When Justin Bieber fretted aloud to the British media over Prince William’s thinning hair this week, what some might see as the cheap shot heard round the world, it served to focus us on the more serious issue of what prompted him to make it – a growing litany of ad-driven male body image issues.
Mr. Bieber is quoted in the British magazine Rollacoaster as saying of the Prince’s thinning hair: “I mean, there are things to prevent that nowadays, like Propecia. I don't know why he doesn't just get those things, those products. You just take Propecia and your hair grows back. Have you not got it over here?”
As a parent, my first thought was, “Yipes! Where did that come from?” My guess is that the young star may have been baited with just the right question to pop that answer out of his mouth in what was, to him, probably a casual answer.
Still, it made sense after the onslaught of Weight Watchers targeting men in a new ad campaign and the proliferation of image-conscious ads surrounding the games. It used to be a constant parade of Gatorade, sneakers, and Old Spice commercials during the Olympics, and now it’s manscaping tools and heavily perfumed products for guys. The male gymnasts and track stars are the most flamboyant with dyed and quaffed locks and facial hair in neat, trendy patterns and eyebrow piercings.
Sure, men have always had their heroes and images, since the days of John Wayne right up through pro wrestling and the mixed martial arts fighting, but those were more about manliness than manscaping.
As television cameras and big screen TVs blow up our stars until we can count their pores in our living rooms, men too are finding themselves wanting in the looking glass.
Gone are the days of the stereotypical male looking in the mirror and not only being satisfied, but failing to see any flaws at all. A recent study in the United Kingdom does show that men are genuinely as image panicked as women, just over different things.
At the Centre of Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Phillippa Diedrichs studied 394 British men, commissioned by Central YMCA and the Succeed Foundation, and found that men are indeed suffering from the influence of perfect male image ads.
Male worries included poorly developed or fat chests, beer bellies, and baldness. Four of five men (80.7 percent) refer to perceived flaws and imperfections.
However, the saddest telltale for me was that 38 percent of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body.
“These findings tell us that men are concerned about body image, just like women. We knew that ‘body talk’ affected women and young people and now we know that it affects men too,” said Dr. Diedrichs.
• 80.7 percent talked about their own or others' appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair, or slim frame.
• 30 percent have heard someone refer to their "beer belly," 19 percent have been described as "chubby," and 19 percent have overheard demeaning talk about their chests.
• 23 percent said concerns about their appearance had deterred them from going to the gym.
• 63 percent thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough.
• 29 percent thought about their appearance at least five times a day.
• 18 percent were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16 percent on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down.
That’s in the UK and not here in Adland, USA where Mr. Bieber formed his opinion. I suspect our issues are not only worse but more widely spread among younger men and boys.
So as we talk to our boys about fitness, we need to be more aware of the social pressures added to their load. It isn’t something to be dismissed as silly or unimportant. Sadly, this is one area where women have pioneered over the decades.
When it comes to life coaching our sons, we need to look to their self-image as much as their time around the track.
I was glad to see that Prince William, whose mother Princess Diana suffered so mightily as the result of her own negative body image, has not fallen prey to that kind of issue. He chose to be a dignified monarch and not allow appearance to be his focus. That’s why they call it majesty.