By William Leith published as “Women and body image: a man’s perspective” at Telegraph.co.uk on May 23, 2010
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.
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.
Read the rest of Leith’s article here