Body image concerns are very common. Many people look in the mirror or at a photo and immediately decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what needs changing or fixing. In extreme cases, negative body image, or body dissatisfaction, can consume your thoughts and hijack your ability to engage in day-to-day experiences. Getting dressed for work, attending an event, choosing food, or determining how much exercise to do can be affected by body dissatisfaction. Both men and women go through these struggles, but body image concerns are spoken about much less in relation to the male experience. However, men struggle with body image too. Men can feel as though they are not only trying to live up to traditionally masculine personality characteristics and qualities such as being strong, stoic, a leader, emotion-less, independent and logical, but also a masculine and muscular physique.
How Male Body Image Develops
Some studies suggest that body image concerns begin in childhood, and body image concerns are observed even in children as young as 7 years old. With regard to body image in young boys, perfectionism can result in an increased self-conscious experience around thinness and muscular oriented goals. Boys may also learn about the drive for success, control, and muscularity through participation in sports, especially those that focus on body size or physique, such as football or wrestling. Perfectionism and body dissatisfaction at this young age can also set the stage for early-onset of eating disorders.
In addition, boys and men are regularly exposed to an idealized masculine body type via media and marketing that can influence the development of body dissatisfaction in men. Young children who play with superhero figures or action figures during play may be idealizing body types that are not humanly attainable, giving boys an unrealistic standard to live up to. “Fitspiration” through applications such as Instagram provide an almost endless source of comparison to unattainable or digitally altered images. Research shows that greater exposure to extremely fit or muscular physiques results in more body dissatisfaction. Body image concerns may also be exacerbated by family or work stress, or underlying co-occurring depression or anxiety. Significant body dissatisfaction is often observed in the context of an eating disorder, wherein one is attempting to change their body shape size, muscularity or body composition via restricted eating, purging, or excessive exercise.
When is Body Dissatisfaction a Problem?
As previously mentioned, everyone experiences some level of body dissatisfaction or desire for change. Here are some clues that your body image concerns may require intervention:
- Regular negative self-talk at or about your body with accompanying negative intense emotions.
- Preoccupation with muscle size and shape, and the need to feel fit.
- A never-ending (persistent) concern about shape and weight no matter how your body may change over time.
- Avoidance of daily life experiences or special events due to body shame or dissatisfaction.
- Daily weighing that causes distress no matter the number.
- Co-occurring symptoms of an eating disorder.
Body Image and Eating Disorders
The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders highlights that between 25- 40% of individuals who have an eating disorder are men. The development of eating disorders is a serious concern for men with body image issues. Dissatisfaction with body weight and/or shape is typically at the core of the development of an eating disorder, with attempts made to alter shape, weight or body composition through dietary restriction, over-exercise, or purging. Any man that has symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder should seek treatment as eating disorders carry serious mental and physical health consequences.
Symptoms to watch for, particularly for men include:
- Excessive weight and shape concerns
- Significant weight change, either gain or loss
- Signs of malnourishment
- Eating very small or very large amounts of food
- Fears associated with not being “fit”
- Feelings of failure surrounding body and weight
- Excessive use of diet pills, teas, or laxatives
- Vomiting or exercising to combat
- Over utilizing muscle building additives or nutrients.
How Can Male Body Dissatisfaction be Treated?
It’s normal for people to feel a bit self-conscious about their appearance from time to time and it’s normal to have a few small things you’d like to change about your appearance. However, if you or another male feels constantly preoccupied, obsessed, or distressed with their appearance, this could be a sign you could benefit from support.
Men who are struggling with body dissatisfaction can develop realistic body expectations over time with support and treatment. It is possible to re-learn what a healthy body looks like through education, and implementing therapeutic skills and techniques. A trained professional can provide instruction on how to manage body image concerns, reduce triggers, change behavior, and reframe unhelpful patterns of thinking.
About The Author:
Brian Pollack, LCSW, CEDS, has presented nationally on the subject of Men with Eating Disorders and Eating Disorder Awareness including the International Association for Eating Disorder Professionals, NYC Department of Health, Princeton Medical Center and various institutional settings. He currently owns his own group practice, Hilltop Behavioral Health, in Summit, NJ. He received his Masters of Social Work from NYU and his undergraduate degree from Syracuse University. He was a board member of the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders from 2015-2019 and has devoted much of his time and practice advocating for the treatment and awareness around both male and female individuals living with an eating disorder.
Book, “Man Up to Eating Disorders” by Andrew Walen, LICSW
Understanding Anorexia Nervosa in Males; An Integrated Approach
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Mclean, S. A., Wertheim, E. H., & Paxton, S. J. (2018). Preferences for being muscular and thin in 6-year-old boys. Body Image, 26, 98–102. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.07.003
Supplemental Material for Consumer Masculinity Ideology: Conceptualization and Initial Findings on Men’s Emerging Body Concerns. (2017). Psychology of Men & Masculinity. doi: 10.1037/men0000095.supp
Written – 2019