Men feel the pressure too
Males are just as self-consciousness as women about their appearance, new research has shown, writes JOANNE HUNT
IF YOU thought men worried less about their appearance than women, you’d be wrong, new research has found.
Whether it’s lamenting those man boobs or that growing paunch, more than four in five men talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image compared with 75 per cent of women, according to the study by the Centre of Appearance Research at the University of the West of England.
But with 65 per cent of Irish men either overweight or obese, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lads just aren’t that bothered by how they look, but that’s not the case, according to Dr Donal O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist.
Running the obesity clinic at Loughlinstown Hospital, he says Irish men feel “just as self conscious as women” about their appearance. It’s a feeling that’s often exacerbated by societal pressure.
“Of the patients attending our clinic, 70 per cent of them had in the previous six months been intimidated in public by the use of offensive language or by just being teased and jeered at based on their size,” says O’Shea.
For 40 per cent, that intimidation occurred in a healthcare setting, he says.
For Offaly man Adrian Brereton, one of the two male leaders in RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, one such incident sticks out.
The 41-year-old pet shop owner, who clocked in at 18 stone 11lbs at the start of the reality series, recalls doing a pet show at a children’s party when he overheard a child commenting to another about just how fat he was.
“My daughter heard it and she was only 12. You just continue with the party, smile and be happy, but I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.”
Crunch point for the Edenderry man came in the form of a family portrait. “I just wouldn’t get into it, I was too ashamed. I just knew that picture would be up in the middle of the sitting room and I just didn’t like the way I looked.”
That the UK study finds almost 30 per cent of men think about their appearance at least five times a day is no shock to Brereton.
“It doesn’t surprise me. When you get up in the morning and look at yourself in the boxers you think straight away, ‘God I have to lose something there’. Five times a day? Jesus, yes, definitely.”
The photo of his wife and four children from which he was absent was another constant reminder.
“How many times in four years have I walked into that sitting room and seen myself not in those photos?”
That the UK study finds that 35 per cent of men, a higher proportion than women, would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body, rings true for Brereton.
“I’d have given up five years if I thought I’d get a savage body,” he says.
He says Irish men’s body issues are compounded by their inability to express themselves on the topic. “I think deep down, men are hiding the fact that they want to look good.
“The normal average man won’t talk about it. For women, it seems to roll off the tongue a bit easier, it’s more acceptable.”
Dr Donal O’Shea agrees. “The big problem for us with men is that they don’t come forward for treatment,” says O’Shea, even though Ireland is in the minority of countries where men are more likely to be obese than women.
“Two-thirds of our referrals are women – that’s despite the fact that the health risks that go with male obesity are higher than those with female obesity.”
“It’s a typical male thing where it’s just not seen as culturally acceptable to go to your doctor with a weight problem if you are a man,” says O’Shea.
With figures indicating that at least 10 per cent of Irish men suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa or binge eating, Dr Caroline Maher, consultant in eating disorders, agrees that while all the indications are that men worry about their body shape, they are not seeking help.
“The problem is we’re not seeing them, they don’t seem to be coming to people who could perhaps help them,” she says.
“Women frequently talk about their weight, but I think men are much more uncomfortable to do that.
“It seems a sissy thing to do or a girly thing to do to say they are worried about their weight or their shape and they are embarrassed to do so.”
The second male weight-loss leader in Operation TransformationKillian Byrne (39), who began the RTÉ show weighing 19 stone 4.5lbs, agrees that men “just aren’t willing to talk about it”.
“The reason people don’t think men are affected is because men don’t make themselves heard. I think there is probably a lot of silent fear among men about it.”
Byrne says when at his heaviest, his weight had made him feel increasingly self-conscious.
“When I met people socially or in business, what was going around in my mind was that they were thinking, ‘God, isn’t your man very fat’.”
“It affected the way I dealt with people. I tried to keep everything brief, I tried to rush meetings.”
With a father who died of obesity-related illnesses when aged just 51, Byrne was determined that his children would see him live longer.
The TV show, he admits, has forced him to confront his feelings head on.
“In the first programme, there was five minutes of me just crying my eyes out. It was tough to watch.
“I was a little embarrassed before the programme went out but afterwards I thought, that was me, if people want to slag me or take the Mickey, so what. The only way to approach this problem is by being honest.”
His advice to men is to open up. “I think it’s important that guys are encouraged not to conform to being the tough guy.
“Look in the mirror and say, ‘I love myself and I’m going to sort this out’.”
BODY BEAUTIFUL? THE FACTS
More than four in five men (80.7 per cent) talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections, compared with 75 per cent of women.
29 per cent think about their appearance at least five times a day.
35 per cent of men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape.
32.4 per cent of straight men and 59.2 per cent of gay men compare their appearance to people who are better looking than they are.
17.8 per cent of men feel fat every day.
4.1 per cent of men report making themselves sick as a means of controlling their weight at least once.
The study of 394 men, with the average age of 40, was conducted by the Centre of Appearance Research at the University of the West of England