It's Getting Hot in Here: Seasonal Body Image Distortion and the Impact on Men

Featured image: takahiro taguchi via Unsplash.

'Seasonal body image' is a relatively new term that has originated in response to ideas—such as 'summer shredding' and 'hot girl summer'—which project the notion that losing weight during the summer months is necessary in order to look one's best. The term 'seasonal body image' is subsequently used to describe the 'within-person variation in body image' across the four seasons, which appears to have arisen in response to narratives regarding summer bodies.

In a study of men from both the southern and northern hemisphere, it was revealed that 70% of male participants report seasonal body image distortion. Most participants reported peak body image dissatisfaction in summer, as opposed to in winter, where body satisfaction was higher.

There are several reasons as to why men may feel this way toward their bodies. In the summer months they may feel as though their bodies are, or should be, more on display because of pressure from both their peers and the media. Lots of men will be comfortable with being shirtless in public in summer, and men in the study said that, if their friends were happy taking their shirt off in public during the summer, they felt pressured to do so too.

With the arrival of the summer months, along comes even more pressure from the media to adhere to the 'beach body' standard. The National Enquirer recently came under fire for their tasteless '50 Best and Worst Beach Bodies' article. The front page of the magazine was covered with pictures of celebrities enjoying themselves on holiday, and subsequently body shamed them. The articles featured both men and women in swimwear, unposed, and shamed them by accusing them of 'over-indulging'.

In 2021, there is simply no place for such abhorrent and archaic ideas about body types. However, grotesque articles such as those in the National Enquirer help to explain the findings in the study as to why men face more body issues during the summer. The article started an important discussion both on social media and in the print media. However, many focused solely on the impact of the article on women.

The body positivity rhetoric in the media, which mostly focuses on female body image, perpetuates a dangerous narrative and implies that men do not, or should not, feel a pressure to conform to the 'ideal' body standard. This may make it difficult for men to openly discuss their body image issues. Seasonal body image problems within men may be exacerbated by the comparative acceptance and inclusivity of female body types, compared to their own.

It is surprising that this is not discussed more openly, given the increasing recognition of the severity of male mental health issues. As of 2020, it is estimated that, in England, around one in eight men has a mental health problem. Given that the statistics can only represent the number of men who report that they are struggling with mental health, it can be inferred that this figure may be much higher. To add to the cause for concern, men are also less likely to seek help and talk with a therapist: only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men.

The representation of male bodies in the media only serve to further project the six-pack and muscular male body ideal. Fictional characters in popular culture such as film and TV are one way in which the popular media ridicules men for being anything other than 'beach body ready'. For example, throughout the duration of American sitcom New Girl's seven seasons, male lead Schmidt and the other main characters continuously joke about his weight change. During his time in college, Schmidt was depicted as the 'fat kid'—characterised as uncool and unsuccessful with women. As soon as he loses weight, his entire persona changes to that of an arrogant (yet popular) womaniser.

New Girl's use of weight loss as a joke is not only tasteless, but dangerous. The issue of weight loss can be tackled in a sensitive way, and, whilst there are scenes where Schmidt opens up and conveys himself to be vulnerable about his past, the overall narrative perpetuates the idea that, prior to losing weight, Schmidt was undesirable and unattractive.

Reality TV also fails within its representation of male bodies, an issue which is often overlooked as media and viewers mostly focus on condemning the lack of female representation. A perfect example of this lack of body inclusivity is the reality show Love Island. While the public's attention centres on the number of petite, blonde women entering the villa, there is much less emphasis on the proportion of tall and muscular men who appear on our screens.

This raises the question as to why all the male contestants look like this. Do Love Island purposely 'source' contestants who fit this idealised male physique? Or, after finding out they have secured a spot on the ITV2 show, do these men work hard to achieve a 'summer shred' as a result of pressure from the media and peers?

Jack Fincham, who won Love Island in 2018 with Dani Dyer, has spoken about his insecurities on the show. Since leaving the infamous Mallorcan villa, Jack has reminisced about his reservations of taking part in the show due to his body insecurities. In an interview on Good Morning Britain after his win, he spoke about how he knew there were going to be 'abs and biceps everywhere' and how he planned to use his personality to win over the other contestants. Despite Jack's feelings of insecurity on the show, his confidence and witty humour won over Dani- and the nation.

Laura Whitmore, the host of Love Island, has spoken out on this issue, too. She described feeling, from an insider's perspective, that the men on the show feel more pressure to conform to beauty standards. She noted how men are always filmed exercising whilst in the villa, but the women rarely so. She described 'feeling sorry for the guys' who put immense pressure on themselves to stay in shape throughout the duration of the show—which for some contestants can be up to six weeks.

Evidently, there is a resounding problem in that men, especially during the summer months, are increasingly unsatisfied with their bodies. This issue urgently needs to be discussed more openly, and men, like Jack Fincham, should be encouraged to talk honestly about how they are feeling. We need to normalise that both men and women can feel unhappy with their bodies, but that ultimately nobody should be dissatisfied with their appearance because of outside pressure from the media and society.

The summer body narrative needs a new direction. Every body is a beach body. Health, both physical and mental, and happiness need to be prioritised over appearance. Higher body dissatisfaction can be linked to a poorer quality of life and increase the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and disorders. Therefore, we need to normalise acceptance of all types of bodies—both male and female—and start a conversation which acknowledges the struggle men face with seasonal body disorder.

For more information on body image issues, and accessing support if you or a friend is struggling:

https://www.youngminds.org.uk/young-person/coping-with-life/body-image

https://www.nhs.uk/services/service-directory/the-body-image-treatment-clinic/N10875593

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/tips