Who is Mr. Right? (2.0)

We love sharing with you the best body image pieces the interwebs have to offer. We have great pleasure in presenting this fantastic piece by Allan, originally posted on ajbisherenow.tumblr.com

We’ve touched on the impact of body image pressures for males before, and this piece is insightful, thought-provoking and eye-opening.

It’s long, but worth a read, so grab a comfy seat and get ready to have your mind blown!

I seldom see him in real life but online, in the shops, on the cover of magazines and in the media Mr. Right is veraciously there (Abs and all).  Mr. Right appears as characters in my games, on telephone box advertisements, on the tag on my clothes, in many forms on websites of my favorite stores and I have even seen him on a cereal box! So WHO or WHAT has created Mr. Right and what IMPACT does Mr. Right have the socio-emotional wellbeing of Australia’s young men?

Young men are currently undergoing significant physical, psychosocial and economic changes. There is one key task in mind, forging identity and developing a sense of self for adulthood.  The creators, endorses, mass-supporters and manipulators of Mr. Right have some how infiltrated mainstream, pop, ’e’ and online culture; to provide the ideal imagery of what a man should and must be in adulthood. This is having real implications on the physical and mental wellbeing of young men.

So what sort of culture is Mr. Right cultivating?

The answer an exceptionally toxic one.

Body Image concerns continue to rank as one of the most dominating fears by Australian youth. 26% of young men at a primary health care level aged 12-30 suggest that other than facing stress; body image is there main concern (Burns, Davenport, Christensen, Luscombe, Mendoz, Bresnan, Blanchard & Hickie, 2013).  This compares to the Mission Australia Youth Survey (2012) that suggests that 33.6% of the young people who responded to their survey ranked body image as something they are extremely concerned with (15.3%) or very concerned (18.3%).  Young men in this survey placed body image and its complexities; being overweight or too skinny, small mass, no muscle definition, too much acne or eczema, too much body hair, yellow-stained teeth and other imperfections as one of their top 3 worries.  Other National Youth Mental Health organizations such as Youth Beyond Blue, Headspace, Black dog and research institutions such as the Young and Well Research Centre; consistently report about the growing impact this is having on Australian young men.  Body image in Australian and global society is that much of a concern that in February 2012 the UN held its first summit into body image.

A little pause here, what is body image?

Body image is more than just complaining of being fat. It is about the holistic makeup of how a young person perceives their body and identity compared to the “norm”.  I work with young men and some of the tricks body image plays on them can be captured in some of their thoughts they share with me.

Allan I…

“Do not have the “v” oblique’s”

“Have too many freckles”

“Not enough hair”

“I am going bald”

“Not having a ‘cut’ body”

“Too skinny”

“Too light skinned”

“Not enough chin hair”

“Uneven leg hair growth”

“I have back hair”

Body image is about how a person thinks or feels about their own sense of self. IF this sense of self is cultivated by the images in culture, body image now is feed by mass-economically driven industry where the social conscience is sometimes jeopardized by share-holder profit indicators.  The way young people feel about their bodies is often not accurate; often based on what they have been asked to believe is the norm and is unrealistically obtainable.  The way young men feel and think is often associated with dissatisfaction about a certain body part, fearing what they will look like in adulthood and its implications in getting a job, finding a relationship or being included or ideas about self worth.   When young men were asked in a report commissioned by the young and well institute it was revealed that young men overly worry about;

Having the wrong body size (bigrexia is the buzz word) Bigger waist lineBad skin due to freckles or pimples BaldingHaving hair in wrong places like back or on arms Not having the right fashion image (hair and clothing)

Young men based theses fears on two overarching cultural constructions:

The pursuit of how Mr. Right has been fashioned in society: the pursuit of the ultimate masculinity – often resulting in idolizing the manipulated, over inflated or misinformed identities particular celebrity and sports stars.Certain health promotion messages: the misperception that being fat is bad and is an epidemic which can be solved if young men were to mechanically transform from lazy couch potatoes into diet restricting / gym junkies (their perception).

Both lead to negative attitudes towards self, which maintains current disabling behaviors, which are impacting the day-to-day existence of many young men in Australia.

In August 2013; I wanted to see how Mr. Right was produced in our society and visited two different Main Cities in Australia  Adelaide and Melbourne.

