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Women and body image: a man's perspective

Ever wondered why a man can look at an advert featuring a six-pack and laugh, while a woman might look at a photograph of female perfection and fall to pieces? William Leith thinks he might have uncovered the answer (来源:英语学习门户网站EnglishCN.com)

Advertising for lingerie William Leath body image
Advertising for lingerie Photo: PHILIPPE HAYS / ALAMY

Plenty of guys have told me this story. The guy in question is preparing to go to a party with his girlfriend. She is trying on shoes and dresses. He is telling her how good she looks. She tries on more shoes, more dresses. And then: the sudden, inexplicable meltdown. She crumples on the bed. Something is horribly wrong. Now the party is out of the question.

The guy sits down. He hugs her. What's the problem? Gradually the truth emerges. 'Do you know what it was?' the guy will say later to his friends. 'She said she "didn't look right". She felt … I don't know. Fat. Or that she was the wrong shape. It's all about her body.' He goes on: 'I told her she looked great. Which she does, right?'

At this point the other guys will say, 'Yeah – she looks great.' And: 'She looks fine.' And: 'I saw her the other day, wearing those shorts.' And: 'She is hot.' Then the first guy will say, 'That's what I kept telling her. And that's when she got really upset. She said, "You just don't understand."'

It's true – men, by and large, do not understand. In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf made this point very powerfully. When a woman has a crisis of confidence about the way she looks there is nothing a man can do to console her.

'Whatever he says hurts her more,' says Wolf. 'If he comforts her by calling the issue trivial, he doesn't understand. It isn't trivial at all. If he agrees with her that it's serious, even worse: he can't possibly love her, he thinks she's fat and ugly.'

But it doesn't stop there, says Wolf. What if the man were to say he loves the woman just as she is – that he loves her for her? An absolute no-no, of course, because then 'he doesn't think she's beautiful'. Worse still, though, if he says he loves her because he thinks she's beautiful.

There's no way out. It seems to be, in Wolf's words, 'an uninhabitable territory between the sexes'. So why don't men understand? And, given a bit of education, can the situation be improved?

Well, I'm a man, so let's see. The first thing to say is that, when it comes to their bodies, men have a completely different attitude. I'm not saying they don't think about their bodies, or worry about them, because they do. But men relate to their bodies in a simple way.

A man's body is either fine, or it's not fine. For a man, the body is a practical object. It's a machine. Sometimes it works well; sometimes it needs fixing. Some guys know how to fix it, by taking up a sport, maybe, or cutting down on the carbs. Some don't, and go to seed.

Men see their bodies as machines because, for most of their time on this earth, they have defined themselves as hunters and protectors. They equate being attractive with being strong and fast and muscled. That's a simple concept, isn't it? And that simplicity is hard-wired into the male brain.

When his girlfriend has a meltdown, and says she hates her body, that is not a simple concept. Unlike men, women do not have a simple relationship with their bodies. They have a complex relationship with their bodies. This is what men often don't understand. When it comes to their bodies, women are extremely vulnerable – and, what's more, lots of people take advantage of that vulnerability. This makes the situation worse.

Men don't have to contend with this – the hair people, and the make-up people, and the fashion people, and the shoe people, and the bra people, and the nail people, and the eyelash people, and the Botox people, and the cosmetic surgery people, and the perfume people, and the hair-removal people. Oh, and the diet people.

Men are not at the mercy of corporate manipulation on remotely this scale. Sure, there are six-packs creeping into our field of vision every so often. And, sure, this is making us feel insecure. I know – I was fat, and it's no fun being fat, especially with all those pictures of Brad Pitt nagging away.

And then there are the adverts for Lynx, and the Reebok advert in which a man is chased around town by a big fat hairy belly. But for men the message is very direct. Buy some running shoes. Go to the gym. Cut down on the carbs. For men there is no mystery behind the veil of the adverts. You either tackle the situation, or become a fat slob. End of story.

 
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