Thin, Pale and Male -Hollywood's 'Plague Boys' and Why It’s Problematic
by Liam Hansen (they/her)
A while ago, my friends and I were debating if Jack Tame was hot or not (don’t ask why). I was firmly team no, because he has the same energy of a (less bigoted) Ben Shapiro, and someone on team “yes” began listing out possible celebrity crushes - each less convincing than the last. “Steven Adams?” “No.” Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson?” “No.” “David Seymour?” “...No!” “Christ, Liam, what IS your type?”
That's a weird and difficult question to answer. It’s thrusting someone into the vulnerability of admitting who they would fuck, and likely subjecting themselves to mass harrassment for having shit taste. “I - I don’t know. Timothée Chalamet, Troye Sivan, Robert Pattinson?” My friend succinctly put me in my place and simultaneously described the ongoing rise of twinkdom in the entertainment industry. “Plague boys. You’re into men who look like starving characters from a Dickens novel and haven’t slept in eight weeks.”
Although they're occasionally made fun of - thin, youthful, pale and male celebrities are the heartthrobs of the 21st century. A desire for thinner men has been progressively rising over the past few years, from Twitter’s “White Boy Of The Month”, to the ongoing thirst over Timothée Chalamet and various K-Pop idols taking the world by storm. Even Pixar movies can’t get enough of the skinny lads (be honest, your 4*Town bias is Tae Young). If you asked an ‘alpha-male’ gym bro about the rise of skinny male sex symbols, they’d likely scream, punch a wall and call anyone who even slightly fits the trope a soy boy libcuck - but I’ve started to notice a different, much more insidious issue about the archetype.
While unethical conceptions of the ‘ideal body’ are often placed on women, it’s ignorant to assume that men don’t struggle with their body image too. Studies have shown up that to 40% of men are anxious about their weight, and up to 85% are dissatisfied with their muscularity. This was highlighted to me in a chat with Alexander Mussap, an associate professor of psychology at Australia’s Deakin University who has studied issues of body image within men. “Take two men dealing with body dissatisfaction. One guy's trying to get big, and maybe focusing on functional power dominance. But the other is focused on lean muscularity, which often leads to ‘getting ripped’. That can often include reducing body fat to dangerous levels, dehydrating so that they can really look super ripped, getting the veins popping, and in extreme cases steroid drug usage.”
While these efforts can be worrying in and of themselves, the rising trend of sexualising thin male bodies comes with a myriad of issues, which often replicate those seen throughout history in the treatment of women's bodies as trends. Take the term ‘heroin chic’, which was popularised in the nineties to describe the bodies of supermodels who were dangerously thin, incredibly pale, had baggy eyes and looked androgynous. The ‘trend’ is shit, romanticising drug abuse and starvation to reach some fucked up false ideal of beauty. The term fell out of fashion as the conception of larger women's proportions took the place as the ideal - however, concerns have been raised about it coming back. The New York Post published an article in 2022 titled “Bye-bye booty: Heroin chic is back”, which immediately received criticism for its treatment of women's body types as trends. The mass-fetishisation of thinness is a breeding ground for eating disorders amongst younger women, as shown by the skyrocketing rate of anorexia nervosa throughout the nineties that only began to trend back downwards in the 2010s. Treating the human body like a fashion trend is dehumanising, ruthless and disgusting.
What’s frustrating, however, is the lack of concern from culture magazines and social media that fetishise skinny male bodies. The New York Post’s attempted revival of heroin chic caused an outcry, as it should have, but listen to the core descriptors of the body type again - incredibly skinny, pale, androgynous, and tired looking. Sound familiar? The heroin chic body aesthetic has been rising amongst men for years, through the rising stardom of names like Timothée Chalamet, Matty Healy, Cole Sprouse and more.
