By Adam Nisenson, AMFT, CSAT-C
“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in one’s self.”
–Simone de Beauvoir
In today’s society, men are struggling with male body image issues in the same way women have for years. It turns out becoming Ken is just as impossible a feat as becoming Barbie.
The Complex Perception We Have of our Bodies
It is no secret that a woman’s relationship with her body will often be tumultuous throughout her life. Body image and physical perception are being shown the cold, harsh light of day in a changing social climate, often for the first time, in a genuine way.
Not Just Women Are Affected by Society’s Messages about Body Image
But while more people than ever are aware of women and their ongoing fight with self-image, it’s not just the girls who are struggling–Of the estimated thirty million Americans living with an eating disorder, roughly a third are men, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
The Big Lie
Reconciling a perception of an “ideal body” with the one we see in the mirror is happening at a frighteningly young age—Common Sense Media reports body image issues in boys as young as six to eight-year-old boys.
This heartbreaking report speaks to what I call, The Big Lie:
A man needs big, powerful muscles and washboard abs to be brave, dependable, and worthy.
So how does The Big Lie feed into this male body image crisis? And more importantly, how do we move away from trends that lead to depictions that end up endangering men and boys, both physically and psychologically?
Boys, Men, and Their Bodies
There was a time when all body image issues, eating disorders, disordered eating, and addictive food behaviors were strictly filed under the header of women’s problems.
Men Are Affected by Unrealistic Body Messaging
Thankfully, the nuances that surround these issues have become much more widely studied and understood—along with the fact that half of the overweight adult population and at least a million Americans suffering from an eating disorder today are men.
A more in-depth look at the issue uncovers a startling reality: male eating and body dysmorphia disorders often go undiagnosed, untreated, and misunderstood.
The Emotional Requirements of Manhood
Intrinsic to the out-dated school-of-thought that cultivated The Big Lie is the idea that displaying feelings or showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, many boys are brought up to believe in this version of “manliness.” They are taught to suppress any signs of sentiment.
Bullying, low self-esteem, abuse, and depression in adolescence are the hallmarks of disordered eating that appear in women. Young men with unhealthy relationships with food also display the same symptoms. But it can often be much more difficult for boys to treat these issues openly, even among friends. This social situation can lead to fewer teen boys and adult men seeking treatment for their body issues and eating disorders.
Historically, men have not been held to the same unrealistic standards as women to be thin or out of proportion in the name of beauty. (Consider Adam West and his Dad-bod version of Batman). But times have changed—in a big way.
Hashtag Fitness and the Superhero Effect: Unrealistic Expectations
From Hugh Jackman and Dwayne Johnson to anyone gracing a superhero costume, it’s hard not to notice a striking trend on the silver screen these days: the leading men are getting ripped.
Hollywood and modern media have long exposed women to ridiculous standards of beauty. But in recent years, media has added considerable emphasis to the ever-present need for chiseled abs and bulging biceps on our headlining gentlemen.
New Media Doesn’t Help Male Body Image Issues
A complex media landscape has contributed to this attack on self-esteem. It’s no longer just at the movie theater where we see unrealistic depictions of masculinity. Turn on your computer, flip on your television, or peruse social media on your smartphone for a few minutes, and you’re bound to come across at least a half dozen people giving you their #gymmotivation for the day.
In the time it takes you to do a box jump you’re witnessing people you love showing off their perfect lives, fancy new cars, and a recent trip to the Caribbean, replete with rippling bicep mirror selfies, ads for weight loss supplements, and a sure-fire way to get you shredded in 90-days.
While living a healthy and balanced lifestyle is something everyone should strive for, the fact is that most of these bulging, massively-muscled, 0%-body-fat bodies are only attainable for a small percentage of the male population.
But that doesn’t change the message bombarding men and boys via pop culture and The Big Lie. The truth is your body does not need to resemble The Rock’s for you to be considered a real man by society at large.
The Big Lie doesn’t just speak to the shape of our bodies. Advertising is continuously selling men hair-growth-solutions, what a modern beard should look like, how tall you should be, how to fix your complexion, the value, and affordability of penile implants, and sexual performance medication–The list goes on and on.
Keeping it Real
There has been a push in recent years for more acceptance in the media for a wider variety of feminine body types, with retailers like Target and Aerie moving towards inclusiveness within their print and online advertisements. Their most recent billboards, posters, and flyers have featured female models of varying sizes and heights, and with more natural features depicted (Yes, even stretch marks and breasts of two different sizes are fine).
It’s time for this conversation to cross-over to our boys. We want men to realize they, too, come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors–and that’s ok.
Time to Communicate
Keeping the lines of communication open with our children about male body image issues is critical. We must keep an eye out for signs of depression, disordered eating behavior, and point out unrealistic body expectations shoved in our faces. Be the first person to start that conversation. And please, ditch the extra helping of creatine!
Adam is a therapist at Healing Paths in Bountiful, Utah, where he specializes in men’s issues and sex addiction. He is certified co-leader in the ManKind Project and is also the Executive Director of the Jung Society of Utah.