It has been a year since Instagram joined forces with suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably for the CALM Body Talks, launched as a response to joint research into how men between the ages of 26 and 40 felt about their bodies. More than half (58%) of those surveyed felt negative about how they looked – with 48% revealing mental health issues linked to their feelings towards their bodies.
And, as we mark Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, our findings from our Young Men on Masculinity research revealed that a worryingly younger group of men, those aged between 16 and 24, are also struggling with body positivity and acceptance – 86% of cis men and 95% of trans men think that men face body-shaming and pressure to look a certain way, with 34% of cis and trans men believing this to be at a level equal to or more than women.
We surveyed more than 2,000 16- to 24-year-old men across the UK on all aspects of masculinity at the start of the year and while 61% believed that brands have a responsibility in shaping modern masculinity, nearly half of all the young men we questioned (46%) said they didn't feel seen in advertising.
Indeed, while the conversation around female body positivity has accelerated and been celebrated with notable campaigns including Sport England’s "This girl can", Monki’s "Honest swimwear campaign" and Dove’s "Campaign for real beauty", that same conversation has not been widely embraced by brands when it comes to male body positivity.
In spite of the ASA’s ban on gender stereotyping, which has put a spotlight on a brand’s portrayal of women, there simply isn’t the same level of scrutiny applied when it comes to the portrayal of young men – particularly in regards to body-shaming.
While some ads that feature female models have been blasted for encouraging unhealthy body ideals by portraying unattainable physiques, somehow ads for young men have passed largely under the radar.
Discussing the mental health impact of negative body image at a recent Parliament committee meeting, The Vamps lead guitarist James Brittain-McVey spoke of being just 14 when his body image concerns commenced, triggered by social media ads from "big American surf style companies", featuring ripped models.
It’s a sentiment shared by our survey respondents, as one summarised: “So much of what's advertised is just shiny, strong men in big, oiled bodies with big beards. The reality is that men come across in all different sorts of shapes and sizes and identities.”
The end of 'ladverts'
Many brands, however, are steadily moving towards a more diverse portrayal of young men and reaping the rewards. When asked which brand best represents modern masculinity, our survey respondents placed Lynx in the top 10 – a brand that has eschewed its reliance on gender stereotypes and "ladverts" in recent years.
Its most recent campaign, 2021’s "New Lynx effect", put the focus back on "attractiveness", while embracing inclusivity, with a humorous tone, and choosing progressive role models across culture, including YouTuber Chunkz and rapper Aitch to build a more inclusive and positive viewpoint, Lynx delivered quite the step-change.
Safe social spaces
From #dadbod to height jibes, body shaming is rife across social media platforms, so brands need to create safe social spaces. Young men are scrolling past countless images of #ripped bodies daily and while women are more likely to come across trolls focusing on weight, for men, the conversation appears to be around height, something that cannot be physically altered. Brands need to prioritise tackling trolling and empower their social community to call them out.
Promoting gender equity
Brands can tangibly promote a healthier image of masculinity by applying the same rules for both genders. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty range has been praised in the past for featuring women of different shapes and sizes, but when the brand launched its capsule collection featuring male plus-size models, it was lauded for its promotion of male body positivity.
Brands including Fabletics, Nordstrom and Old Navy have also been praised for their body positivity stance by using plus-size mannequins for women's clothing in-store, a move that is easy to see in time would be equally welcomed across menswear too.
The wider mental-health conversation
Body-shaming needs to be acknowledged as part of the overall conversation around mental health awareness. Perhaps the most alarming stat from our research was that 81% of the 2000 young men surveyed had experienced mental health issues within the last year.
Brands can’t hold back when it comes to this all-important conversation – Nivea Men’s powerful "Strength in numbers" film shines a light on the devastating fact that 50% of mental health problems begin before the age of 14. More must be done to challenge stereotypes for young men now to avoid an escalating crisis for the generations to come.
Yasmin Arrigo is global brand and editorial director at Amplify.