Body Image and the Adolescent Male

Body Image and the Media

It’s widely recognized in the U.S. and around the world that young women are susceptible to developing body image issues. This phenomenon is a direct result of film, media, and advertising: for decades, images of thin women wearing bikini bathing suits have been used to sell everything from deodorant to automobiles to alcohol. Photographs in print and online media regularly make use of airbrush and/or photoshop techniques on pictures of women to make them appear more perfect than is realistically possible. Cinematographers use special filters and angles to make starlets appear other-worldly.

The net result of these practices is that young girls are inundated with images of women that are unrealistic, and many girls end up with expectations of themselves that are unattainable and ultimately self-destructive. Thankfully, since the early 1990s and the publication of books like The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, the pictures of women shown in the media have been largely identified for what they are: over-idealized images of a very small subset of women. Most young girls these days are taught that despite what they constantly see in the media, the reality is that virtually no one really looks like those pictures. Women come in all shapes and sizes and everyone is beautiful in their own way and on their own terms. While it’s been a crucial step forward for our society to recognize and move to counteract the way women are portrayed in the media with simple common sense, what many people haven’t yet realized is that a similar set of techniques and practices has been used on images of men in the media, with a similar net result—the development of self-destructive body image issues—on boys and young men.

Body Image and Boys

 The phrase “body image issue” is often associated with eating disorders, and with good reason. People who are unhappy with the way they look, which is most often caused by feeling overweight, are susceptible to diagnosable conditions such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. These are very serious disorders: anorexia and bulimia can lead to a wide range of overall health problems, and can even lead to death. Research shows that in the U.S. 20 million people experience a clinically diagnosed eating disorder at some point in their lives and that most body image-related eating disorders start during pre-adolescence, adolescence or, in some cases, even earlier. While it’s a common belief that these body image issues and their oft-resultant eating disorders are far more common among young women than young men, recent research reveals that young men are extremely susceptible to both body image issues and eating disorders as well. The numbers are not as large as in the female population, but the statistics for boys and young men do exist and can cause concern for their physical and emotional well-being.

Here are some of the latest facts on body image issues and eating disorders in boys and men in the U.S.:

  • 43 percent of men report dissatisfaction with their bodies—this is up from 15 percent just three decades ago
  • 33 percent of adolescent boys use unhealthy weight-loss practices
  • 10 percent of college-age men report experiencing an eating disorder
  • 10 million American males report experiencing some sort of eating disorder during their lives
  • About 10 percent of adolescent boys report concerns with their lack of muscularity or thinness
    • Young men with high concerns about muscularity or thinness are at higher risk of developing depressive symptoms, using drugs and engaging in binge drinking.

Help for Boys With Body Image Issues

One of the main reasons why body image issues in young men are relatively unknown in the U.S. is that they manifest differently than the body issues of young women. A recent study in the JAMA Pediatrics reports that as opposed to young women with body issues, who tend to see themselves as overweight, young men with body issues tend to see themselves as the opposite—underweight. In addition, an interesting paradox is at play with body issues and young men.

Two populations of young men are particularly susceptible to body image issues: athletes who are driven to lose weight or boost muscle to improve performance and typical young males who feel driven to build muscle, i.e. add weight, to become more socially respected and acceptable. The potential problems both stem from and are complicated by concepts of masculinity: unrealistic expectations and norms of masculinity cause young men to either gain or lose muscle and/or weight, and the same unrealistic expectations and norms of masculinity keep young men from reporting any problems they might be experiencing. The result is that eating disorders among young men go largely undiagnosed and account for only about 10 percent of the nationwide total, though the common consensus among health care professionals is that the numbers for young men probably approach those reported for young women.

In the end, it’s important for parents, teachers and health care professionals to recognize that the latest research indicates there are millions of men—from pre-adolescents to adults—who are struggling with some form of body image issues that can lead to eating disorders. Therefore, when talking to girls about media images, bodies, health and self-esteem, we should all remember that the same lessons in common sense apply to boys too.