Hollywood isn’t exactly known for treating its actors fairly — they’re generally things that are prodded and poked, and gawped at so they can represent some kind of fantasy version of humans on the silver screen. They have to be wittier, more complex, more interesting, and of course, more beautiful.
Here’s a story that should make you feel pretty lousy.
We all know superhero movies are a vehicle for all our fantasies of seeing someone in action who is all the super things we’re not — but of course, actual humans have to play these roles, so they have to get into superhuman shape, don’t they?
Scarlett Johansen starred in the X Men franchises and was required to undergo a routine to keep her in an unattainable, and frankly dangerous shape, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s expected of an actor — they can’t just be good for the role, but they’ve got to be sexually attractive too.
Is it the patriarchy, our own wild expectations, just rampant business, or something else? Either way, there’s untold pressure being put on actors, and that trickles down to us all, right? You know that. We all know that. What we see in media reflects back to ourselves, for better or worse.
The objectification of actors on screen is, in part, dismissed as being part of the job. They know what they signed-up for, and so what if they have to work out a bit too much for a short period of time? They’re getting millions for it and can take the rest of the year off, right?
When appearing on the circuit to talk about her superhero role, interviewers focused not on Johansen’s acting skills, or the emotional beating she took to play the role, but rather, her body — the training regimen she undertook is clearly hellish, but what do we care?
Like many actors, she was required to get as trim AND buff as possible, even if it was at the expense of her own health. 3 months of extreme training, and then on top of that, a huge increase in the intake of water — around 3 gallons a day. Then, 36 hours before the shoot, she was required to intentionally dehydrate herself to lose ‘water weight’, making her body as lean as possible.
This process allows us to see all the sinews and muscle as they become more exposed, because basically, the body reacts like it is dying, thereby emaciating themselves while the cameras roll. For a franchise series, like we see in a number of the comic book films, the same actor is required to do it over and over and over again.
Shocking your body into thinking it is going to die. It’s appalling, not that you’d know from the way we find out about this. The abuse of an actor’s body, the mental wellbeing, is not met with furrowed brows, but rather, played for laughs. In tandem with that, you can find out how to do it to yourself in various health magazines, national newspapers and pop-culture rags, should you want to experience the delirium of your body and brain trying not to die.
We all know about the obscene pressures put on women to maintain certain looks, and the knock-on effect it can have on fans and society. Unattainable standards which can result in body dysmorphia, wretched eating disorders, depression, and in severe cases of malnutrition and extreme dehydration from these specific routines, with some reports saying that these types of actions can result in actual brain damage.
And sorry, you’re about to read an annoying switcheroo that lazy writers do, to unsubtly ram home a point. We were talking about Hugh Jackman this entire time.
In Jackman’s interview with Stephen Colbert, regarding his stint in Logan as Wolverine, Jackman talks about the abuse his body went through, and the crowd laugh along, with Colbert giggling “3 days without water, you die! You go halfway to death and then you go ‘ROLL ‘EM!’”
Of course, no-one is expecting this kind of sofa interview to get serious, but that in itself, is on the nauseating side of things.
This isn’t an isolated incident either — when Dwane Johnson asked us all to stop calling him The Rock, he spoke of the disordered eating he undertook to maintain his enormous frame, and again, instead of worrying for the poor lad, it was played to the room like a stand-up routine, with a host of writers and bloggers laughing away as they tried the diet and exercise for themselves, passed off as being a hilarious thing: “Phew! How does he do it? Totally rad!”
Once, leading men looked like they jogged a bit, and maybe did a couple of dumbbells a week, and looked like healthy, handsome fellas. Compare a shirtless hunk of the ’70s to what came in the ’80s, and you see the change in tastes.
The likes of Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford were obviously guys who worked out, but they still looked like they’d join you in the pub for some drinks and chicken grease. By the time Stallone & Co came into play, peak masculinity turned into something else, and never really looked back.
Recent years have seen a lot of the ’80s tropes coming back, with a huge emphasis on displays of disposable wealth (expensive pedigree toy dogs, dining out, home makeovers, gym memberships, cocktails, dinner parties, cocaine, self help books, sloganeering, and the drive to elevate oneself as a personal brand), exacerbated of course, by Instagram.
Those aren’t necessarily criticisms, but there’s a knock-on effect which is clearly harmful. Those who remember the trickle-down economics of Reagan and Thatcher, and the consumerism of the ’80s, coupled with long, dark recessions, will feel that the past decade has had too many unfortunate echoes.
