Imagine joining a video call, then logging onto Twitter to see hundreds of thousands of people tweeting about your face.
“I woke up and Zac Efron got botched wtf I’m so devastated,” read one of the tweets.
Efron was promoting a video he’d been involved with for Earth Day alongside the American science TV presenter Bill Nye, when the tweets piled in. Users weren’t interested in a conversation about saving Planet Earth – the sustainable chat turned to Efron’s face, which appeared to have changed in shape.
Had the actor that played High School Musical’s resident charmer Troy Bolton had cosmetic surgery? Some fans thought so – but whether he has or hasn’t, I’m more concerned about what the furore about his supposed surgery means for men, and male body image in general.
Ever since TV could beam images of celebs into living rooms, women have been heavily criticised for their appearance in a way that has been deeply unfair and sexist.
They have been held to different standards than men, and still are. A female actor in her 40s is often expected to look twenty years younger, while George Clooney, at almost 60 years old, is deemed resplendent in deep wrinkles and greys.
Male and female celebrities are presented in the media in different ways, and some argue that men have traditionally been able to age more authentically. But that isn’t to say men don’t feel deep anxieties about ageing, or that they aren’t forced to fit a masculine ideal.
Men have long suffered from a lack of body image confidence. A study commissioned by Central YMCA and the Succeed Foundation eating disorders charity found that more men worry about their body shape and appearance than women.
Male interest in altering appearances has also exploded under lockdown. UK plastic surgeons reported a 70 per cent rise in consultant requests, according to Esquire. One surgeon told the BBC there’s been a rise in men asking for hair transplants after looking at themselves all day on Zoom.
The statistics suggest the pandemic has given many of us time to wonder whether we are living up to the media-prescribed ideals of beauty epitomised by Efron in his films, from floppy-haired youthful Troy Bolton to the bulkier late-twenties Efron in Baywatch.
I can relate to the giant haul of men who have requested cosmetic surgery, and am guilty of sitting on Zoom analysing my hair or wondering whether or not shaving covers my double-chin. I can relate to Efron too, who at 33 is one year older than me, but has heaps more pressure to look good.
It’s not that we don’t try to remind ourselves of the bigger picture. “Ageing is a privilege,” a university pal used to insist. I try to remember that when I notice the appearance of what another friend calls his “Homer Simpson lines” – the saggy bits of skin by the bottom of my nose, where my cheeks are losing their fight against gravity – at least it has a good name.
Once or twice, looking in the mirror on long lockdown days, I have placed my index fingers on my cheekbones and slowly lifted the skin up, which neatly puts it back where it was before it started sagging a few years back – the truth is I have no idea when it started sagging, I only noticed its journey southwards in lockdown.
Men do think about their body image. The difference is we are less likely to talk about our anxieties around it. A Priory survey found that 40 per cent of men won’t talk to anyone about their mental health – and yet there’s evidence that putting feelings into words can help us experience less negative emotional experiences.
Zac Efron has previously spoken about his struggles with anxiety, and with eating. He got visibly emotional eating a bowl of pasta on Netflix documentary Down To Earth as he explained he hadn’t eaten the carb in years due to pressures around his body image for work. Baywatch slightly loses its edge when you consider this.
But this isn’t just about Zac Efron it’s about all of us. The toxic comments about his face only demonstrate how surprised people are that a young, attractive man would put himself through such an invasive procedure. And, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.
Let’s destigmatise conversations around male body confidence issues, and offer support not condemnation when it’s needed. The faster we understand the reasons why more men are turning to cosmetic surgery, the faster we can create a more positive, encouraging environment where the mantra “ageing is a privilege” has a chance of being heard.