Body image matters for men too

I’ve just tucked into a iced ring doughnut to celebrate the end of the Finance Bill.  There’s a bar of chocolate lurking on my desk, along with a packet of custard cremes.  I am looking forward to dinner later with a fellow MP and American Congressman.  These foodie facts will surprise no one who knows me.  I’ve always eaten what I liked and not worried too much about the waistline.

But six years ago, in my pre Westminster life, I would go to the gym 2 or 3 times a week in order to keep fit…and looking trim. Now it’s more like a few times a month and the belly is beginning to cause dismay.  But some men worry about their image all the time, seeking that perfect look with big pecs and a six pack.

A new Parliamentary discussion group has been launched by my colleague Jo Swinson.  The All Party Parliamentary Party Group on Body Image owes its creation to a concern among many MPs that young people are feeling forced to conform to a particular type of “look”.  Most debate so far on this issue has focussed on girls and how they are influenced by teen magazines or the antics of super models.  We all know that in extremis this can lead to eating disorders and much unhappiness.  In the last Parliament I raised this issue in an indirect way by my campaigns to highlight bullying in schools.  The most common cause of bullying is physical appearance.

But this is an issue that increasingly affects men too.  As a gay man I’m used to seeing the perfect physical forms pictured in Gay Times and ‘Attitude’, or the tight tee-shirts over well toned bodies in gay bars.   Straight men now pay far more attention to their appearance than a decade or so ago – the Beckham effect maybe.  But some take it to extremes, over exercising and using muscle growth products.  The use of such steroids is closely monitored in sport but apparently they are now used to an alarming extent by men who just want to “look good”.

Feeling pressurised to look a certain way is undermining self esteem and confidence.  Taken to extremes it can lead to bullying and social exclusion as well as unpleasant medical consequences.   By coincidence, a a world leading centre of research in these areas exists in the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England.

So I’m glad this new Parliamentary Group has been set up and I will do what I can to help provoke debate and cause a shift in behaviour.   Now, I’m off to dinner….but I’ll use the stairs not the lift on the way!

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