While toxic masculinity and efforts to tackle it through entertainment and advertising have polarized the internet and, in some cases, even backfired, there’s another, more insidious notion that’s making victims of women and men alike.
Few concepts have created as many problems as “perfection.” The idea that something (or someone) exists in a flawless state leads to numerous forms of anxiety and depression. This mindset—“I’m not good enough”—has been exacerbated by social media. Influencers use filters and editing tools to mask deficiencies, blasting into cyberspace an ideal, yet often not actually real, image. When followers cannot keep up, they suffer.
Body image disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affect roughly 1 in 50 people. Bodily fixation can result from a real issue, such as a crooked nose or belly fat, but often the flaw is only perceived; at the very least, the skewed perception far exceeds the reality. Yet for the sufferer, perception is reality. It influences their every action and thought and, at the extreme, leads to a loss of self-esteem, lack of motivation and eating disorders.
Men are falling prey to the dangers of perfection—in one aspect, more than women. The media and clinical focus of body dysmorphia disorder has long targeted women, yet interestingly, ADAA notes that the disorder affects more males (2.5 percent) than females (2.2 percent). Perhaps that’s because of old views on masculinity, such as the notion that men cannot share feelings about their deficiencies. Or maybe it’s because media entities tend to be harder on women. Either way, as research shows, men—especially young men—are increasingly suffering from body dysmorphia disorder.
Bodily dissatisfaction is pervasive in the selfie culture, which is having real-world effects, such as an uptick in nose jobs, hair transplants and eyelid surgeries. Thanks to a litany of hashtags on apps like Instagram, anabolic steroid use in young men is also on the rise. According to a 2016 report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there were 229,000 cosmetic surgeries on teenagers; the biggest growth was in male breast reduction.
Both genders shun flab, but with different ideals, women and men fall victim to different eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia are seen as predominantly considered female concerns, but less than 1 percent of eating disorder research has focused on males. This lack of research has led to the perception that only women suffer from body image issues.
The reality is that it manifests in men differently. Whereas female dysmorphia trends toward thinness, in males, it manifests as muscularity.
Men are driven to gain weight, often using protein, creatine and L-carnitine supplements to accomplish this goal. The desire for bigger muscles could fund a nation, as projected revenue from the U.S. protein supplement industry alone is predicted to reach $9.8 billion by 2025. This surge has led experts to consider bodybuilding addiction part of a new eating disorder—also one that is underreported because of a lack of credible research in male psychology and body image.
In the U.S., 60 percent of boys report manipulating their diets to achieve more muscularity. Of course, this is a healthy practice for many: Staying in shape is ideal at every age. But the drive to burn fat at any cost is apparent in the popularity of ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting. While this too can be a good sign—many people have found success while “in ketosis,” though its long-term efficacy is in question—the line between sound health and unhealthy obsession quickly becomes blurred.
Move the bar
Anecdotes are not data, yet this topic I know well. I intimately understand the bullying that coincides with being overweight. At 14, I miraculously grew 8 inches in one year. Until that point, I was the fat kid. Interestingly, the entire focus of my life (outside of reading) was sports. Being physically active and overweight is a dilemma many people face.
I credit those early experiences for inspiring my career in the fitness industry. Yet I also recognize how easily body dysmorphia manifests. I struggled with recurring bouts of orthorexia—an obsessive eating habit in which you continually remove certain types of foods from your diet—for the earlier part of my adulthood. My thin legs and arms, the result of that growth spurt, were also causes of concern. Imagine the psychological effects of going from being called ”Dumbo” to “stick legs.”
For years, I’ve followed the literature on male body dysmorphia to better understand the condition. Research also helped me see beyond the disorder. By my mid-30s, I became less focused on how I looked and more on how I felt. Reorienting my emotional intelligence greatly helped. My obsession became how well I move, not what I look like. That psychological shift has been one of the greatest triumphs in my emotional life.
Because our culture broadly supports the human frame, not what it can accomplish, I’ve seen men with ripped abs and pecs—a “good” thing, by conventional standards—who are unable to touch their toes. I’ve also seen women some would consider obese move with grace and delicacy. There are no hard and fast rules, yet one thing is certain: our obsessions destroy us.
Appreciate, then act
Reframing self-perception is an arduous and emotionally daunting task. It takes willpower and the acceptance of vulnerability to appreciate what you have instead of homing in on what you do not.
One step is to display more emotional intelligence online. For example, this video documents a man hanging from a pull-up bar for 45 minutes, accomplishing a total of 304 pull-ups. The physical will and mental fortitude for such a feat is unimaginable to most. Yet the majority of comments negatively reference his pants. It’s no wonder men don’t want to discuss emotional deficiencies in such an environment.
So long as this bully mentality persists, dysmorphia will continue. Since body image has been correlated to women for so long, men are likely to call other men “effeminate” if they display any sign of vulnerability. This has to change. Destigmatizing male body dysmorphia would provide a valuable foundation to begin this process. In the dark, its strength only grows.
Photo credit: imtmphoto, Getty Images