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.
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.
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:
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:
- Gynecomastia (“girl boobs”)
- Penile Dysphoria
- Low muscle tone
- 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
- using steroids
- fad dieting
- 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.