In our modern-day culture, unrealistic expectations around body appearance are rampant. We are exposed to the “ideal body” everywhere we look, from social media influencers touting how to get a body like theirs to blockbuster superhero franchises showcasing predominantly chiseled physics. It has already become a known fact that the idealized image of the female body has had a strong impact on body image and mental health for girls and women of every age, contributing to a rise in disordered eating and poor mental health outcomes. Young men and boys are often overlooked in this struggle for the “perfect body.” However, over more recent years there has been a rise in the recognition of negative body image and disordered eating within the male population. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has stated that one in every three people struggling with disordered eating is male. NEDA also states that men with disordered eating and poor body image are more likely to have other mental health comorbidities, including anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
Media Plays a Large Role in How Males Perceive Their Bodies
Let’s take an all-too-common situation as an example: a young man who views the social media feed of a celebrity fitness coach will see the most idealized shots of the coach and their clients, likely following the trend of the thin, muscular body he sees so often. He sees the meals they create, visually perfect in their portion and balance. This becomes the ultimate goal he hopes to achieve for his own body, without knowing that it is highly unrealistic to attain in reality. He believes that if he just exercises hard enough, tailors his diet to fit certain guidelines or uses supplements advertised by his “fitspo” (short for “fitness inspiration”) influencers, he will have all the resources he needs to attain this ideal body. Some young men may even resort to anabolic hormone or steroid use to achieve the desired appearance, which can have a myriad of negative physiological side effects including disruptions in normal hormone activity, damage to internal organs and infertility.
So what is the perceived “ideal body” for men? A quick glance through social media feeds, recent films and current action figures will show that the majority of popular male influencers and characters have the same body type: hugely muscular, specifically in the upper and lower body areas, with disproportionately thin waists. Not only are these individuals depicted this way physically, but their mental fortitude, intelligence and success also seem to be attributed to this outward appearance. Meanwhile, the character who has a different body type is seen striving to achieve the look and lifestyle of their muscular counterpart. This sets an unrealistic precedent for the young men viewing these characters, that they must also achieve a certain body type to have strength and success in their own lives, making this idealized body a seemingly crucial aspect of a fulfilling life.
Research suggests that the popular social media and social networking sites play a significant role in producing this image of the “ideal body” for both men and women. Social networking has created a place where adolescents now begin their process of identity formation, where a vast wealth of icons and influencers exist to provide information and inspiration to the users who view them daily. One of the known issues with social media is the fact that you can’t see the truth behind each image posted. There is no way an innocent user who sees a feed of seemingly perfect images can see the way a multitude of factors went into creating that image; factors like posing, lighting, filters and image editing all play a role in creating the images we find most appealing. These images are often viewed as the ideal body by adolescent and young adult viewers, and lead to the beginning of a cycle of unhealthy behaviors to achieve the impossible physique.
Mental and Physical Toll on Males with Body Image Issues
The journey to an idealized body can result in a wide variety of mental and psychological ramifications. This review states that individuals with body image concerns often end up avoiding social contact, and their personal concerns end up affecting their interaction with other people. Poor body image in adolescent years may end up resulting in behaviors of isolation from peers, lower levels of physical activity, and may contribute to issues in forging intimate relationships later in life. They may become emotionally withdrawn as a protective mechanism resulting from years of low self-esteem, or withdrawn due to the depression and anxiety that often accompanies poor body image.
Combating Negative Body Image Issues in Males
This is the bottom line: the perfect body does not exist. There is no single body that everyone should strive toward, and there is no single body that exhibits perfect health. Our culture has begun its journey toward acceptance of all bodies, and the inconsistencies in the display of the female body have long been a topic of discussion. The idealized male body is one that needs to be a part of this discussion as an increasing number of young men and adolescents are developing unhealthy behaviors to achieve this ideal—and suffering physical and mental consequences. The conversations around male bodies needs to become a more accepting and open discussion, emphasizing that the perfect body does not exist, and all bodies are good bodies.
If you feel like talking with a professional would help you or a loved one, please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety for assistance.
Madeline Radigan is a registered dietitian who works with adolescents in mental health residential treatment. She is passionate about advocating for weight inclusivity and a non-diet approach to help people heal their relationships with food and their bodies. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors and spending time on trails with her family. You can find more of Madeline’s thoughts and work at radnutrition.net or on Instagram at @mradnutrition.