11 May 2024

When body positivity morphs into toxic masculinity

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 11 May 2024

What's prompting some men to achieve an idealised version of masculinity that's doing them more harm than good?

Person holding small hand weights

Photo: Yulissa Tagle / Unsplash

The body positivity movement started with women confronting the unrealistic expectations and unrepresentative portrayals of them in media and advertising. 

Men weren't part of it ... their bodies hadn't been sexualised to the same extremes and they didn't really need it. 

But now that's changed. 

And in a warped sort of of equality, we could very well be at the point where men are just as miserable as women about the way they look. 

Today on The Detail we look at at the male side of the body positivity movement. (Next weekend we examine the female side of it.)

Kris Taylor, who is a doctor of psychology at the University of Auckland says men feeling insecure about their body isn't new. 

But there's growing concern that people sharing tips on how to be masculine are taking it too far, and as a result young men in particular are becoming more self-conscious about the way they look.

"There's research that goes back to the late 1990's and early 2000's about men's perception of their bodies and lots of men are unhappy about the ways that their bodies look," Taylor says.

He points out that the way the different sexes arrived at this same sort of insecurity has come through different paths. 

"The body positivity movement for women, as I understand it, is borne out of an attempt to find a space between hypersexualisation and disgust, and a way to represent different bodies," he says.

"Men have been represented as active participants in their sexualisation... the sexualisation is not a gazing upon them in a passive way, it is an ownership of their sexuality."

Taylor also adds that men who don't fit this ideal male model haven't faced the same level of dismissal that women have.

"We can think of larger men represented as being funny and sometimes dopey, and there isn't that same level of disgust,"  he says.

Taylor says it's not that body image issues don't exist for men, but rather that the avenues for them to express their feelings around their insecurities are very limited, leaving them vulnerable to potentially damaging advice.

"Those sorts of insecurities are not easily spoken about by young men... so when you get a message from some guy on the internet that says 'oh all you need to do is get a bigger chest' then it helps to solve a lot of those problems because you can channel all of those anxieties into saying, 'okay well I may not have a girlfriend now, and I might not be popular now, but if I get a big chest then maybe those things will happen'," he says.

There's growing concern that the people behind the 'big chest' narrative are taking it too far, promoting a message which is potentially dangerous and promotes a toxic understanding of manhood. 

These kinds of influencers are part of a group which Taylor says are loosely referred to as the manosphere, whose ideas are premised on a rejection of feminism.

What's promoted is the idea that if men work out, and tick all the boxes, then they're owed something, and are entitled to any woman they want. 

It's an attitude which is sometimes referred to as toxic masculinity, but Taylor is cautious using this phrase, because it generalises all masculinity as being toxic, which can put men on the defensive.

"When we're talking about what we might describe as toxic masculinity, we're talking about behaviours, attitudes and postures that don't serve men or anyone particularly well," he explains.

Taylor is concerned that there don't seem to be many alternatives to challenge this dominating narrative of emotionless muscles and strength. 

He believes it's important to promote more diverse ways of what it means to be a man and find avenues which make men feel comfortable speaking about their vulnerabilities.

"Boys have emotions, they are human beings, and they want to be able to express them.  The boys I talk to are very frustrated at the idea that they're not allowed to cry or that they can't talk to their friends," he says.

Where to get help:

Sexual violence

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334

Male Survivors Aotearoa

Family Violence

Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843

It's Not OK 0800 456 450

Shine: 0508 744 633

Victim Support: 0800 842 846

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.

You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter