Men and Body Image

Body Image

My house is a fairly entertaining place to watch the Olympics, if I do say so myself.

My wife and I loudly cheer on the US athletes. We give less politically correct responses to the inane questions that NBC reporters ask the athletes after their races, particularly athletes that just lost their events. We challenge the narratives NBC creates, such as last night's "staring down" of Chad Le Clos by Michael Phelps.

The Olympics celebrate our bodies. Well, maybe not my body specifically, but the bodies of men and women who work tirelessly to perfect a physical craft--to swim faster, jump higher, swing harder. These athletes know their bodies inside and out, and have trainers to help them focus on a strengthening a specific set of muscles in order to achieve a certain task better.

At some point, conversations in my house devolve into reflections of how my wife and I are "falling behind". This week, my wife has commented on the connection of age and success, "Lilly King is only 19?!? What am I doing with my life?"

Image from the AP

Image from the AP

My existential crisis happened during Monday night's 4x100 men's freestyle relay. Four jacked, tall, slender White men cheering their comrades on. Shirtless, complete with sculpted pecs and six-pack abs.

I mean, you can see half of Michael Phelps' musculature bulging out of his body as he celebrates Nathan Adrian beating the French swimmer to the wall.

I noticed myself looking at my body, the fat rolls on my sides, and experienced the coinciding thoughts of criticism. "Why aren't you going to the gym more?" "Why don't you run more often?" "You haven't been to the beach in weeks. Your tan is going away."

Women aren't the only people who struggle with body image.

Men and Body Image

The Huffington Post recently reported on "Perceptions of Perfection", a photo project from the UK that asked graphic designers to photoshop the ideal male body according to the goals of 19 countries. Check out how significantly different the US male body is from almost every single different country.

It's no wonder that an estimated one in every five eating disorders belongs to males. The ideal male body in the Huffington Post article is marketed to boys and men in almost every superhero or action movie, sporting event, men's health magazine, and (most) celebrity sightings. Stereotypically masculine traits--strong, stoic, fixer, outdoorsy--ooze out of many of these spreads.

Gay men seem to be more prone to experiencing body image challenges. A recent study suggests that 77% of gay men have felt judged or objectified by their physical looks. For that matter, 61% of straight men experienced similar things. 58% of gay participants in the same study (a study, by the way, that drew data from over 116,000 men) felt pressured by the media to look a certain way, something that only 29% of straight men experienced.

Women experience obvious pressures from the media to have specific body types. This, by the way, seems to be true in every country, according to Perceptions of Perfect, as opposed to a limited few in the case of men. And for women, the body types pressures are intensely linked to fitting specific sexual scripts--the submissive, objectifiable body, for instance, or the seductive, mysterious, subtly dominant physique.

But at least we've begun raising social awareness (finally) for the sexual double bind that women experience around body image. Aerie has become the most recent company to market body positivity, highlighting women of different sizes and races to advertise their lingerie. Target appears to be following suit. Dove has done brilliant work challenging "ideal" body images through print and commercial advertising for the last 12 years.

These conversations simply aren't happening for men.

And no, last summer's "dad bod" craze doesn't count. Dad bods has a tongue-in-cheek timbre (and perpetuation of the sexual double standard that women experience) that doesn't confront language of stereotypical gender norms used by marketing firms or address the seriousness of both the anxieties of millions of men around body image.

It seems that, for now, if the conversation about male body image is going to be started, it's going to be started by individual and pockets of men. Which creates its own set of problems, given that part of the larger recent male narrative is to "go with the flow".

South Shore Family is starting a Men's Group on Mondays, beginning September 26. I (Jeremiah Gibson) will facilitate the group, and while I have the primary goal of helping you grow effective communication skills in your relationships, I'm also excited about the possibility of addressing profound issues, such as body image and its effect on relationships, that many of us have learned to not discuss.

We can discuss these topics in individual therapy as well, but the potential of receiving acceptance and vulnerability from a group of like-minded men may prove much more transformational. For more information, check out the Men's Group webpage, and sign up online, or call us at 617-750-0183.