We live in a society that prizes being thin and demonizes being fat. This set of standards is referred to as the body ideal, and can have an insidious impact on self-esteem and mental health.
In fact, awareness of the body ideal is so widespread that researchers have found children as young as six years old in western cultures are aware of this sociocultural preference.
While the majority of research initiatives, social media and public health campaigns highlight female experiences with body image concerns, men also struggle with these issues and are not immune to similar societal pressures to conform to a specific body image.
Males are bombarded with messages about what it means to be a man – to be muscular, to have explosive strength, to be attractive. This leads many men to feel they don’t measure up against societal or media standards which creates low self-esteem and other problems.
Men with body image concerns are likely to feel self-conscious about their bodies and stop engaging in healthy activities that require them to show their bodies such as exercising or going to the doctor. These individuals may also socially isolate themselves. In addition, other serious mental health issues may emerge.
One concern, almost exclusively found in males, is muscle dysmorphia (informally known as bigorexia). Bigorexia involves a specific dissatisfaction with muscularity and leanness, with a discrepancy between the imagined and actual self. An individual may obsess about being inadequately muscular when, in fact, they actually have a normal looking body or are even very muscular. Further, research shows that the majority of men with bigorexia exercise, lift weights and diet excessively, often times causing bodily damage.
Bigorexia and more mild presentations of negative body image often go unrecognized because the individual looks healthy to others. This underscores the critical role of those in the health and fitness industry to communicate openly about realistic body images.
While maintaining a reasonable level of physical fitness is something most people can attain, seeking a body image invented by advertising agencies and reinforced by the media and society is like chasing smoke. It’s a goal you probably won’t reach and one that will leave you perpetually disappointed.
Instead, be aware of the pitfalls of trying to achieve a specific body image, talk with others about it and concentrate on being fit and healthy. These are good first steps toward saying it’s okay to be the way you are.