One look in a typical shopping mall or in the streets might have the answer to where Mr. Right is born? From the gaming department to cosmetics from fashion to hygiene; young men are bombarded with how Mr. Right fits into our society and what Mr. Right thinks, acts upon and feels.  For example in the following departments I found Mr. Right:

Toys: G.I Joe, Batman, Spiderman, Robin, Power Rangers, Transformers, WWE Brawlin Buddies, Teenage Mutant Turtles (all very bulky and muscle bodies – even the turtles, EVEN THE TURTLES).Gaming: Fifa, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Splinter, Battlefield, Pay Day (all games showing one archetype male body).Cosmetics: Hair free bodies, baby-skin smooth or if hair existed there were certainly a plethora of devices to trim, shape and sculpt the perfect beard.Fashion: this is where the broad shoulders, white skin, cut bodies and 28-32 inch waist flourished.

Than I had to look at who was endorsing or sponsoring these products. They were male models, sport celebrities, swimmers, wrestlers, footballers or celebrities. All of which have a very similar body type of Mr. Right.

Check out this prezi.

What was evident was the significant size of the cultural ideal of masculinity and its influence across many social scenes. Mr. Right; appears to be everywhere and he is largely unrealistic, unattainable, and unapologetic. His body is un-real (not a compliment).  Mr. Right inherently promotes a specific social message, which is reinforced by those around us, or by the way we operationalize these messages.  That being bulky, cut, big, smooth bodies give you the best chances of success and self-worth.

By following or idolizing impressionable images of people; such as celebrity or sports stars this message becomes quite personal and familiar. If we see our favorite sports hero or celebrity endorsing the Mr. Right model; it provides an ease of access into this thought bubble. If my hero tells me this how success looks like, it must be the right thing to do.

What I see happening day to day is young men are building an un-real and un-attainable concept for themselves to live up too. Leading to a pursuit of certain ideals about fashion, social status, way to speak, body shape, how bodies should look, how to hold body posture, where hair should be on and not be on our body, vocal tone, way we move, where we socialize, how our skin should look, waist-size and the list goes on and on – in order to feel success.  Failure to even live up to one part of this ideal creates a sense of grief leading to behaviours of withdrawal or disempowerment; or adopting extreme lengths to shape  the body this way. Body manipulation like Botox, piercing, tattooing, fat-removal surgery, over exercising; unhealthy food habits like overeating or restricting foods; starvation or juicing up are examples of how this pursuit for the Mr. Right body is unhelpful and dangerous.  Body satisfaction leads to body dysmorphia and this jeopardizes young Australian men’s wellbeing.

The Australian Centre for Retail Studies (2005) commissioned a report into the rise of men’s cosmetic and grooming industry and their findings report that the growth of the fitness, beauty and grooming industry had doubled between 2000-2005. This compares to the ABS who reports that between 2001-2005 the number of fitness centers had grown by 24% with profiting raising in these sites by 89%.  Dr. Gary Mortimer from QUT suggests that in 2005 $9 billion was spent on cosmetics by men in Australia; in 2014 this number is expected to double with male only cosmetic aisles as an indicator of this sectors growth.  Director of the Master of Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic on July 9, 2013 wrote a blog on Hoopla an in this she indicated that the cosmetic and fitness industry is too much of a profit machine thus unlikely to change practices. Despite growing evidence that body image is a great concern for both men and women, we are unlikely to see any great change Perhaps the only way to finally start making changes is to enforce mandatory laws regulating advertisers’ use of unrealistic body images.