The Russians and The US are at it again, the UK is in austerity measures, the far right are popping up in too many places, and the world seems like such an unending mess, that the only thing you can fix is yourself, right? However, the landscape is so toxic, that people are focusing on themselves by drawing water from a poisoned source.
Looking at some men’s need to drive themselves into the ground to bulk up or pile on the muscle, one of the common sneers is that they’re on steroids and probably have tiny dicks as a result — what’s noticeable there, is that not only the bleak body-shaming going on, but a complete lack of concern for someone who is likely to be dysmorphic, and that there’s people taking drugs illegally, that could end up killing them.
Would we take it, from a friend, if they pointed at catwalk models and laughed at how dysmorphic and thin they were, scoffing at the laxatives they take to maintain an unrealistic body shape, and then throw in a jibe about them being barren and having shit tits?
Obviously, these things are absolutely said about both models and muscly men alike, and that’s what so depressing about the whole thing — sure, gallows humour stops us from doing ourselves in, but it turns into a feedback loop where we turn that negativity onto ourselves, after the mild dopamine rush of a laugh wears off.
I think about these things a lot, and the shallow jokes wouldn’t feel quite so bad if these people were afforded help and support more generously and generally. Collectively, we’ve lost sight of what’s okay, and can’t see ourselves for what we are.
When Brad Pitt got in shape as the literal embodiment of toxic masculinity in ‘Fight Club’ (seriously — that’s literally what his role is, and his body is water starved and emaciated, just like Helena Bonham Carter’s frame is too thin and grubby), what did people do? They all shouted ‘phwoar!’, that’s what they did. Pitt’s body in that is intentionally ambiguous — it’s not a straightforward choice like Michael Fassbender in ‘Hunger’ — Pitt is supposed to be a vile representation of what we want, and when we’re faced with it, we’re supposed to feel unsettled by it, not get a massive lob-on and talk about it for years as the best anyone looked.
Pitt in ‘Fight Club’ is the Gen X, listened to some grunge and trip-hop version of Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’ — except Bale is so blatantly a satire that we know were we stand and laugh along. In both cases, something is reflected back at us, and we collectively missed a trick.
Even people who enjoy their own bodies would consider looking like a Hollywood actor, if you had a magic wand and it maintained itself without you having to do anything, which is troubling in itself.
We know that body issues with women have been a hot topic for a number of years now, and rightly so — this is not an article to pit men versus women — rather, to show the similarities and highlight how, where many are trying to get it right with women, men are being somewhat failed.
The conversation with men’s body issues started to swing upward a couple of years ago, and in the States, one report suggested that over there, 30 million people had an eating disorder, and a third of those were men. That’s 10 million people in one country, with a deadly illness, virtually unchecked and ignored.
We’ve seen increased interest around mental health, right across society, but eating disorders are still something that fly under the radar. Why? In part, because people who have them, won’t seek help for fear of being labelled narcissistic, as well as the usual stigma that comes with mental illnesses.
Add to this, men being told that eating disorders are what women get.
Some of you may or may not know, that I’ve struggled with an eating disorder since my mid-teens, so obviously, this is something very personal to me.
During the first lockdown of 2020, things obviously went weird. I’m reluctant to share exactly what I did, because in the past, I’d read about the self-harm of others, and the badly-wired bit of my brains felt sympathy for those that had suffered, while simultaneously stealing their actions for tips on how to hurt myself in the future — and I don’t want to enable anyone else, because having an eating disorder is exhausting and awful.
I’ve collapsed, been taken to hospital, worried everyone — it’s crap.
Throughout all this, I looked at books about brains, got myself a GP, talked to people, and tried to fill my eyes with words of encouragement. Regarding the latter, it usually took the shape of Instagram accounts about mental wellbeing and coping with disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
One of the unexpected skills I gained, was to learn how to read advice aimed at women and translate it so it applied to me. Through no-one’s fault, online resources tend to skew toward women, because women have been the most active and impressive when it comes to talking about eating disorders, and most forthright in tackling them. They’ve also spoken the loudest about body image and the like. Lately, Lizzo has been a leading voice, but again, the men have been strangely quiet.
