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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 23 September, 2014

Lisa McInerney: Why are we so offhand about what’s influencing male body image?

Actors like Chris Hemsworth are praised for their dedication when they lose weight for roles, while female actors are chided for being poor role models. But the reverential obsession with actors slimming radically for jobs is harmful.

Lisa McInerney

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Chris Hemsworth (or Thoréal, as he’s known to those of us with follicle envy) revealed to Jimmy Kimmel that he is on a strict diet in order to slim down for his role in Ron Howard’s ‘Heart Of The Sea’. As a whaling ship crew who are left drifting for 90 days, the cast are required to look as skinny as possible. For the famously buff Hemsworth, that means a diet of “500 or 600 calories a day”.

To put that into perspective, an averagely active man should aim to consume 2500 calories a day, and the usual cut-off point for weight loss diets is 1200 calories. A chap of Chris Hemsworth’s physical profile on 600 calories a day? Oof. No doubt Hemsworth is being monitored and managed to ensure he doesn’t end up with permanent problems, but it’s still an extreme and alarming process.

Hemsworth is, of course, not the first actor to starve for his art. The most memorable example for most of us is Christian Bale, who lost 63lbs for The Machinist. His diet reportedly came in at under 300 calories a day, which he maintained for four (painful) months. The usually brawny rapper 50 Cent lost 54lbs for All Things Fall Apart. Matthew McConaughey has reportedly lost 47lbs for Dallas Buyers Club, and collapsed during one strenuous running scene, telling reporters, “I was pretty damn weak.”

Double standards

Actresses who lose weight for roles make the headlines too, but rarely elicit the same reaction. Where actors’ methods are reported on with a kind of awed reverence, actresses are often berated, especially when they’re expected to maintain waiflike stature even between roles. Traditionally, eating disorders are seen as ‘female’ illnesses, and so actresses who undergo physical transformations for their careers are regarded as being dangerously out-of-touch with the possible repercussions of their very public actions.

Anne Hathaway lost 25lbs to play Fantine in Les Miserables, and raised eyebrows with her “oatmeal paste” diet, but that her reasons for doing so were as tied to professional conduct as Bale’s or McConaughey’s didn’t stop the Daily Mail speculating about eating disorders, her status as a role model, and whether the broken arm she sustained shortly afterwards (falling off her bike) could be attributed to emaciation.

Mila Kunis despaired at the conflicting judgements she received on her body shape during and after Black Swan, saying that she was first slated for being too thin, and criticised when she returned to her usual weight for being too big.

And then there’s the sorry saga of Renee Zellweger, whose weight gain and subsequent loss for the Bridget Jones films garnered so much attention that her career is still evaluated on the current state of her cheekbones.

There is a massive problem with this dichotomy. Male actors are no braver than female stars when they lose weight for a role, but we express their transformation in positive terms: how committed they are to their craft, or how deeply they’ve immersed themselves. And great performance does not just come from the actor’s voice or facial expressions, but their entire physical presence. They must become the character they’re playing, and if that extends to corporeal transformation, then that’s the actor’s choice.

But is it beneficial for us to hear the gory details?

Men are not immune to severe body image issues

It’s important to ask this because while we traditionally think of men as somewhat immune to such pressures, we’re realising – slowly – that men and boys are as susceptible to severe body image issues as women and girls. There has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of men diagnosed with eating disorders, with some studies (there are only limited figures for Ireland) estimating a rise from 10 per cent of cases to 25 per cent in the last decade or so.

That seems very much like a worst case scenario, and may account for higher instances of diagnoses than an unprecedented rise in male sufferers. Either way, it’s upsetting, especially when you consider that eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses.

Look for mainstream media articles on body image problems in men and you see the repugnant term “manorexia” bandied about, as if anorexia is a woman’s crisis appropriated by neurotic halfmen. There’s contempt to its offhandedness, an implication that it’s more of a pathetic trend than a mental illness.

Catching Fire star Sam Claflin, in a recent photoshoot with Elle magazine, confided that his wife calls him manorexic, and went on to admit: “I do seriously have issues, I think. [Wife Laura Haddock] thinks I’m getting so skinny, but I look at myself and think I’m getting fat.” This candid statement is barely explored, as if it were a joke, or a cute, self-deprecating quirk.

People for whom control is paramount

While individual sufferers often report their disorders as being triggered by social or cultural factors – from photoshopped models to school bullying – what makes one person anxious about their weight but another anorexic remains a mystery. One common factor is that sufferers of eating disorders like anorexia tend to be overachievers, perfectionists, people for whom control is paramount.

It’s in this context that the reverential obsession with actors slimming radically for roles is harmful. While dieting women are often dismissed as slimming for vanity’s sake, we believe male actors starve themselves for artistic purposes. Extreme physical alteration is a surefire way to be seen as a “serious” actor with award-winning potential. Their actions are deemed committed, and their shrinking frames become a symbol of strength and control. Even Matthew McConaughey, who was so weak he struggled to complete physical scenes, went on to describe his fasting as a “spiritual and mental cleanse”.

Simply put, dismissing eating disorders in men with ridiculous labels like “manorexia” but equating symptoms and methods with spirituality or success has to stop. Chris Hemsworth will bounce back, and his metamorphosis may well do wonders for his performance. It’s just that the cultural ramifications of his and his fellow actors’ candour may last a hell of a lot longer than their temporarily teeny waistlines.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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