These are just a few of the typical headlines that can be seen on fitness and “health” magazines geared towards men. While there has been fairly widespread awareness cultivated around the media’s negative impact on women’s body image, not as much attention has been paid to how the media targets men and boys with similar body shaming tactics.
Our culture in general, and the media specifically, often pushes women to lose, lose, lose so they can be smaller, thinner and closer to an elusive definition of “perfect” but the opposite message is often being pushed towards men; most advertising and traditional media suggests the male quest for perfection requires they be bigger, stronger and more muscular. Products previously peddled exclusively towards women – hair removal items, weight loss diets, tanning products, and plastic surgery – are expanding their markets by making men take a harder, longer and much more critical look at their own appearance.
A 2016 review of five national studies found that 20 to 40 percent of men were unhappy with some aspect of their looks, including physical appearance, weight, and muscle size and tone. An earlier study found that college aged men who viewed media images of muscular men showed a significantly greater discrepancy between their own perceived muscularity (what they think they look like) and their ideal body (what they feel they should look like). The researchers suggested their results could show that even brief exposure to such idealized images can increase body dissatisfaction in men.
Despite this ongoing push for men to get bigger and stronger, over the last decade we’ve also seen the juxtaposition of thinner versions of masculinity. You can see it when looking at modern male mannequins with impossibly small waists and very slim – yet sculpted – abdomens and legs. Conflicting body ideals abound. So what is the message after all…get bigger, but stay lean? Be muscular, but still fit in those trendy skinny jeans? It’s mind numbing to try and understand, and even more impossible to attain, yet these are the messages that boys are forced to decipher from a very young age and often continue to wrestle with into adulthood and middle age.
Given all of this, it isn’t that surprising a 2014 study of more than five thousand males aged 12 to 18 years found nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. Of the boys who were highly concerned with their weight, about half were worried only about gaining more muscle, and approximately a third were concerned with both thinness and muscularity simultaneously.
It’s important to note that, as is also the case with females, photoshopped advertisements and a general lack of diversity in the media’s representation of bodies does not in and of itself cause eating disorders. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are complex illnesses with genetic and biologic underpinnings. However, environmental triggers such as narrow or unrealistic body ideals in the media can contribute to increased levels of body dissatisfaction which has been identified as a risk factor for eating disorders.
Dealing with unhealthy media messages is something that almost every man will have to deal with. As is also the case with girls and women, the dangers lie in the drastic steps some boys and men may take to try to manage increasing body image anxiety. Guys who are more dissatisfied with their bodies may be more likely to engage in risky weight loss, bulking or sculpting behaviors such as extremely restrictive diets, cleanses, steroids, supplements or excessive exercise. These are unhealthy and potentially dangerous behaviors for anyone. However, in boys and men who are genetically at risk for eating disorders, these types of behaviors can set the stage for an eating disorder, triggering changes in the brain, disrupting metabolic functioning, dysregulating hunger/fullness cues and often worsening body image, mood and anxiety symptoms. Boys and men who have a history of trauma, are involved in sports or careers that promote weight loss and perfection, and those with close family members with a history of an eating disorder are also at higher risk for developing one themselves.
Eating disorders have long been miscategorized as purely a women’s issue, even by some healthcare professionals. As a result it’s quite common for major warning signs like excessive exercise or drastic changes to diet to be overlooked or even congratulated in men. Stigma and stereotypes in the eating disorders combine to make it difficult for men who are stuck in the cycle of disordered eating to break out of it and get help. It is suggested that 25-40% of people with eating disorders are men, yet they only make up about 10% of people seeking treatment.
Talking openly about eating disorders can help minimize shame and embarrassment for males struggling with these issues. At The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, we’ve been treating men with eating disorders for more than twenty-five years and we’re encouraged by the changes we hear in the conversations more recently. More men have been speaking out locally and using national platforms to raise awareness. In just the last year, Zayn Malik of the band One Direction discussed his struggle with an eating disorder and anxiety, performer/songwriter Matthew Koma wrote a poignant blog about his recovery from anorexia, and Joey Julius, a football player at Penn State, made a series of public statements regarding his decision to seek treatment for binge eating disorder. Their messages all point to a resounding hopefulness stemming from the reality that treatment is available and men can heal from their eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.
So what can you do to help the men in your life?
Start by checking in with them. The Let’s Check In campaign is all about empowering individuals, families and communities to talk openly about eating disorders and to strengthen support for individuals of all genders who might feel alone. When it comes to eating disorders, early identification and prompt help-seeking can make a big difference. You can play a role in supporting prevention and recovery from eating disorders simply by educating and preparing yourself.
Know the risk factors and pay attention to any sudden shifts in diet, exercise routine or increased negative comments about themselves or their body. If you’re unsure, the confidential online assessment is a quick tool that can help you gauge whether someone you love might be at risk. Second, if you are seeing increasing warning signs plan to check in with your friend or loved about your concerns and provide them with compassion and resources. A fact sheet, conversation guide and additional resources are available at www.letscheckin.com/.
Regis Aguglia, LCSW-C,
Family Therapist at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt
Regis Aguglia earned his Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland in 2010. Prior to joining The Center for Eating Disorders in 2014, Regis provided individual, family and group therapy in outpatient and school-based settings and gained experience treating individuals struggling with substance abuse. As a Family Therapist in The Center’s inpatient and partial hospital programs, Regis works with families to understand the impact of an eating disorder on the family system and helps to strengthen communication, coping skills, nutritional stability and recovery-focused support. Regis also facilitates a number of inpatient therapy groups including dual diagnosis groups for patients with co-occurring substance abuse and a specialty group for boys and men with eating disorders.