When you think about body image, what comes to mind? As the influence of social media grows with every generation, we have been saturated with images of lean, able-bodied, and predominantly white men and women advertised as having the “ideal body type” for which we should all strive. Lately, however, body positivity has begun to take centre stage with messages to women about “loving the skin you’re in,” rejecting societal beauty standards, and embracing the cultural, racial, and ethnic features that make you precisely you.
As good as that all sounds and is, one glaring issue remains: the exclusion of men from this message of acceptance. In the discussion of body image, eating disorders, and even mental health, the disregard for the male experience has persisted for centuries. Despite this lack of conversation surrounding male body image, a staggering three and ten adult men “have felt anxious because of body image issues” while one in five claimed that “they had negatively compared themselves to others because of body image in the last year” according to the UK Mental Health Foundation,
These numbers, though astonishing, say little for the individual experiences of the men who struggle with body image issues just as women do. For instance, Adam Collard from the UK’s hit reality show Love Island, voiced the experience of many when he exposed that he “still [feels] like the little boy who was overweight and got a hard time in school.” In a 2019 interview on This Morning, he explained how, despite becoming somewhat of an icon for the ideal, fit body type, his extreme weight loss during his youth impacts his body image to this day.
On the topic of social media, Collard went on to speak about the ways in which photo shoots and social media manipulate the male body to be at its “peak.” Eating a restrictive diet leading up to the shoot, doing push-ups between shots, and light and photo editing in post production were just some of the ways he explained his body is manipulated before being projected to millions.
This reality, however, is not readily shown, therefore projecting unattainable standards that many do not even realise are unattainable. A survey from the National Eating Disorders Association highlighted this phenomenon, claiming that, “25% of normal weight males perceive themselves to be underweight and 90% of teenage boys exercised with the goal of bulking up.” The lack of conversation surrounding these issues, particularly to do with men, results in an ignored majority of the population struggling in silence and misunderstanding the reality of the images they see on a daily basis.
More dangerously, ignoring this issue can lead to severe mental and physical health disorders—again, common, but not discussed with regards to men. Besides the impact of social media in the past few decades, the problem of body image and a desire to have “the perfect body” among men has persisted in all different forms.
For instance, at the height of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in the United States in the 1980s, “the stigma of HIV/AIDS may have pushed gay as well as heterosexual men to obsess about their body image and to obtain a muscular physique.” According to the 2003 journal article by Jeffery Harvey and John Robinson, “Eating Disorders in Men: Current Considerations”, men at this time would strive to be larger to avoid looking thin and, therefore, ill. In this case, the uninformed stigma of two factors impacted the physical and mental health of these men; firstly, the negative associations of HIV/AIDs due to miseducation and, secondly, the widespread damaging impact on body image due to an arbitrary “desirous” body type.
These insecurities surrounding body image may even manifest themselves in disorders that require professional attention. Cases surrounding anorexia and bulimia, though less common in men than in women, are just as harmful and have been shown to exhibit different symptoms than in women. As Eric Strother and others explain in their 2012 article, “Eating Disorders in Men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood”, there exist noticeably different contributors “present in the predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors for an eating disorder” between men and women.
Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by severe undereating or overexercising, distorted body image, and obsession with food, among other identifiers, as defined by the National Eating Disorder Association, is significantly more prevalent among women. Its impact on men, however, differs from that of women. 'The Journal of Eating Disorders' 2011 study, conducted by Juliette Geugen and others, looks closely into the differing experiences of men and women with Anorexia Nervosa. It found that “men presented later age of onset, were more likely to have a history of premorbid overweight, and less likely to have a history of suicide attempt.”
Similarly, Bulimia Nervousa—an eating disorder the National Eating Disorder Association defines as a harmful and perpetual cycle of bingeing and ‘compensatory behaviors’ such as self-inducing vomit, ingesting laxatives, and others—is characterised differently between men and women. A 1987 study by John Schnieder and Stewart Agras (among the first studies discussing Bulimia in men), found that men had higher percentages of unemployment, more history of “social deviance” such as drug use or stealing, and less use of laxatives. Curiously, the study also found that “it does appear that the male homosexual is more at risk for bulimia than the heterosexual; it seems likely that cultural pressures for thinness are greater for homosexual males than for heterosexual males.”
Unlike these two eating disorders, which prevail among both genders and have been closely studied, a new eating disorder has developed over the past few decades as media and a strive for masculinity increasingly and negatively impact the male population. Characterised by a desire to be extremely muscular, a distorted image of one’s own body, and excessive exercise or extreme diets, muscular dysphoria is little studied despite its growing prevalence. Rick Grieve and Adrienne Hemlick explain in their 2008 article, “The Influence of Men’s Self-Objectification on the Drive for Muscularity: Self-Esteem, Body Satisfaction and Muscle Dysmorphia”, that “internalization of the media’s representation of the ideal male body has been shown to cause self-objectification among men,” resulting in harmful tendencies, whether that be in the severe case of an eating disorder or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s body.
So, given how severe this issue of male body image is, why is it treated as such a taboo topic? If you think about your friends, you may be able to list a number of your female friends whom you know to have experienced an eating disorder or extreme body issues. However, with your male friends, it may be difficult to name even one person you know. This is not because it does not exist, but because of traditional gender roles that suppress conversation surrounding these issues.
Centuries-old conceptions of “masculinity” and the roles and characteristics men must fulfill hinder the discussion of men’s mental health, as male emotional vulnerability is socially discouraged. Those who are unable to meet these demanding standards, or face situations that harm their mental stability, are not given the coping mechanisms that would be made available if emotional vulnerability was encouraged. Strother furthers this, claiming that men who associate closer to the traditional conceptions of so-called femininity “have a higher prevalence of disordered eating than men with ‘masculine’ and ‘androgynous’ roles.”
As a result, the lack of discourse perpetuates a harmful cycle: social conventions make little space for the emotional struggles of men, thus keeping men from discussing their issues, resulting in academia and psychological help aimed towards women. In the end, men are left with little to no sources of help, worsening the problem and deepening misconceptions of the characteristics of eating disorders and body image struggles in men.
A growing prevalence of a normative displeasure with one’s body, which has been experienced by women for decades, has slowly begun to be recognised in the male population as well over the past few years. As this issue continues to prevail, strides for more thorough research and more specialised treatment geared towards men must be made. But these strides start from home. The body positivity movement has gained momentum in the past couple of years, but little movement has been made in tackling this taboo topic. If traditional gender roles and emotional expectations for men are not challenged, the social space for a discussion around the mental health of men cannot be achieved.
Illustration: Bethany Morton