This archetype echoes the “twink” body type seen in gay male communities, which itself is currently going through a cultural renaissance. The New York Times decried society as being in “The Age of the twink '' in 2018, and Vulture echoed a similar sentiment the year before. But any negative ramifications are disregarded - even The New York Post’s recent heroin chic article highlighted the risk of encouraging eating disorders, but those concerns of spreading the thin ideal amongst men is nowhere to be found.
Mussap came across this issue in his research, finding it frustrating and problematic. He explains,: “People like K-pop stars and Timothée Chalamet are likely just biologically thin, but it’s heading into dangerously low territory”, which I believe can rub off on young guys in the same way thinness can rub off on younger girls. “When I was a young academic, really just starting out looking at these things, the general consensus of what we were told by senior people was that men just don't have body image concerns. It's a part of the patriarchal oppression of women, and which manifests as, among other things, eating disorders.”
I think this viewpoint of misogyny breeding eating disorders is absolutely true - but it doesn't mean men never experience the same troubles. Matter of fact, the experience of oppression affecting your body image is especially prevalent among queer men, transgender men, and non-binary folk. Evidence has shown that members of rainbow communities worldwide are far more likely to struggle with eating disorders and body image, especially amongst both cis and trans men. Surveys show that 42% of men who deal with eating disorders identify as gay, and men across sexualities undergo far higher ED symptoms than straight men. Rates skyrocket amongst trans folk as well - a 2018 survey from The Trevor Project found that as many as 71% of straight trans participants reported dealing with disordered eating to some level. Body dissatisfaction is often inherent to gender dysphoria, so the link isn’t surprising, but I’ve anecdotally noticed a specific desire amongst trans men and non-binary folk to link an androgynous body to a skinny body. This isn’t being brought up to dismiss straight cis men, because they absolutely struggle as well. But it showcases a trend of how discrimination leads to disordered eating that poses a deadly threat to minorities' lives, and how queer men are often overlooked.
Mussap explains that 'diagnostic overshadowing' causes these issues to be overlooked. He recalls reading a story in the news about a trans man's relationship with food: “The doctor was there going, Oh, don't worry, that's kind of normal. You're transitioning, your body's changing. It's normal that you want to lose the feminine fat and get more masculine, that's part of your gender transition.” This is worrying, because it can restrict people from getting the help they may desperately need.
It often feels demoralising to take a look at the worryingly high statistics of male eating disorders both in and out of rainbow communities. The lack of advocacy on the issue has been on my mind for years, especially as issues of disordered eating hit both myself and many of my male queer friends. As a teenager, I felt this strong pull to accommodate a specific ideal of 'androgyny' that was encouraged in online LGBT communities. Despite personally disliking the concept of ‘tribes' in the gay community, the idea of being a twink created an overwhelming fear of gaining weight during the 2020 lockdown. I lost a large amount of weight in a short period of time, and it took years for me to realise that I had lost myself and my love of food in the process. Dealing with anorexia or any eating disorder is hard enough - but it’s even more difficult when you’re consistently praised for your weight-loss, and any concern for your health gets thrown to the side.
The root cause of the ‘plague boy’ trend is hard to pinpoint, but its impacts cannot and should not be understated. In a follow-up to a clip that went viral criticising the revival of the ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic, actress Jameela Jamil stated that it should be renamed ‘hungry chic’. She says, “They want you to stay hungry, because then you’ll be too fucking tired to stand up for your right as a human being who deserves to live in any body and live any life that you want. This isn’t about beauty, it’s about control.” I believe this link between discrimination and eating disorders extends into queer and trans communities, and I know that the glamorisation of excessively thin bodies in women, men, and non-binary people needs to stop before more people lose their lives. But societal change takes individual change. It takes not belittling people for their bodies, and caring for your friends, and providing help when you can. It takes love, acceptance, and advocacy. It takes creating nourishing environments around food and beauty that encourage genuine physical health and the joy of eating. And if you’re worried about if you’re a bad person for thinking Timothée Chalamet is hot, know that you simply have better taste than someone who would rather fuck Jack Tame.