When we think of anxiety about body image, what comes to mind? Adolescent girls standing in front of the mirror wishing they had a thigh gap? Rake-thin young women crippled by anorexia or bulimia? But not teenage boys feeling inadequate because they are not ‘manly’ enough. And certainly not gay and lesbian young people wondering whether they look how they are ‘supposed’ to look.
It is not just teenage girls however.
In 2017, a Youth Select Committee raised concerns about the long-lasting consequences of body dissatisfaction for ‘health, education and wider life outcomes’. Last week, the Government responded to this, releasing a report outlining what should be done to tackle the issue. Significantly, an emphasis has been put on the specific challenges faced by young men, LGBT youth, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities.
It is fantastic that some concrete progress has been made. So often, these sorts of campaigns — about issues like mental health, LGBT rights, gender equality and so on — go ignored.
The report has been spearheaded by the newly-appointed Minister for Women, Victoria Atkins, in collaboration with Amber Rudd. The Government has concluded that body dissatisfaction is an enormous issue of concern for young people and their parents.
In her foreword to the report, Atkins stressed that ‘young men are confronted with endless images of masculinity, strength and control that are equally as difficult to live up to’. This is not discussed anywhere near as much as the damaging impact that the ubiquity of airbrushed female models has on young girls’ self-esteem, but it is just as important. Boys feel pressured to fit the muscled, masculine archetype in the same way that women feel obligated to be slim, hourglass-shaped and creamy-skinned.
It is crucial to recognise that issues to do with body image can affect anyone. It is often quoted that 8 in 10 teenage girls are unhappy with their body image. However — equally as significant — 45 per cent of adolescent boys want to change their weight or body shape.
Moreover, homosexual adolescents are statistically more prone to body dysmorphia than heterosexual young people. Body image issues are much more acute among the LGBT community, because of the added pressures. For example, a gay teen coming to terms with his sexuality may feel confused and ostracised not only because he does not conform to expectations of ‘manliness’ but also possibly because he feels he should fit the profile of a ‘gay guy’. This is why we should also aim to rebuff the stereotypes of butch, tomboy lesbians and camp, sensitive gay men.
Thomas Copeland, who chaired the 2017 Youth Select Committee, was pleased with the Government’s response, pointing out that they ‘made a number of commitments in their response, including a commitment to further understand how body dissatisfaction affects different groups’.
It is a positive sign that the Government want to better ‘understand’ the impact of body satisfaction; too often, they try to do too much too soon. This issue is more complex than it seems and needs to be examined and properly apprehended before it is tackled.
As has been acknowledged in the report, ‘many of the most visible campaigns are directed at women’, possibly to the extent that body dissatisfaction among other groups is overlooked.
Take a look around you — we are surrounded by idealised depictions of how we ‘should’ look. But it is not just women. Yes, open up a fashion magazine and you are confronted with countless images of stick-thin, sexualised female models, but switch on the TV and you will probably see a tanned, muscular young man modelling for a branded cologne.
Sometimes, when an issue is particularly prevalent among a certain group — in this case teenage girls — the minorities who are also affected can be overshadowed. This is why it is imperative that people start realising body dissatisfaction can affect anyone. So let’s reject the stereotypes, keep our minds open, and strive to be comfortable in our own skins.