There’s a growing awareness around the impact that a negative body image can have on women and girls. The dialogue around culturally imposed, yet unrealistic standards of beauty is beginning to open up. Slowly but surely, we might be starting to make some progress.
But what about men and boys, who are often forgotten in conversations about body image? How are they affected?
A recent study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests that around a fifth of male youths between the ages of 12 and 18 who participated in the study were highly concerned with their weight or physique.
Another study found that the ratio of female to male college students who had been positively screened for an eating disorder was approximately 3:1. Yes, college women exhibited eating disorders at a higher rate than their male counterparts, but not as high as many of us might imagine.
So clearly, body image affects men, even though the focus in the media tends to be on women. So what are the main areas of concern for men? Let’s take a look at a few.
A poor body image for a man does not always end at feeling self-conscious. The same study that found that many boys and young men are concerned about their bodies also suggested that this anxiety increases their risk for damaging behaviors like binge drinking and drug use, and makes them more likely to be depressed. What’s more, it concluded that health practitioners may not recognize these behaviors as being related to weight, as the damaging effects of body image on men and boys are not as widely understood.
Hyper-focus on physical traits
Just like women, men are often very critical of certain aspects of their physical appearance. While the emphasis for women tends to be on thinness, for men, the areas of concern are often height, muscle mass, percent body fat, and abdominal fat.
Whereas women are often made to feel that they are less desirable or loveable if they don’t meet arbitrary beauty standards, men are frequently made to feel that they’re “less of a man” if their appearances don’t conform to the Hollywood “’norm” of male attractiveness. Their very masculinity—a central pillar of identity for many men—is called into question. And of course, in the minds of some men, this makes them “less desirable.”
While more women are impacted by body image concerns, men likely feel more shame around discussing it. Women are affected on a larger scale by these issues, but at the same time, these concerns are deemed understandable when they happen to women. Men who have an unhealthy body image often feel discouraged from talking about their experiences for fear of appearing “less manly.” Men aren’t “supposed” to care about how they look, or what others think of their bodies. So not only are they struggling with anxieties around body image, they’re also grappling with the fear that seeking help will only diminish their masculinity even further.
Lack of empathy
Men might not be entirely mistaken when they fear that others won’t understand or sympathize with their body image concerns. There’s a growing awareness around the importance of treating women’s body image concerns with sensitivity (though of course, this understanding is not nearly as widespread as many of us would like). However, it is seen as acceptable to tease a man about his weight or height, for example. We often don’t understand that those kinds of comments can be genuinely hurtful to men, because we assume that men are not sensitive about their appearances, or that they don’t feel judged when other people make comments about their looks.
Treating the symptoms
Like women, men often put a great deal of effort into changing their bodies—dieting or working to “bulk up” at the gym—because they feel that will make them more “masculine” and, therefore, more worthy of love. But what’s important to remember is that, for women and men, a poor body image is the result of deeper feelings of inadequacy. Of course, the real “solution” is not for men to strive for the “perfect” body, but to learn to love and accept themselves as they are.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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