Men’s Body Image and Self-Esteem

It’s not unusual for one to be bombarded with images of television celebrities who have been deemed to have the “perfect” body. And if that’s not enough, you can turn to any radio station or flip through the pages of any major magazine and be inundated with information about diet supplements or advertisements for appearance altering procedures. While a large amount of this content is advertised to women and focuses on women’s bodies, mean are not free from the media’s influence.

There has been a notable increase in resources to help women and girls deal with body image issues and negative self-image, it is far more difficult for men to find support and resource of a similar nature readily available.

Society expects men to be “strong” and they are often discouraged from showing any emotion. As a result, many men feel uncomfortable, or are actually unable to express their issues with body image and self esteem. However, a growing body of research has shown that men are affected by body image as much as women, with a whopping 80.7 percent of men who participated in one survey indicating that they “talked about their own or others’ appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair or slim frame.” In addition, a solid “63% thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough.” This same survey revealed that men experience high levels of anxiety about how they look and some men even resort to dangerous behaviors such as compulsive exercise, excessive dieting, and laxative use to lose weight or to create a more toned body.

A January 2014 study found that body-image pressure is increasingly affecting adolescent boys, and that those who were concerned with their weight were more likely to be depressed or engage in high-risk behaviors like binge drinking.

Other issues that may occur, particularly among adolescents, is use of steroids and other muscle enhancing supplements as well as the emergence of eating disorders. Clearly, this reflects that issues with body image are something that men and boys struggle with too.

Research has shown that the media has contributed to putting undue pressure for men to look a certain way. They are expected to not have too much body fat and they’re expected to not be too slender either – all while seeming to not care about their appearance. Pressure also comes from what women identify as physically attractive. Consequently, more and more men and adolescent boys believe that they should have an unrealistic muscle-to-fat proportion. Unfortunately, this unrealistic expectation is exacerbated by societal judgments expressed through television, movies, celebrity commentators, and even by news stations and public officials. Some of the more common sentiments express negative judgements of physical features such as “man boobs,” referring to slender men as being “too skinny” and referring to larger men as “slobs.” This frustration can be well summed up by an quote recently making the rounds through social media, “It’s just as hard to be Ken as it is to be Barbie.”

While there are probably more resources on body image and self-esteem for women easily available, the issue of men’s self-esteem and body image is starting to see the light.

Earlier this year, BuzzFeed released a video called “Things Men are Tired of Hearing About Their Bodies.”  In the video, men repeat body criticisms they’ve heard, ranging from “real men have facial hair” to “you’re too skinny to be a man.”

So, what can we do to help to reduce the stigma surrounding body image with men? Here are three suggestions:

1. Start Early

There should be education available about body image for school age boys that are specifically geared to them. The information should also be made available in a way that boys will not feel embarrassed. For example, having pamphlets available for boys to take to read later might be helpful. Media Smarts indicated that during an awareness event that took place at a North Carolina High School “guys did not even want to go near our table… (but) would look at it, then walk away, then come back and fold up a pamphlet real quickly and put it in their pocket.”

2. Shift the Focus Away from Appearance

Whether you’re trying to be healthier yourself, or trying to encourage an important man in your life to think about health and wellness, focus on health benefits of any diet and exercise regime. Don’t offer value judgements based on appearances, and instead remark upon characteristics that lie below the surface like kindness, thoughtfulness, or creativity.

3. Seek Professional Help

If you or a loved one are dealing with severe self-esteem issues that results in disordered eating, drug and substance use, depression or anxiety,  it’s extremely important to seek professional help. Working with a therapist, counselor, or other healthcare provider can help unpack the factors that sit behind self-esteem and body image issues and replace unhealthy habits with alternatives that support wellness and healthy thinking.

Although many people think that body image issues are exclusive to women and girls, we now know that men and boys struggle with a similar set of issues about appearance, body image and self esteem. Recognizing a problem, getting help and staying healthy are signs of strength.

If you are interested in meeting with a behavioral health care provider to support mental health and wellness, try online videoconferencing through Inpathy

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