Without wanting to sound like Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, the patriarchy is obviously at play here — too many resources assume that these things are only affecting women, because men just don’t have these problems — and the women who do have these issues want curly fonts and pretty pink graphics, patronisingly being called ‘brave queen!’ and such.
The intentions are almost always good, but the execution can stink.
Similarly, when speaking to my doctor about what I need to do when it comes to my own problems, they pointed me toward a resource where I could look for local groups and such, to get help. You search by post-code and when looking for support for men with eating disorders, the result was… well… there were no results. For genderless help, the results were still regrettably few. Suffice to say, the past couple of years have been an eye-opener.
While the conversation about women’s bodies has come a long way (still not perfect, obviously), we still see toxic old tropes coming to a head from all corners. For example, Donald Trump’s presidency over in the United States is surely reprehensible enough in action and intent, to call him out for the abhorrent and vile person he is, without having to resort to fat jokes?
A man can be a White Supremacist, and still, that’s not a big enough stick to beat him with. No, we must mention that he’s a horrible blob too. Listen, I know it seems fair to attack a dreadful human like him with whatever ammo is lying around — but here’s a thing — you calling Donald Trump ‘fat’ on Twitter doesn’t reach him — he doesn’t hear that at all.
You know who does hear it? Your friends do. You think you’re sticking it to one of history’s monsters, but you’re actually making your friend who may be having issues with their bodies hate themselves a little bit more. You’ve just added to the self-loathing of someone you love when they read your throwaway tweet about Trump’s weight.
You are wounding people with friendly fire. We all do it. However, we really need to make a concerted effort to better the conversation. If we can stop using ‘gay’ as an insult, then we can do it with other things too. And if you think this is all a load of ‘snowflake’ chatter, then it’s clear you’re a person who would rather maintain their own convenience rather than try and make your social circle a better place, a little bit at a time.
Not one of us is perfect, but we can at least give it a shot.
And we owe it to ourselves to try, because so few people are strong enough to bring these issues up. Men, of course, aren’t meant to have feelings at all, so therefore, can’t possibly have any self esteem or body issues. Even though, if you look at the landscape men reside in, they’ve been told that they should at least aspire to being a trim actor, a jacked pop-star, an impossibly toned athlete, a waifish guitarist, a very slim YouTuber, a flawlessly skinned K-Pop group member, a tanned 8-pack having Love Island contestant… and the list goes on.
Even if you’ve already reached impossible levels of muscle, you’re not off the hook.
Take Jason Momoa — he was in amazing, unrealistic body shape for his role in Aquaman. Obviously, Momoa is a magnificent mountain of a man. However, unflexed and properly hydrated, his body fleshed out by something like 0.000000000000002%, and oh how everyone chuckled about how he’d let himself go and given in to having a ‘dad bod’.
The photo on the right is supposed to show a man who has let himself go.
Men and women were chuckling away at the state of Momoa, leading actual personal trainers taking to social media to say that Momoa is considerably healthier than in shirtless scenes in the movies.
That’s people who would stand to financially benefit from you wanting to look more ripped, trying to put you off the notion, because there’s clearly too much toxic thinking doing the round.
When people started to try and make magazines accountable for their harmful circling of women’s cellulite on front page splashes, there was invariably a hope that there’d be some kind of levelling out, where women were allowed to be comfortable in their bodies like it was assumed men were.
While there’s definitely an imbalance in the conversation, which tips in the favour of men, the levelling out didn’t let women off the hook of scrutiny — rather, media and society just upped the criticism of men. There may be more of a balance, but fuck, we didn’t mean it like that.
Obviously, men and women are both guilty of body shaming, be it pointedly or absent-mindedly, but the more nuanced and heard conversations that women have been having only serves to highlight the relative silence of men. That, or the men were buttoning their lips because everyone was chanting “who ate all the pies?” at someone.
On the surface of it all though, we’re told that we’ve never been so aware of our wellness. It’s a boom industry of smoothies and veganism. This focus on wellness obviously feeds into all this too.
There’s been a huge spike in wellness and fitspo accounts, with pastel wearing, hygge-loving clean-eaters and yoga instructors, as well as Strava maps, gym selfies, long distance cyclists, and all the other people you’ve seen doing the rounds for either clout, or money. Face-tuned, filtered, or not, there’s so much in our eyeline that points to some kind of aspirational shape, and while we look back at the ’80s fitness boom as brash, this time, it’s more relatable and therefore, more insidious. Now it tells you it’s having a cheeky afternoon wine or having pizza on cheat day.
