Wolverine for 17 years, said he would chug four gallons of water a day, every day—then cut all liquids for the final 36 hours. ‘You can lose up to 10 pounds of water weight, particularly the water that sits under your skin,’ Jackman told the New York Post. ‘It really cuts you up.’” (The Gym Bros Who Actually Follow Hugh Jackman’s Impossible Deyhydration Diet: Cutting Out Water to Look More Shredded is as Dangerous as it Sounds by Quinn Myers, 2019, melmagazine.com) There were countless online articles warning boys and men not to dehydrate themselves like Hugh Jackman to look more cut. In 2018, a Texan teen nearly died from a disease caused by working out too much. “The teen, who recently joined the gym, said he was trying to ‘go hard fast’ to compete with his dad and older brother, both of whom had been into bodybuilding for years. ‘I gotta catch up to them and get as big as them,’ Shamburger told the news station.’” The article goes on to explain that the teen had contracted rhabdomyolysis, which causes muscle tissues to die and release a damaging protein into the blood rapidly. The rhabdomyolysis was caused by overexertion. (Teen Diagnosed with Deadly Illness from Working Out too Hard by Jackie Salo, May 31, 2018, nypost.com)

We love our girls and have been fighting very hard to free them from toxic beauty standards. It’s time now to look at our boys and realize they are struggling too.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.