If you visit the pages of the Internet, you can easily stumble across a plethora of pages that promote bodybuilding, supplement taking, shaping bodies and dieting; all in the name of the best sports science out there to create the ultimate aesthetic body. I have seen an increase in the number of self-educating You TUBE videos which capture the transformations of teen boys with titles like: “scrawny to big” / “skinny to muscle” / “skinny to fit” / “100 day transformations to being a man”. The spike in self-educating videos I feel is an indicator of how influential Mr. Right has been. One video for me stands our as to how teenage boys are driven by this pursuit. A 14-year-old boy starts his video by saying “I was skinny and unhappy, so I began lifting every single day”. The video goes on to show the results of restrictive eating, supplement usage, extreme lifting and how he was cutting/sculpting his body. Half way through the video he reflects on his move to college at age 18 and due to poor time because of increased study pressure he had lost the motivation to keep up the regime; losing his “cut” body.  In his perception he had failed at obtaining the right body shape despite the photos at age 18 showing a healthy looking man.  The video transitions into how he found happiness again by bulking, lifting and taking “leg training seriously”.  The conclusion of the video is his euphoria with being a bulked up man, finally obtaining the goal of being ‘oba-masculine’. The final caption is inviting all those to follow him on instagram. When you do, there is a mass following of young men cheerleading his bulked up success and sharing their images and pursuits of the Mr. Right body. My opinion is this is a dangerous message as it demonstrates how happiness and masculinity have strangely taken on a toxic partnership.

Being positive and healthy through exercise and eating right is awesome.  But a perceptual drift is occurring which is connecting bulked up, cut, big bodies as something to aspire to and inspire peers through videos.  The danger is; if young men are using media to reinforce this problem messages, if they are driven by emotional responses and are still developing pre-frontal thinking – the danger here is Mr. Right is now not just images but not he is thought/behavioral based. Body dysmoprhia, which is an outcome particularly when thoughts turn to behaviours of reduced food intake, increased exercise or injecting foreign substances. I wonder what impact the healthy promotion lens; eat well and be active has on our boys? Are they being pressured from both ends of the spectrum? Young men are shamelessly been exposed to manipulated images and bombarded with what Mr. Right should be.  If Mr. Right does not exist, what are we actually idolizing and who are we actually idolizing. Most importantly how do we stop this? All of this is certainly jeopardizing young men’s wellbeing and putting the ugly in the brain of the beholder.  Is this the cultural message that we want to cultivate and what systematic interventions do we need to reverse the impact of body dysmorphia?

If I can just PAUSE (again) and invite you to think about the neurobiology of the teen brain for a second.

The teen Brain goes under three significant changes.

New thinking skills. The goal is to obtain more processing power. Meaning that young men are yet to develop functional or adult-based decision-making capabilities. Decision-making is very much biased and influenced by emotions, relying heavily on the limbic system than the prefrontal cortex. Some of the behavioral and cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex: controlling impulses, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour, initiating appropriate behaviour, stopping an activity upon completion, shifting and adjusting behaviour when situations change, providing a temporary mental workspace, organization, making decisions, insight and applying empathic decision making.Intense Emotional Flux: Development within the amygdala driven by an increased sense of control by the prefrontal cortex (planning, impulse control and higher order thinking) means young men do by emotions and not by rational thinking (first). As the prefrontal develops there is often miscuing of environmental stimulus leading to irrational and emotional driven reactions.Peer Pleasure: As teens become better at thinking abstractly their social anxiety increases. Abstract reasoning makes it possible to consider yourself from the eyes of another. Teens use this new skill to ruminate about what others are thinking of them; particularly about how their bodies may appear. Peer approval is highly rewarding to the teen brain. Role-modeling from peers and supported by adults means that the teen are hard at work acquiring important planning, negotiating, compromising and socialization skills. (Weinberger, Elvevag & Giedd, 2005).

Take this and apply to all that has been stated above and what is a painted is a serious picture (using bio-psycho-social lens) of how Mr. Right is certainly wronging by misleading our young men.  This means the social messages endorsed within social media and in teen conversations is ultimately reinforcing the wrong messages. Young men are acting towards achieving an unrealistic body and an unrealistic ideal of masculinity, which has been so forcefully and maliciously promoted by the creators of Mr. Right. No wonder why the Mission Australian Youth Survey in 2012 has reported that 1 in 3 young men will suffer from body dissatisfaction.

A Google search of what we can do for body image often results in individualized approaches such as do not let the media bring you down, do not give into pressure or appreciate the body that you have.  The only issue with this is the risk of creating self-stigma. This is when we cannot move beyond a positive self-talk lens and accept other peoples and societal perceptions on negative, inaccurate views about body image.  Young men internalize these prejudicial thoughts, which leads to low sense of esteem, efficacy and general feeling of shitness (yes a new clinical term).  If this young person is also crippled by mental illness; I fear that their misunderstanding may magnify these symptoms and struggle to support them to think within a recovery-oriented framework.  Self-stigma is related to the broader concept of stereotype threat, a term used in social psychology.  A general definition of this according to SANE Australia is “where anxiety about conforming a negative stereotype regarding oneself affects performance and behaviour”.