Considering all these things, there’s a good chance that someone has thought this is some kind of red pill-lite, but men are the real victims here, kind of thing.
What’s interesting, post 2000, is that men’s issues have also been silenced by the advent of Men’s Rights Activists, which has sewn mistrust with normally empathetic people. Men have been hamstrung by the idea that, talking about problems that are specific to yourself, is to make them in direct competition with the problems of others.
To speak of your own community is not to try and take precedence over another group’s. However, a lot of bad characters have backed us into a corner and be suspicious of these things. I am concerned about men’s lack of support and help when it comes to eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and I include all men in that.
Too often, people hear ‘men’ and think ‘straight, white, cis man’. Dysmorphia and ED’s hurt all men. Anecdotally, I’ve seen people raising an eyebrow when talking about men’s issues with these things, until you ask them if they think gay men have disordered eating; “of course they do!”, only serving to illustrate a pointless, harmful separation of some apparent ‘real men’ and ‘effeminate men’, even when they think they’re on the progressive side of things.
Similarly, the stereotype of black men is a huge issue too — are you telling me that pressure isn’t being put on young black men to look a certain way? Can you ignore the near constant fetishization of them, down to their literal genitals?
All these things feed into the same self-loathing that is resulting in a mental health crisis amongst men of all ages, and all types. When I say ‘men’, I mean anyone who identifies as one. I’m not here to argue about that because if you don’t stand for all men — gay, trans, straight and everything between — you’re not ready to do the useful work.
If you’re thinking it’s an men versus women issue, you too can get lost. The fact is, men’s eating disorders and body dysmorphia is something that needs to be addressed more openly, and that needs to be in tandem with women, because it’s an illness that effects everyone. More pertinently, the sharing of information between everyone can only help. Sure, things may translate differently, and different approaches may be needed — but the pooling of information and more importantly, the growth of support for each other, can only be a step in the right direction.
Too often with mental illnesses, people confide in each other, and one will try and outdo the other by implying they’ve had it worse. It’s a more preposterous version of people engaging in a who is the most tired conversation. People gatekeep struggles, and again, that’s something that really should stop.
Should someone tell me they have an eating disorder, I don’t want to belittle them by saying mine is worse or I’ve had mine longer — the crux of the matter is that I want neither of us to have it, and it’s shit that we’re both suffering.
Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be abating — we still see people giggling at professional athletes being ‘fat’. Now, more than ever, a player’s performance isn’t enough — they have to look the part too.
Unless, of course, they look too good which means they must be using steroids. You can’t win.
We reward body disorders and punish those who can’t keep up. When Robert Pattinson spoke of his body dysmorphia, he was rewarded by being voted for as ‘sexiest man alive’ by some magazine.
The story of Brendan Fraser is a particularly upsetting one too. He was a lovable guy next door, with a ripped body. When he stopped the gruelling work-outs, he was roundly mocked in the press and by the general public.
The reason he put a little weight on (not that he should need a reason, but here we are), was depressing. He was the victim of sexual assault, he went through multiple surgeries brought about by filming, stunts, and exercise — and how did we all react? Turned him into the ‘Sad Brendan’ meme.
Instead of saying “WAIT? WHAT? YOU WERE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED BY A POWERFUL MAN IN HOLLYWOOD?!” everyone just pointed as his stomach, laughed, and mused on his fading looks.
Speaking up, too frequently, doesn’t equal sympathy.
Remember when former deputy prime-minister, John Prescott told the world he suffered from bulimia nervosa? Articles were run in every major newspaper, accompanied by an image of him with a pie or a portion of chips being thrown into his face.
Even when telling people he’d been ill for years, Prescott found ways to beat himself up about it, by saying that his peers didn’t suspect a thing, because he “wasn’t a very successful bulimic”, because he didn’t drop weight. Imagine someone saying that to themselves — ‘I wasn’t successful enough with my mental illness’ — it’s indicative of a really sorry state of affairs, where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are little more than vanity projects.
Why is that?
Speaking for myself, the weight was a by-product of something else. Any time I found myself emaciated, it was a sign of self-harm. I wasn’t happier for being thinner — far from it — it was the result of hurting myself, which my brain is adamant I want to do. In periods where I gain weight, either through bingeing or eating more healthily, there’s a misfire somewhere that means I want to start doing it all over again — not because I want to be thinner, and therefore better looking — it’s because my brain thinks I’ve not punished myself enough lately.
