Body image is a widely discussed topic these days. Many health experts and media outlets report on negative body image, especially in the celebrity arena. There are even new “body love” campaigns that celebrate real women, and a backlash against photo retouching and unrealistic images of women and models.
This is good news, and we want the discussion to evolve and for more women to find love for their bodies. But what about men? We often forget that men can also have issues with body image. It’s a topic that is often stigmatized for them but it’s an issue that is quietly growing among males.
What is Body Image?
In Dynamic Eating Psychology, body image is defined as “how you imagine your body.” There are the external “facts” of your body… your weight, your height, your build, your coloring, etc. And there’s the internal dialogue you have regarding your own appearance. This includes thoughts such as “I’m too short,” “I have great abs,” “My hair is too curly,” “My skin is too pale,” etc. Self talk can be negative, positive, neutral, or a mix. When the statements you tell yourself about your body are overwhelmingly negative, this can impact your overall mental and physical health and drive you towards disordered behavior around food and exercise.
How It’s Different for Men
Thanks to the recent publicity around this issue, we know that women often have negative body thoughts. Men can also have these thoughts, but their focus may be on culturally desirable male traits such as strength and muscle, and less on beauty, thinness, or facial features. One recent study found that as many as 80% of men have negatively discussed their own or other males’ physical appearance. Targeted areas of the body range from lack of hair (baldness) to “beer” bellies or “man boobs.”
Some large-scale surveys found that overall male body image dissatisfaction has increased by 300% over the past three decades. This is alarming news, and it’s time our society had more honest discussions about the dangerous impact this trend has on the male psyche. Just like for women, our social and celebrity media culture perpetuates an unrealistic idea of male body perfection and attractiveness. Men need to be tall and handsome with thick hair, six pack abs, and a chiseled frame. While women with disordered body images fear weight gain and fat, men sometimes have the opposite fears. They often perceive themselves as underweight or lacking in muscle.
There’s a concern that this issue is growing among the young male segment, with as many as 43% of “normal-weight” adolescent and college-age boys believing themselves to be underweight and reporting a desire to increase muscle mass through weight training. While it is perfectly normal to desire a healthier body, it’s also very important to recognize the signs of negative body image creating problems with emotional health and day to day activities.
Signs That It’s Becoming a Problem
In males, it can be tricky to identify a body image problem that’s heading down a slippery slope. Men often increase workouts, sometimes spending hours at the gym. Or they take up new fitness activities like running or crossfit where all the extra time spent “training” is perfectly accepted and even encouraged in a fitness obsessed culture. They try new nutritional strategies like consuming calorie-packed protein powder or intermittent fasting where they skip meals for 16-24 hours multiple times per week.
All this focus on rigid eating, calorie control, and excess physical training can quickly become an obsession where nothing is ever enough. A muscular body can be difficult to obtain, and even harder to maintain. Young men are looking at athletes and superhero actors as role models, and creating unrealistic goals for their physical appearance. Men, just like women, need to understand that the cultural role models have to train hours to get those bodies, and in the end are often photoshopped. In recent celebrity news, a normally muscular action star was accused of having a “dad belly” in a candid photograph. Even celebrities with stereotypically fit bodies cannot escape sharp critiques from the media.
In an increasingly disconnected culture, men may find it easier to spend time working out instead of cultivating relationships or searching for meaningful work. Mind Body Nutrition is all about finding a healthy relationship with exercise and movement so you have the energy to live a fuller life! The goal is to create a balanced life that allows you to do good work in the world, to find your purpose, to love yourself and those around you.
If your negative body image is driving you to overexercise, or to overly restrict your eating, then it may be time for an intervention.
How to Turn it Around
At its core, negative body image is a call for more self compassion and acceptance. Men can be chastised by their peers for having compassion especially for themselves, and told they are acting like a girl or being a sissy. But being masculine is about strength, not disconnection. Strength comes in many forms, including empathy.
If men find themselves spending too much time focused on exercise and body appearance, they can try activities that calm the stress response, such as yoga, walking in nature, or deep breathing. If exercise time cuts into time with family and friends, that’s also a big warning. Of course, everyone should create time for healthy movement; we’re talking about excessive activity that’s interfering with work, school or relationships.
Ditch the protein powders and supplements, and focus on eating real, high quality food with family and friends. If you are a parent of a young male, look for these signs and open the dialogue about body image. Discuss healthy ways to nourish your body, and celebrate your body as it is now. Look in the mirror and find all the ways your body serves you.
Image is the root word of “Imagine,” and at any point you can re-imagine your body image by creating new, loving, positive thoughts that support your body, mind and soul.
At the Institute we explore many tools and practices that support a healthy, nourished body image. You can learn more about this in our Eating Psychology Coaching Certification Training.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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