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Male Body Image: Your Son and His Body

Could He Have a Body Image Problem?

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Updated May 13, 2009

Male body image is a topic you will hear more about in the future. Just as the average female runway model has gotten thinner, the average male Playgirl model has gotten thinner and more muscular. Boys are feeling the pressure to look like the media images they see, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

Media Pressures and Male Body Image

What is the perfect male body? If you watch TV or read a magazine, it's clear what is considered an ideal body for a man. Low body fat and lots of muscle make you look “cut” or “ripped” -- and that is what is portrayed as attractive. Throw in a narrow waist and large shoulders, giving the body a V-shaped torso, and you have the idealized male body.

Where are our boys getting these ideas? Although there is not near enough research on this issue, some are examining the messages our boys are getting. Men's bodies are being used more often to sell products -– products often unrelated to the body or personal care. Our young boys are even being exposed to more unrealistic images of what a “man's” body is supposed to look like. In the past 20 years, action figures like G.I. Joe have become more muscular and their muscles are more defined. This has gone on to the point where if the action figure was a real person, it would be impossible for anyone to have the same proportions! If you look at any magazine, the male bodies are idealized and, like female bodies, airbrushed and tweaked to look as appealing as possible. From TV to magazines to beloved toys, it's difficult for our sons to avoid what is thought to be a perfect body.

Is the media and our culture truly to blame? It seems that way. An article in the Harvard University Gazette looked at the differences in body image in men from the West (the United States and Europe) versus men from Asian countries. It was found that men in Taiwan were more satisfied with their bodies and had a lower use of anabolic steroids compared to men in the West. The article suggests that the Taiwanese culture values men for their intellectual and cultural achievements, not just their bodies. Additionally, unlike in the U.S., there were no Taiwanese magazines for fitness or bodybuilding. It makes sense that if men are being valued for things other than attractiveness, and that they aren't being shown idealized bodies that might not be attainable, that they would have a more accepting view of their own bodies.

Who Is More Dissatisfied: Boys or Girls?

The answer is no one is sure, but there is evidence that boys and men are beginning to feel the pressure to have a “perfect body.” One study showed that men were significantly dissatisfied with their bodies, seeing themselves as having more fat than they really had. Surprisingly, although they thought they were “fatter” than they really were, the men in the study saw themselves as more muscular than they really were.

Another study found that men were just as dissatisfied with their bodyweight as the women. The women overwhelmingly were dissatisfied with their weight because they felt they were too heavy. The men were evenly divided between two camps. One group of men felt they were overweight. The other group of men thought they were underweight. This study suggests that men have two pressures –- the pressure to be lean and the pressure to build large muscles.

It isn't clear at this time who is more dissatisfied with their bodies or if male body image is deteriorating. The research is pointing in both of those directions, particularly as the consequences of a poor body image are on the rise in men -- eating disorders and body image disturbances.

The Consequences

Men are spending more time, money and energy on looking “good.” They are spending more money on fragrances, facial creams, hair products, hair replacements, and even plastic surgery. If your son is spritzing on a little more cologne, it is probably a healthy grooming habit. If your teen is talking about crash diets or liposuction, there might be more of a problem.

One large study looked at men's body satisfaction and how it related to depression, eating disturbances, use of performance-enhancing substances and low self-esteem. Not surprisingly, men who were dissatisfied with their bodies had higher rates of depression and eating disorders. Dissatisfied men used more performance-enhancing substances such as over-the-counter supplements or anabolic steroids and had lower self-esteem. The results of the study reflects what seems like common sense. If someone has a poor body image, he might take steps to change his body, even if it means restricting food to a dangerous degree or taking potentially harmful substances.

An estimated 10% of people who get help for an eating disorder are men, but some think that this number is too low. If your son seems to be preoccupied with his appearance, restricts what he eats, uses supplements, or exercises excessively, it is time to discuss body image with him. If you feel as if his behavior is potentially harmful, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. He can help you handle this difficult issue, or refer you to a professional who can help.

Sources:

Body Image Dissatisfaction: A Growing Concern Among Men. Milwaukee School of Engineering. http://www.msoe.edu/life_at_msoe/current_student_resources/student_resources/counseling_services/newsletters_for_mental_health/body_image_dissatisfaction.shtml April 14, 2009.

Drewnowski, A ,PhD and Yee, DK, MA. Men and Body Image: Are Males Satisfied with Their Body Weight? Psychosomatic Medicine 49:626-634,1987.

Male Body Image. Harvard University Gazette. http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2005/02.10/11-bodyimage.html April 14, 2009.

Olivardia, R, Pope Jr, HG, Borowiecki III, JJ and Cohane, GH. Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms. Psychology of Men & Masculinity 5(2): 112–120, 2004.

Pope Jr, HG, Olivardia, R, Gruber, A and Borowiecki, J. Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders (26)1: 65-72, 1999.

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