But I’ve spent so much time talking about how people look, so it has to be something to do with self-image, right?
Personally, I’ve found society’s obsession with how a person ought to look latches onto the part of my brain that wants to hurt me. I know that, when I look at other people, I would never dream of talking about them the way I talk to myself. Other people’s bodies are rich and varied and absolutely wonderful — I can find beauty in absolutely everyone. However, bad news travels faster than good, so when I see people laughing at someone’s dad bod, I get a green light to hurt myself. When I hear someone tittering at someone’s weight gain, it’s a go-ahead for the worst part of my personality.
It’s not just men’s stomachs either — we’re advertised to about hair-loss, told that being short makes us undesirable, that shoulder and back-hair is gross, and their feet are disgusting, hairy ears are bad, whiten your teeth… I’m going to stop now, before I start transfixing on things and spiral.
When I see people being glib about women’s weight gain, stretch marks, ageing, and everything else, a part of my brain takes that personally too. You saying “She used to be dead attractive, but she’s let herself go” is just another stick I can use to beat myself up with.
As an aside, I have received zero professional therapy on this, so don’t ask me where all this comes from. When the plague goes away, I’ll go get some professional help, and don’t try and advise me about all this, cheers.
Back into the broader picture, all I know, is that the toxicity around masculinity is definitely a huge, contributing factor. Would I have dealt with this a long time ago if men were encouraged to speak on these supposed ‘weaknesses’? It is fair to assume so. Would I have embraced whatever shape I was in if more bodies were celebrated? Would I have spoken up if I didn’t live in a world where my illness was thought of as something so strongly coded as ‘a woman’s problem’?
The conversation around men and masculinity is still relatively new, and for some reason, divisive. To clear up, ‘toxic masculinity’ doesn’t mean that being ‘masculine’ is ‘toxic’, but rather, there’s a version of masculinity that’s sold to men and women that is largely harmful to everyone. Of course, you can be a straight man into sports, beer, dirty jokes and whatever, and that’s fine — no-one is saying it isn’t — it’s only when that’s the only version of masculinity allowed to exist and other types of masculinity are derided, when it becomes a problem.
In this landscape, men whose health is harmed by these issues feel like there’s nowhere to turn. Largely, the dialogue around this is female-centric, and a knock-on is that resources tend to lean that way also. That’s not the fault of women — it’s everyone’s failing. If a man finally finds the courage to speak up, they can find that they’re either in a vacuum, or worse still, a figure of ridicule for being ‘soft’ or, like in the case of John Prescott, not thin enough to be taken seriously and a literal punchline on comedy panel shows.
Men, for some stupid reason, aren’t meant to need help. Apparently, it’s weak. So too, they’re certainly not allowed to have body issues, because that’s weak like women are. When you say it like that, you can see that no-one comes out of it unscathed, because men feel like they’re not allowed to deal with grave issues, and that women are lesser to men for having them in the first place.
Add to that, the insidious notion that men talking about their issues is a thing that’s attempting to erase women’s experiences and reinforce the idea that this is not a serious problem, and you’ve got a grim mess.
What’s the answer? Largely, I don’t know. There’s been some lovely initiatives recently, regarding men’s mental health, with people talking more openly and kindly about suicide rates amongst men. Cricketer Freddie Flintoff made a documentary about his eating disorders — and as a straight-talking, Northern English, working class type, it’s important that this kind of person is seen to be having this conversation for those who may not usually want to hear about it.
What’s obvious is that this is an illness that hurts both men and women across all variants of gender, sexuality and the like — and sharing and pooling resources, and being open to the discussion and taking each other seriously is the way forward. Cancer isn’t something that’s gendered, and neither is this (so please, for the love of god, stop trying to rebrand it as ‘manorexia’, as that’s insulting, patronising, and wildly unhelpful).
I’m not smart enough to offer solid answers or offer clever insight into all of this — these are just me, purging out words about something that needs to be part of the broader conversation with everyone.
All I’ll say is that it’d be wise if you stopped commenting on people’s weight at all, forever. It’s nothing to do with you and there’s a million other ways of telling someone they seem well or whatever. Or call them a fuckwit, if that’s why you’re bring it up.
Just stop pouring fuel on something that is gnawing away at a percentage of society that is larger than you think.
I’m off to eat something now.