July 29, 2015

Guys have body image issues, too

Poor guys — they often get the short end of the stick. They have shorter life expectancies, they tend to have higher insurance rates, and nobody ever talks about the body image issues that they go through. That is, until the ESPN Magazine Body Issue came out.

The Body Issue features athletes in the buff (strategically covered) and the goal is to celebrate the amazingness of athletes' bodies of all shapes and sizes. The Body Issue has been around since 2009, but it's getting a lot attention this year for a couple of reasons.

One is for Olympic athlete Amanda Bingson, who famously stated "I'll be honest, I like everything about my bod" (Amen, sister!).  However another reason this issue is getting some attention is for a less positive reason: baseball player Bryce Harper, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, and his grueling regimen to look a certain way for the magazine's pictures (versus how he normally looks when training for baseball). In the weeks leading up to his photo shoot, he worked out 3x daily.  In the week prior to the shoot, he reportedly consumed nothing other than juice and salt-laced water.  The day of, he was seen sipping and spitting, instead of swallowing water, as well as "shoving raw potatoes down his throat" All this for a photo shoot that is supposed to be about "Body Love"

Not exactly what the Body Issue had in mind. However, can we blame him?  The world of body-ideals and pressures to look a certain way, which many times focus on women (Miss America, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, etc), has expanded to include men (yay for gender equality).  There are an increasing number of magazines telling guys how to look like a "true ma": how to dress, what hair products to use, and how to get "manl" chiseled abs, toned pecs and muscular arms.  Granted, the number of female beauty magazines still far outnumbers the male beauty magazines, but the media messages are definitely there, and no one is safe. Gossip magazines have also been increasingly body shaming male celebrities, which is commonplace for female celebs.  However, where full figured female models and clothing lines are becoming more commonplace, there are few (if any) plus sized male models gracing the covers of the men's magazines. 

A 2014 study in JAMA showed that nearly 1in 5 adolescent males were extremely concerned about their physique.  Other studies have shown that male body image concerns have dramatically increased over the past three decades, with men being dissatisfied with their bodies at rates comparable to women.  Body image issues are definitely prevalent in both genders, therefore unhealthy ways to conform to an idealized image also exist in both genders.  The statistic that used to be cited is that 10% of people with eating disorders are males, however newer stats have shown that the number may be closer to 35%.

In males with body image issues, sometimes the goal is weight loss. According to my favorite survey, the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey:

  • 4% of high school males have gone without food for 24 or more hours in the past month to lose weight or keep from gaining weight.

  • 4% have taken diet pills, powders, or liquids in the past month.

  • 2% have vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight or keep from gaining weight in the past month.

Scary stuff. However, sometimes weighing less isn't the main goal.  Some guys are actively trying to increase weight (usually by way of increased muscle).  In adolescent and college samples, more than half normal-weight males perceive themselves as underweight and report a desire to increase their muscle mass through dieting and strength training.  In the same CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey I mentioned above — over 5% of males admit to taking steroids at least once (without a doctor's approval) before graduating from high school.  According to the Monitoring the Future study, 18.5% of male high school seniors have used creatine, another supplement used to gain muscle, in the past year.  There are plenty of other medications and supplements, both legal and illegal, that are also being used in order to change the body shape.  These supplements have side effects, and a recent study showed that use of muscle building supplements (especially before the age of 25 years old) may lead to increase in testicular cancer.

One last thing: Males are less likely than females to seek help for body image issues and eating disorders.  So, while their levels of body dissatisfaction and dangerous behaviors are increasing along with those of women, the males are more likely to suffer in silence. 

Let us all recite together: Nobody and No Body is perfect.  Let's all stop striving for the impossible.

If someone you know is struggling with body image issues or an eating disorder, talk to your health care provider.