Three Reasons Male Body Image Issues Aren’t Discussed As Frequently As Females’

a young black boy showing male body image issues do not start off at a young age

Bikini-prepping, Keto dieting, scales, tape measures, photo filters, celebrity icons, and constant self-evaluation in the company of a mirror. We may know it’s not healthy, yet somehow society has developed a collective “not-surprised” numbness to girls and body image issues. 

But what about guys? 

Why don’t we hear about male body image issues the way we hear about female body image issues?

In case you’re wondering, it’s certainly not because male body image issues don’t exist.

They most certainly do. And they are fraught with just as many internal and societal messages as those of their gender counterpart. 

It’s as if boys and men receive a memo that plays into the male stereotypes of strength, power, and ego.”Don’t mention any body insecurities. If you do, you’re weak. Just man the ‘f’ up. Puff up your chest and get over yourself.”

No wonder boys and men are far less inclined than females to openly discuss body image issues!

What is body image anyway?

Body image refers to a person’s relationship with his or her body. Everyone who has a body – men included – has a body image.

Body image includes thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors. 

Translation? Men, just like women, have thoughts about their bodies. And accompanying those thoughts are feelings, perceptions, and behaviors. (Why would we expect otherwise?)

Boys and men aren’t immune to body image issues simply by virtue of being male. Body image problems are not “just a girl thing.”

Social media, television/radio/print media, and Diet Culture affect boys and men, too.

Girls and women consume voluminous unrealistic images of female beauty. And there is no want for information written on the topic and its effects.

Much less air time, however, is given to how boys and men are affected by idealized male images of attractiveness. So the topic of male body image exists like an undercurrent with swelling energy seeking an outlet.

Images of the male cultural ideal abound, however quietly assuming and understood they may be. Six-pack abs, big pecs, bulging biceps, 0% body fat, and a thick head of hair aren’t realistic or feasible for the majority of boys/men. 

Whether the images portray uber-muscularity, a chiseled look, and/or the “tall, dark, and handsome” type, they don’t represent the vast majority of boys or men. 

By design, cultural ideals are unattainable for most people. That’s why they’re called ideals.

The images presented represent how guys should look according to cultural ideals (and marketing). 

The underlying implication is that this is also how they could look if they just tried hard enough through dieting, working out, and/or using ‘x’ products. 

(Some research suggests media messages about body ideals may not impact teenage boys as directly as teen girls, but these results are inconsistent.) 

The reluctance to acknowledge male body image issues creates a perception that males are immune to poor body image.

Male body image is an issue even for this man who is attractice by society standards

Let’s look at some numbers to establish that male body image problems are a real thing.

  • One in ten people with anorexia is male.
  • 17% of men are on extreme diets.
  • 3% of men binge eat.
  • 4% of men purge after eating.
  • 15% of gay males have an eating disorder.

According to large surveys, around 25% of male children/adolescents are concerned about not being ‘ripped’ (muscular and lean) enough. They want muscularity that is (more) toned and defined.

The three main categories of male body image issues include:

  • drive for muscularity
  • drive for thinness
  • body part-specific anxiety

Males tend to want to be more muscular and buff, leaner, and more defined. And/or they feel anxious about particular parts of their bodies. 

As with other psychological concepts, we have to take a step back and look at the role of culture.

None of us exists in a vacuum. In other words, Diet Culture is rampant for everyone, regardless of gender or age. It’s in the air we all breathe. It is the air we breathe.

Keep in mind that everyone’s relationship with their body begins as a love affair. Infants revel in their bodies. Toddlers do, too. 

For all genders, though, that trajectory is rarely linear. It goes up and down, depending on both internal and external circumstances. 

Male body image is no exception.

The male body-relationship tends to deteriorate during key developmental times, especially during ‘tween and adolescent years.

Another ‘especially’ is gender dysphoria.

If you’re male, talking negatively about your body is frowned upon.

You’re considered weak, ‘girly,’ pathetic, uncool.

(Although you would get points for talking about bulking up like Hulk.)

Reasons male body image issues aren’t discussed as often as females body image issues:

1. Stigma

It makes sense that boys and men would rather not admit body image issues because of the associated stigma.

They too are self-conscious about their bodies.

In fact, behaviors such as binge eating, purging, laxative abuse and fasting for weight loss are only slightly less common among males as they are among females.