I work with young men and one of the hardest things to work through is how current conceptualizations of Mr. Right retrigger body dysmorphic thoughts. I often here them say: “going to the gym will make girls like me”, “two days off training means I have lost my muscles”, “I wish I had a V shape on my abs”, “wearing this tank top will make my arms stand out more”

What I also see is how poor body image creates a co-morbidity with mental illness. I see the impact it has at a individual and multisysemtic level (social isolation, school rejection, conflict with family and friends, low affect and even decisions about what sports to participate in and where to look online).

The final message is: There’s an overarching problem here about young men trying to pursue the unattainable, unrealistic and unhealthy.

What can we do to support young people to not be bashful towards their body image and abolish a self-stigma lens? Some suggests are:

Cultivate a new culture of the way we conceptualize what is the norm.New media guidelines for advertising in the material, commercial and online spheres Young men look up to their idols; we need to work in partnership with them to promote happiness in their skins and for them to say NO to airbrushing their abs in advertisement.Magazines like DNA , GQ etc. for gay or bi sexual young men as a target audience (former) all young men (latter); need to reduce their over sexualized imaginary, say no to Photoshop and celebrate diversity in their magazine imaginary.Educate. Educate. Educate. Educate.

On one hand my most sincerest and honest concerns with all of this poor, value-laden, miscued and misguided imagery is the conditioning it is having on young boys and male teenagers.  The exposure to Mr. Right is informing them WHAT a MAN MUST be to get ahead and survive in this world.  Images are powerful and as a teenager this will motivate their choices in adulthood.  On the other hand I am confused about the influence that our health promotion messages and images have on reinforcing the idea of Mr. Right.  I am worried we are reinforcing the idea that anything less than the Mr. Right body will make a young man less than masculine.

There is no panacea to solve body image concerns for young men, but I do believe it starts by saying to young men; it’s OK to talk it.  Young men having growing, developing and enlarging bodies and sense of selves; it’s in a constant state of flux.  Because young men are susceptible more and more about their bodies and image and identity; we need to cultivate a culture that minimizes all the things we see, watch, read and listen to that encourages a miss-perception of what makes young men; Mr. Right. A cliché it may be, but the best thing that we can do is to ensure that we educate and support young men who are formulating their identity.  We may not be able to do much at a micro level to reduce the quantity and spread of the imagery; but we can support young men not to be ignorant about encourage positive accountability to adapting new attitudes and not believing everything that they see.  The aesthetic builds of Mr. Right need to be remembered as just that; a constructed form of masculinity that does not equate to healthy or masculine.

Mr. Right you are doing no right, you are only doing Wrong.

Reference List

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) ‘Feature Article 2: Health and Fitness Centres and Gymnasia’, 4156.0.55.001 – Perspectives on Sport, May 2009, Canberra.
  • Australian Centre for Retail Studies (2005) ‘Australian Health and Beauty Report’, ACRS Secondary Research Report,Monash University.
  • Burns, J.M, Davenport, T.A, Christensen, H, Luscombe, G.M, J.A, M, Bresnan, A, Blanchard, M.E & Hickie, I.B (2013) Game On: Exploring the Impact of Technologies on Young Men’s Mental Health and Wellbeing, Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Australia.
  • Buckly, H, Bronwene, B, Flides, J, Ivancic, L, Matkovic, L, Penens, B, Regmi, A & Wearing, A (2012) Youth Survey, Mission Australia, Australia.
  • IBIS World (2013) Comestic and Toiletry Market Report: ANZSIC, July 2013, Australia.
  • QUT (2011) Male-Only Aisles Remove Fear of the Feminne, Brisbane.
  • Weinberger, D.R, Elvevag, B & Giedd, J N (2005) The adolescent Brain: A work in Progress.
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2 thoughts on “Who is Mr. Right? (2.0)

  1. Tim says:

    Finally a blog that puts the pressures of young men in the spotlight. Thank you Allan for raising this.

    What else has he written? What are his details?

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