It's only June, but 2012 is shaping up as the year that we woke up to the male body image crisis. Of course, we've been hearing for a while that an increasing number of men are suffering from body image problems, a problem exacerbated by men's fitness magazines that feature perfectly chiseled shirtless male models on every cover. But as we learn more about men's struggle to achieve physical perfection, the full scale of the problem is becoming clear. Feeling like crap about how you look isn't just a lady problem.
Perhaps 1 in 4 of the 1.6 million Britons with an eating disorder are male, writes Joseph Stashko in the New Statesman. (The National Eating Disorders Association suggests that 1 in 10 anorexia or bulimia sufferers in the US are men, a discrepancy that may well be down to male under-reporting.) Stashko, who vividly describes his own battle with anorexia, laments that "any sufferer looking for help online will find they come across information almost exclusively tailored towards women…the fact that so little is written about male experiences of eating disorders compounds the issue and makes you feel even more like a weirdo who's failed at being a man."
A significant part of the problem Stashko describes isn't just the absence of resources directed at men battling anorexia or bulimia. It's that our images of male beauty and desirability are in some ways even more limited and unattainable than those offered to women. While we assume men are allowed greater leeway to be physically imperfect, how often do we see shirtless male models that are anything but perfectly ripped? As the fashion industry moves tentatively towards promoting a wider (and perhaps healthier) size continuum for female models, a soft body is still anathema for men in fashion. The tyranny of the six-pack is absolute.
The same week that both Stashko's piece and the GQ story on D'Angelo's struggle with an eating disorder appeared, the new editor-in-chief of the Good Men Project, Noah Brand posed fully nude in what he called "a direct confrontation with body shame." Brand, who describes himself as "just over the line where ‘overweight' turns into ‘obese'," said the experience of going full frontal in his own magazine was "intensely liberating." (Though GMP's first nude editorial was a hit in terms of pageviews, reaction even among Brand's own colleagues was mixed. The Good Men Project's senior editor, Joanna Schroeder, told me in an email that while she thought Brand was "brave," she herself chose not to look at the photos: "Noah is a smart, talented writer and editor… I don't need to know anything else about him.")
Though he refuses to go into the same detail as Stashko or D'Angelo about his struggles with food and self-image, Brand alludes to having done many things to his body "of self-hatred and shame and fear over the past decade or two." But GMP's top editor also sets up a false dichotomy: "If my options are being ashamed or being shameless," he writes as a caption for the first nude image in the series, "I choose shameless." Plenty of women and men who have experienced recovery from eating disorders could point out that exhibitionism is far from the only antidote to body shame. Indeed, by using the power of his editor-in-chief position to all but compel visitors not only to gaze at his nakedness but to validate his bravery (and perhaps, his enduring sexiness) Brand is responding to his own body issues in a classically male way: by throwing them in everyone's face while insisting that he doesn't care whether anyone else likes it or not. Yet whether or not the reader agrees that Brand is lightening his own emotional load at others' expense, it's clear that GMP's chief sees posing nude as a viable strategy for overcoming self-loathing. "I honestly think more men should do this," Brand writes.
Brand's strategy for overcoming shame is hardly the only option for men. One man who is using his overweight body very differently is model James Richard Aitken. The 6'0, 229 lb Melbourne native was recently signed to the Australian agency BGM as its first male plus-size model. Featured in the June issue of Plus Model Magazine, Aitken pursued a modeling career after hearing BGM's founder lament the lack of plus-size men in the industry. While the term "plus" has been used in the past to describe male models who are taller and more muscular than their peers, this light-eyed pioneer isn't rocking huge biceps or six-pack abs. As Aitken — who recently dropped 65 pounds to reach what he considers to be his own ideal weight — told me in an email interview, "I want to make guys who aren't skinny or who don't have amazing muscular bodies feel comfortable too…men also need reassuring."
While Brand confronts shame with full-frontal nakedness, Aitken's photos on BGM's website all show him fully clothed. While plus-size female models are frequently posed nearly or fully nude, the industry is still uncertain how best to reveal the plus-size male body. We've all seen the washboard stomachs of straight-size male models, just as most of us have seen the bodies of "average" naked men like Brand. What we haven't yet seen is the plus-size male model body revealed in a way that expands our sense of the masculine physical ideal. The next frontier, perhaps, will be plus-size models like Aitken in swimwear, broadening our sense of the unclothed male aesthetic.
In 2009, Glamour created a sensation with a single semi-nude photo of plus-size model Lizzie Miller. Female readers responded with what Glamour's editor called "joy at seeing a woman's body with all the curves and quirks and rolls found in nature." The Miller shot became instantly iconic because it was so reassuring and empowering. As the recent explosion of stories about the male body image crisis makes clear, guys are in real need of their own "Lizzie Miller" moment. With all due respect to the editor of the Good Men Project, his nude photo shoot isn't that moment. But James Aitken –- or another plus-size male model who follows in his footsteps — just may be the man to provide it. Judging from the troubling evidence about how many young men are suffering from self-loathing and shame, images that broaden the spectrum of unclothed male beauty can't come soon enough.