It’s been long documented, even accepted, that women suffer from pervasive body-image problems. It says a lot about our society that we take it as a given that women are inherently concerned about their weight and appearance. While that sadly hasn’t changed, despite coming increasingly under scrutiny, the problem seems to have caught up with men as well, as reported in The Atlantic:
A new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.
The trend toward weight obsession among boys is cause for worry, says Dr. Alison Field, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study. “You want people to be concerned enough about their weight to make healthy decisions,” she says, “but not so concerned that they’re willing to take whatever means it takes—healthy or unhealthy—to achieve their desired 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. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent were concerned only with thinness. Those statistics reflect a major difference between boys and girls when it comes to weight concerns: whereas girls typically want to be thinner, boys are as likely to feel pressure to gain weight as to lose it.
“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”
The culprit, as with women is media, particularly entertainment media:
If boys are increasingly concerned about weight, changing representations of the male form in the media over the last decade or two are at least partly to blame. “We used to really discriminate—and we still do—against women” in terms of media portrayals, says Dr. Raymond Lemberg, a Prescott, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders. “If you look at the Miss America pageant winners or the Playboy centerfolds or the runway models over the years, there’s been more and more focus on thinness.”
But while the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”
Even toys contribute to the distorted messages youngsters receive about the ideal male form. Take action figures, for example, which Lemberg suggests are the male equivalent of Barbie dolls in terms of the unrealistic body images they set up for young boys. In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”
I’m not sure if there’s any solid research linking idealized toys with warped views of body image, but the overall point remains: we’re surrounded by increasingly idealized and unrealistic standards of beauty that are being amplified by modern media and exploited (if not further amplified) by special interests seeking to profit on people’s desire to do whatever they can to meet these images. The problem is made worse by the widespread mentality that “real men” aren’t supposed to have body image issues — it’s a girl’s thing. Even if it’s recognized, there’s a misconception of how differently males suffer from the problem.
Although awareness of the risk of weight disorders among males is growing, there is still a problem with under-recognition, Field says, primarily because of the assumption that the disorders look the same in males as they do in females. Current assessments for eating disorders focus on the classical presentation typical of females, but since young men are often more concerned with gaining muscle than becoming thin, they typically don’t present as underweight, as girls often do. They’re also not as likely to starve themselves, use laxatives or induce vomiting; instead, they’re much more likely to engage in excessive amounts of exercise and steroid abuse. “Instead of wanting to do something unhealthy to get smaller, they’re using unhealthy means to become larger,” Field says.
But though the presentation might be different, excessive worries about weight, especially in combination with high-risk behaviors, are no less concerning in males than in females. According to Field, it’s time to sit up and take note of the boys. “Pediatricians and adolescent medicine docs and parents [need] to become aware that they should be listening as much to their sons’ conversations about weight as their daughters’.”
Having grown up obese, and now struggling with feeling too thin and out of shape, I can certainly relate with the low self-esteem and sense of personal failure that comes with not looking a certain way. Indeed, I imagine just about everyone shares this sentiment to some degree or another. While idealized standards of beauty have always existed, today’s world makes it far harder to avoid the pressure, especially when we’re equally bombarded with commercial solutions that supposedly help us.
Perhaps this development ties in with the increasing incidence of anxiety that is starting to characterize modern society, especially among younger people. Thoughts?