Common and specific male body image anxieties include:

man representing male body image issue
  • Gynecomastia (“girl boobs”)
male body image issues with male comparing himself against a statue
  • Penile Dysphoria
boy with low muscle tone representing male body image issues
  • Low muscle tone
back of a seated bald man at a pond reflecting on his male body image issue of baldness
  • Balding
  • Height
  • Inadequate muscularity (not being ‘buff’ enough)

2. Concern with being seen as sensitive, flawed, or weak

Some men with body image issues worry that if they reveal their insecurities, people will ridicule them. In some cases, other kids (and/or adults) made fun of them in childhood.

A history of teasing about physical appearance is not uncommon. Even decades later, it can have a haunting effect. (“Shorty,” “Fatty,” “Titty Boy” are examples of nicknames that haunt.)

Men with high(er) body dissatisfaction are more likely to have high(er) levels of anxiety and depression –  another big reason male body image issues are a taboo topic. Stigma still exists, despite advances in mental health awareness.

Many males with body image issues cope by engaging in behaviors they think will improve their relationships with their bodies.

Diet Culture promises that if males (and females) engage in certain activities, they’ll look better, feel better, and be better human beings. (Empty promise alert.)

Here are some of the do-this-and-you-will-look-better methods:

  • over exercising
A man flexing his large muscles while admiring himself shows male body image issues risks
  • using steroids
male body image issues represented by a thin male's torso
  • fad dieting
male body image issues are real
A photo of a naken man with his hands covering his face, demonstrating male body image issues
  • Others avoid public events and social gatherings

It doesn’t matter their body type — skinny, thick, tall, short. Being male doesn’t protect from body image issues.

3. Gender role conflict

Males feel conflicted between improving body image and fearing others will regard them as less masculine if they talk about their body hang-ups. They want to appear cool and confident rather than risk any negative social impact of body image woes.

Cultural stereotypes hurt men, too.

Researchers have found that men with an increased drive for muscularity are even less likely to get help for body image issues. This in turn increases their risk of mental health problems.

To compensate for body image issues, some boys and men act out by dominating others physically, verbally, and/or emotionally.

Male body dissatisfaction is an important subject. And its consequences to physical and psychological health are real.

Body image help

If you’re male and have body image issues, seeking professional help is a good idea. 

If you have associated destructive behaviors such as crash dieting, binge eating, steroid use, or compulsive exercise, professional help becomes necessary. 

Male body image issues put boys and men at higher risk for lots of negative outcomes. Hiding behind male bravado makes seeking help harder and doesn’t benefit anyone.

Boys and men are less comfortable than girls and women talking about these issues. 

While body positivity among women has recently grown, male body positivity hasn’t received much attention.

Stigma around male body image issues and related mental health challenges often prevents boys and men from speaking honestly about their experiences and seeking treatment.

Boys and men have bodies, just like all other human beings. 

They also have feelings, including feelings about their bodies. 

Normalizing this fact will help all people, regardless of gender, feel more comfortable seeking support and living happily in their bodies.

Consider it your birthright. 

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, coach, and consultant in MA. Areas of expertise include body image, eating disorder recovery, and Highly Sensitive People. 

How Effective Are Anti-Anxiety and Depression Meds?

There’s a decision that millions of people have to make at a time when they have the greatest difficulty making decisions. The decision is more complicated than pondering how effective anti-anxiety and depression meds are.

When anxiety and/or depression begins to slowly, pervasively suffocate the “life out of life,” people have to choose. Do I continue down this path into the dark unknown by myself…or do I get help? And what if that help involves anti-anxiety and depression meds? Do I want to go that route?

Compared to even a few decades ago, discussion of mental health has begun to step out of the shadows into the light of day. Especially after the height of the Covid pandemic. And yet, understanding, acceptance, compassion, and treatment still have so far to go.

For as common as anxiety and depressive disorders are, their negative impact on every aspect of life is largely understated.

Anxiety disorders, for example, are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting over 40 million people over 18 years of age every year.

And major depressive disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for those between 15 and 44.3 years of age.

What should give you (and all of us) pause is the sheer magnitude of these forms of mental illness…and their impact.

For instance, depression and anxiety can cause memory loss if left untreated.

The person suffering with any form of anxiety or depressive disorder isn’t the only one who suffers. Everyone in theirr sphere suffers. Like the sufferer, they miss out on the full potential of life and relationships.

And the debilitating effects trickle all the way down to money. 

a red piggy bank with white polka dots representing the financial impact of ineffectiveness of meds for anxiety and depression

Every year, our economy loses billions of dollars to the disabilities of anxiety and depression. Missed work, unsatisfactory job performance, inability to stay employed, choice of employment. It’s all connected.

