7 Lies We Need to Stop Telling About Men's Struggles With Body Image
We know a lot of women struggle to love their bodies, but the oft-overlooked truth is that men struggle, too. In fact, a 2015 Common Sense Media report found that approximately one-third of boys ages 6 to 8 indicate their ideal bodies would be thinner than their current body size, and the National Eating Disorder Association reports that of the estimated 30 million people in the United States with an eating disorder, 10 million identify as men.
Despite the reality of this experience, some myths about men and their bodies just aren't fading. Here are a few prevalent misconceptions about male body image we need to dispel, according to the experts and men themselves.
1. Men don't struggle with their looks.
"Food was always a struggle. I ate when I was bored, I ate when I was sad (and I was sad a lot), I ate because my family loved food and it's a big part of immigrant culture, bonding through food," David Guirgis, 16, told Mic. "It was hard because I never really liked the way I looked to begin with, and being overweight compounded that."
Claire Mysko, NEDA's programs director, said eating disorders and negative body image-related issues are still considered girls' and women's issues despite their documented prevalence among men. "Many men actually feel like they are more afraid to reach out for help or talk about the issues because they are still perceived as women's issues," she told Mic.
Omari Matthew, 22, added, "I've struggled with feeling like I am a physically inadequate, walking tub of lard for as long as I can remember." While he said his body image has improved over time, "I still have some mornings where I struggle with feeling like I look good in the clothes I wear, or frankly, the skin I'm in."
2. The standards of attraction for men are pretty low, anyway.
"The ideal body image might be slightly different, but there still is this growing fixation among a lot of men on getting the perfect body," Mysko said, noting that while women are almost universally encouraged to be as thin as possible, men are encouraged to have "six-pack abs and a T-shaped chest."
But while there's a misconception that this standard is easy for men to achieve, and that men can easily "'get buff' if they want to," Guirgis said, "some of us just aren't built that way."
One 2014 study confirmed this standard: Among a national sample of adolescent boys, about half of those "highly concerned" with their weight were most concerned with gaining muscle. Only 15% were concerned with thinness, the Atlantic reported.
3. The media doesn't really target men.
In addition to more media image-based, "ideal body-focused" media outlets, Mysko said social media isn't helping either. It's "definitely influenced people's exposure to images that really drive this kind of comparison and feeling of negative body image," she said.
While these images may not be the sole cause of negative body image or eating disorders, Mysko said, they probably affect men "who might have other vulnerabilities, who might be struggling with self-esteem issues."
4. Men's sexual identity has no effect on the way they view their bodies.
"My body image struggles have definitely been compounded by the fact that I'm a gay male," Guirgis said. "I grew up fat, looking at these guys I thought were beautiful, and thought to myself that there was no chance alive that someone would look at me the same way."
It's a sentiment Guirgis thinks Matt Ortile summarized well on a BuzzFeed post where he and other men recreated Calvin Klein underwear ads:
For gay guys — especially growing up — Calvin Klein models represent something two-fold: what you want to look like AND who you want to be dating/sleeping with. For the first part, I never saw anyone who looked quite like me: a tan-skinned Asian dude of slight build who grew up fat and lost weight because he got braces. And in turn, since I desired these beautiful men (and assumed everyone else did) but didn't look like them, I always thought no one would desire me.
5. Their race doesn't affect it, either.
Guirgis told Mic that not being white also affected his body image. The stereotypical male ideal in this country, he said, is still "white men who have strong builds and the confidence to walk around shirtless because they know they look damn good." That description "doesn't apply to me at all," he added. "Looking at the perpetuity of that image pretty much leaves me with the idea that I'll never reach that standard."
Matthew confirmed that other identities factored into the specific, idealized body he long felt he should work toward.
"Being in a heterosexual, cisgender, black male box provided me with a point of comparison between myself and what I thought I should look like," he said. "I didn't think I could ever categorize myself as someone who is attractive or handsome, because I always wanted to look like another heterosexual, cisgendered, black male."
6. Participating in sports is all men need to feel better about their bodies.
While research shows that participating in sports is often beneficial for women's body image, the same may not be true for men.
"So much of my body image was connected to my desire to be a great basketball player," 23-year-old sexual assault activist Jonathan Kalin told Mic.
Male athletes "can be at a higher risk," for negative body image, Mysko said, because athletic environments often "perpetuate and validate" negative behaviors due to the "very strong emphasis on having a certain type of physique as related to success or performance in athletics."
And yet this dynamic is still uniquely grounded in gender stereotypes that prioritize men's abilities over their appearance. Performance, Kalin qualified, is still ultimately more valuable than aesthetic.
"If I was chubby but a great basketball player, it wouldn't be a big deal," he said. "If a guy has a great body, but it's widely known that he is using steroids, he does not receive the same respect (at least behind his back) that a great athlete without a picture-perfect body would," he explained.
"For women it's how you look," he concluded. "For men, it's what you do."
7. Men would say something if they really needed help.
Perhaps because negative body image and eating disorders are so strongly coded as female, even men who recognize that they are dealing with these things can struggle to access help.
Mysko said some men fear seeking help because body image is "still perceived as women's issues."
Kalin agrees: "Because the conversation of men and masculinity is so new, the men who do face body image issues often don't have much of a place to turn," he said.
Not only is the public dialogue about these issues female-centric, but, subsequently, so are tangible resources.
"We've often heard from men who have struggled with these issues — particularly on college campuses — that they go and try to find treatment on campus or a support group, and everything is very much geared toward women," Mysko said. "So once you get up the nerve and you find the courage to say, 'Yes, I have a problem, and I need help,' to be able to actually find help that is acknowledging their experience is another big barrier in terms of our field."
Ultimately, Guirgis concluded, society fails to acknowledge that men struggle with their body image because "men are not allowed to be seen as weak but women are," a misconception, he added, that "ends up hurting both of us because it perpetuates the stereotype of women somehow being lesser to the strong, indomitable man. That's untrue: We have feelings that society doesn't teach men to articulate, and women are not lesser than men."
Recognizing that men struggle with body image does not erase women's experiences, therefore, but reinforces the fact that this problem is a serious one we must all work together to openly and honestly discuss and attempt to solve once and for all.