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Why Are Men Obsessed With Being Tough? How Unrealistic Expectations Hurt Men and Women

Like women, men are pushed to obsess over unrealistic ways of looking and acting. And that hurts everyone.

Editor's note: In the following interview, history and gender studies professor and writer Hugo Schwyzer talks about the increasing pressure on men to fit unrealistic body ideals. The piece originally appeared on Bitch Magazine. 

Do you think we even need to have a conversation about male beauty and body image? Is it relevant?

Hugo Schwyzer: Absolutely, it’s a worthwhile conversation. It’s a worthwhile conversation for all of us because men’s anxiety about their appearance and men’s fear of not measuring up to an unattainable standard is the great unspoken problem in the fight against body dysmorphia, against eating disorders, against low self-esteem and so many other things.

And it’s correlated to a lot of very unhealthy, very destructive behavior by men. As anyone who works in the field of domestic violence and violence prevention will surely attest, lack of confidence and anxiety are hallmarks of predators. That certainly doesn’t mean that every guy who has low self-esteem about his body is a predator, but it does mean that most guys who are abusive are also facing a whole host of other social pressures that include negative feelings about body image and a lot of rage and anger about that.

How would you describe “the beauty myth” as it applies to men?

Schwyzer:  The constant that we see in the last 15 or 20 years isn’t a particular look, although certainly hairless, waxed, and pumped-up is very popular. What it is, is hardness. The ideal is hardness. If you look at men’s magazines today, what is the advertising all about? It’s about building muscle, and it’s about getting and maintaining a stronger erection. What do they have in common? Hardness.

And it’s men’s fear of being soft, like women’s fear of fat. For men, the enemy is softness. When a man wants to put another man down, he’ll often say “he’s soft.” And that means both physically and almost psychically. So for guys, the obsession is being hard, which means being badass, which means being tough—it means being physically hard in terms of what people can see in your body, it means being sexually able to perform on command because that’s what they see increasingly in pornography, and it’s this tremendous fear of weakness.

That’s the real ideal because it’s not just a particular look; there can be some variation in that. It isn’t just “The Situation” and his abs. There is some diversity, but it’s always hard.

Bitch: In response to a study finding correlations between male media consumption and negative body image, Deborah Tolman of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality in San Francisco  told MSNBC: “For boys and men, engaging with these media images [that promote unrealistic beauty standards] is more of a choice." Do you think that young men are somehow more immune to these media messages, or are they just not talking about it?

Schwyzer: It reminds me a lot of what people were saying 25 years ago when I was first starting out when people said that anorexia and eating disorders were a white girl problem and that black and Latina girls didn’t have body image issues. And I had feminists of color tell me that when I was the young man in the room. The research has shown that, in fact, what happened? That anorexia and eating disorders were a predominantly white issue and metastasized to effect almost every community. Part of that was because of the mainstreaming of the white ideal, and part of that was because people weren’t doing the research on young women of color, so it remained invisible, and a lot of them got silenced about it.

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