“Mine’s bigger than yours”
Body Image is no longer just a female issue
Did you know: Around one in four Australian men in the healthy weight range believe themselves to be fat, while 17 per cent of men are on a weight loss diet at any given time?!
Throughout history, we have held a core cultural belief that women should have a certain body type. Far less attention has been paid to, and fewer changes expected of, the male body over time. When we look at gender differences, we see that girls are socialized more than boys to focus on their appearance as a measure of self-worth. Some Psychologists believe that the differences in the way girls are parented leads them to feel guilty about meeting their own needs because we are raised to believe we should focus on the needs of others. This can result in women distrusting and disapproving of the needs of their own body. Additionally, research shows that body image concerns are most likely to develop during the vulnerable adolescent years. It is during this time that appearance is particularly valued whilst self-esteem is particularly fragile. During adolescence, girls are more likely than boys to receive negative comments about their body; which can result in negative body image.
Attractiveness is not the prerequisite for masculinity as it is for femininity in our culture. However, our ideal of male masculinity has changed to be more focused on physique and attractiveness.
Presently, more women than men report consistently disliking their bodies. The emphasis on women’s experience isn’t meant to imply that body image problems among men are less important– it is simply less prevalent. In recent years however, the rapid, three-fold increase in male body image dissatisfaction (from 15 to 45 percent in 25 years) has led us to pay closer attention.
Why are men feeling the pressure to look a certain way?
Concern with appearance is not just an abnormality of the modern western world. Every period and culture has it’s own standards of what is and is not attractive. In the past, a male was defined by his athleticism, strength, success and his ability to procreate rather than on his looks. Attractiveness and size has not always been a prerequisite for masculinity as it is for femininity in our culture. However, our societal ideal of male attractiveness has morphed to have a stronger focus on size and appearance. We now have a standard that is mostly unnatural, unrealistic and much more difficult to attain. Unfortunately, this unrealistic ideal is becoming more accessible for some and therefore more entrenched in our values with the development of cosmetic surgery, endless protein and body building supplements, and the 24 hour gym. Also, the media has contributed to developing and driving up the degree of value we place on attractiveness in relation to one’s self-worth and success. Additionally, as many other values in society have changed (such as people getting married later and women competing with men for significance in the workforce), there is more pressure on men to aesthetically compete for longer.
What kind of body image concerns are most common for men?
Whilst there is some variance across studies, men are mainly concerned with their height, stomach, penis size, chest (muscles) and thinning hair. These areas of concern logically result from comparisons men make between themselves and the current male ideal of attractiveness and masculinity in our society.
Exercise is not always a healthy behaviour!
Exercise stops being healthy in a number of instances:
- When a person is spending excessive time engaging in the activity at a cost to other aspects of their lives; their ability to function normally at work, school or socially.
- When the exercise is targeted at pursuing one’s obsession or dissatisfaction with their body, rather than for health and fun.
Body image dissatisfaction can have big consequences, and I’m not talking about muscles!
Men who are dissatisfied with their body often have low self-esteem and overvalue their appearance in terms of their self-worth. Although self-care and pride in one’s body is a healthy value; body image dissatisfaction can lead to engagement in excessive or self-destructive behaviours including exercise dependence (approx. 20% of regular exercisers are addicted physically or psychologically), obsessive weight lifting, restrictive or fad dieting and using of dangerous body enhancement products to build muscle, including steroids (approx. 3% of Australian teenage boys use muscle-enhancing drugs).
All you have to do is visit your local gym to see the men in singlets, grunting and groaning their way through heavy weight sets. These men are often not exercising for fitness or health, but rather to alter their appearance. Additionally, we are seeing many men developing extensive grooming routines. Fake tans, waxing, plucking, elaborate hair product and grooming, tight fitting clothes and even make-up often can become ritualistic behaviours aimed at improving a man’s appearance. As we see in Anorexia, some of these men are convinced they small and less muscular than they actually are.
Men with body image dissatisfaction tend to spend a large amount of time consumed with their appearance usually at the expense of their relationships with others, their jobs and study, and at the same time potentially damaging their health. These men often talk about feeling unhappy with their appearance and selves. They may also suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders or suicidal thinking as well as potentially becoming addicted to weight loss and body changing products, including drugs. Their sleep, digestive and sexual functioning can also be impacted.
How can a Psychologist assist men to address body image dissatisfaction?
Although any approach is individually tailored to the person, a Psychologist would work with a man (or woman) in ways such as:
- Understanding the nature of his body image dissatisfaction, how it is impairing him from living a balanced life; and the specific factors that are maintaining his body image dissatisfaction.
- Education about the issue and normalising the issue for those who feel stigmatised for their concerns
- Challenging appearance assumptions and attitudes
- Identifying and changing cognitive errors in thinking about the body and self
- Helping a man who overvalues his appearance to develop a more realistic, balanced and satisfying view of himself that incorporates other qualities or aspects of him, whilst working to reduce the value he places on his appearance.
- Assisting behaviour change around eating and exercise – e.g., eating for function and exercising for fun and fitness rather than appearance
- Addressing avoidance of situations concerning appearance
- Relaxation to reduce general stress
- Assertiveness training around appearance teasing
- Self-acceptance of the body as it is and for its function
- Self esteem building
We need to continue telling men it’s ok to ask for help
Men are less likely to seek medical help than women for any type of illness or issue. Since worrying about weight and body shape has sometimes been seen as a ‘female’ problem, men are even less likely to ask for help, for fear of looking weak. As information about this issue is spread, let’s home men can be brave enough to ask for help!