So how do you know when worry has turned into panic? Or performance jitters become an anxiety disorder? Or the blues that have fallen over your mood have become clinical depression?

How do you even start the process of considering anti-anxiety and depression meds?

Great questions!

First, look at your life:

  • Is your mood interfering with your normal functioning? 
  • Do you been feeling consistently down?
  • Have you lost interest in things you used to enjoy?
  • Have your eating, weight, sleep, energy changed in the past two weeks without changing back to normal? 
  • Is your mood affecting your work and relationships?
  • Are you irritable? Obsessing? Having physical symptoms like increased heart rate or sweaty palms?

The diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD), for example, has strict diagnostic criteria

This is important, in part, because anxiety and depression are not diagnosable via a blood test (someday?) or biopsy. They rely on a person’s ability (and willingness) to make an honest assessment of their mental state based on specific, clinically provided criteria.

They also rely on the knowledge, experience, and intuition of psychiatric and psychological professionals to interpret and help clarify that assessment in order to proceed with treatment.

In these ways, anxiety and depression, like mental illness in general, are subjectively diagnosed.

What does all this have to do with the efficacy of anti-anxiety and depression meds?

A lot, actually.

First, it helps you know when it’s time to see your doctor about treatment for anxiety and depression. This appointment may include discussing anti-anxiety and depression meds.

Far too much mental illness remains undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. People tend to downplay their symptoms. Sometimes they don’t recognize their symptoms.

Second, it helps to distinguish the severity of the disorder and potential overlap with other disorders.

Case in point, anxiety and depression often occur together. Many of their symptoms overlap, and many of their treatment methods overlap.

Third, the severity of anxiety and depression is related to the effectiveness of anti-anxiety and depression meds.

Let’s take a quick look at history…

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that antidepressants made their official clinical introduction. 

The monoamine hypothesis laid the groundwork for the development of many antidepressant drugs in use today. 

Its premise is that the underlying cause of depressive disorders is a depletion of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the central nervous system. 

The gist? Keep these monoamines from being absorbed back into their transmitting neurons, and they could make it across neural synapses to waiting neurons. 

The pathway of these important mood-affecting neurotransmitters, therefore, would remain uninterrupted.

When it comes to anti-anxiety and depression meds, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are probably the most familiar. Names like Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, and Paxil have become commonplace in everyday conversations.

Zoloft is the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication. It is the usual first-line medication for the treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD because of its efficacy and safety.

And yet, even good news and positive results in medicine are not without controversy and conflicting research.

Anti-anxiety and depression meds are no exception.

How studies are conducted – and even by whom – can influence results.

Consider, for example, studies by pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in a drug. Or studies involving placebos that aren’t the sugar-pill format we normally think of for placebos.

By the time results are carefully converted to abstracts, then packaging, then advertising, and then passed to clinicians and patients, relevant information can become blurred.

Of course patients want to know if anti anxiety and antidepressant meds are safe. Are they going to work?

When dealing with a diagnosis as subjective as mood disorders, perceived effectiveness of meds can vary widely.

In general, research suggests the tricyclic antidepressants (SSRIs and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors [SNRIs]) are effective in relieving depression symptoms in about 20% of people.

It’s important to note that antidepressants are more effective for chronic, moderate, and severe depression.

They don’t help as much in cases of mild depression.

And this research doesn’t take into account the melancholic subtype of depressive disorder, which may have more symptoms and be more difficult to treat than other types of depression.

These first-line antidepressants are also used with similar effectiveness for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), although not all anti-anxiety meds are effective.

Keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another. 

If a baseline medication like Zoloft (sertraline) isn’t doing the job, a clinician will usually “move up the ladder.” 

A patient could end up taking a whole cocktail of meds to achieve desired results. All while attempting to offset specific side effects.

a pill container showing that the effectiveness of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications is still not understood

Does this medical-speak sound somewhat “unclear?” Yes?! Well, you’re onto something.

Science (including medicine) builds upon itself. What we “knew” 40 years ago may be a window to more relevant today.

The monoamine theory is a perfect example.

The belief that depression and anxiety are caused by deficiencies in transporting serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine has now come up against conflicting research.

But, for the person living under a dark cloud of depression and anxiety, emerging data may be of little comfort.

At least until a more effective solution is found.

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, coach, and consultant in Massachusetts. Her areas of expertise include treatment of eating disorders, body image, and Highly Sensitive People.