Editor’s note: ThreeSixty has changed the name of a minor in this article due to privacy.
BRIAN IS ALWAYS AWARE of the space he occupies.
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, the Minnesota high school student describes himself as linebacker-shaped without the muscle.
And that makes him uncomfortable. He was bullied in middle school for his size.
“I tried to change who I was and how I looked by almost starving myself except for the meals at home, but it didn’t stop anyone, or my body, from changing,” Brian said.
He is one of the millions of males who struggle each day with body image. One in three people who suffer from eating disorders are men, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. The effects of poor body image have been documented in women, but it’s not something men have talked about much until recently.
“We know that men feel bad about the way they look more and more as there are more male models and really bulky, muscular men. … It’s changed over time and also I think we’re more aware of it now,” said Katie Loth, a dietician and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, who has researched adolescent weight and disordered eating.
On television and social media, most male celebrities are muscular and lean. Someone’s weight is often the punchline of a joke. Ads emphasize the importance of low body fat and fitness.
WOMEN SLIM DOWN, MEN BULK UP
It can be particularly difficult to have a positive body image, said Laura Savat, an outreach specialist at the Emily Program, a treatment center for eating disorders located in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington.
The struggle with body image can be continually present; when you’re walking past a store and see your reflection, when you see ads with Photoshopped individuals. People see thousands of images a day, she said.
“There’s definitely a thin ideal for women and there’s this muscular ideal for men,” Savat said. “They’re put into these two groups, which is so unrealistic. I don’t think many people identify with either.”
Many men fixate on how much muscle they have, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. The association cites studies showing 90 percent of teenaged boys exercised with the goal of bulking up, and among college-aged men, 68 percent say they have too little muscle.
“With web growth, that kind of unrealistic image for men has also grown,” Savat said. “You have no idea the kind of struggle men go through with body image and disordered eating and eating disorders.”
Brian said “the guy always has to be toned and tanned,” a perception he got from watching TV and movies, but that’s not necessarily attainable.
Savat said teens should instead focus on their passions and relationships with friends and family, not just their looks.
“I think everyone needs to feel good about the way they look and how they see themselves every day,” she said.
ACHIEVING BETTER BODY IMAGE
Loth, a researcher at the U of M, said people should exercise and eat well, and they need to accept the way they look.
“What you can control is how you take care of yourself,” she said. “You can control these behaviors and you want these to be the things you focus on, as opposed to ‘I want this number on the scale.’”
She said there are lots of resources for women struggling with body image, but it can be harder for men to get help.
“There’s a lot of treatment for women (who) have eating disorders,” Loth said. “It’s easier to capture a hundred women with poor body dissatisfaction than men.”
Some eating disorder treatment centers, like McCallum Place in Missouri and Kansas, and Fairwinds Treatment Center and Canopy Cove, both in Florida, have male-specific groups. Rogers Memorial Hospital, in Oconomowoc, Wis., has all-male eating disorder programs. Most treatment centers, however, will either accept only women or will accept men as part of co-ed programs.
Poor body image, left unaddressed, can lead to eating disorders or destructive behaviors, Loth said.
“Young people that feel bad about themselves are more likely to try risky and dangerous behaviors to change the way that they look,” she said.
Brian said the harassment diminished as he reached high school. He grew more comfortable with himself and stopped starving himself. He still looks in the mirror every day and picks out his flaws, but he also says something kind about himself so he doesn’t dwell on self-loathing.
“I just had to know who I was and be okay with that,” he said. “I needed the harassment to learn that, because I wasn’t going to learn it by always loving who I was.”