Masculinity and struggles with body image

There’s a great piece by Tyler Kingkade on dealing with issues of body image as a man in the Huffington Post. I recommend reading in full but here’s just a preview:

About half of all men don’t like having their picture taken or being seen in swimwear, according to an NBC Today Show/AOL Body Image survey from last year. Research from theUniversity of the West of England found a majority of guys felt part of their body wasn’t muscular enough, and more men than women would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body . . . Contemporary masculinity does not permit a man to admit his physique is less than ideal. But if men could be more open about their own insecurities, without fear of violating the unspoken rules of masculinity, we’d do better at accepting our flaws in our bodies. And maybe then we could get closer to doing what Blashill recommended: “acknowledging there are many ways to be healthy.” . . . At 27, I’m able to admit I don’t like my body. But it shouldn’t have taken me years to get to that point. I spent too long feeling like I had a secret, that I was hiding my weight issues, unable to talk about it, because rules of masculinity forbid it.

There’s also a follow up piece here.

11 thoughts on “Masculinity and struggles with body image

  1. It just goes to show you how magazines, television, toys, etc. have affected self-image for everyone.

  2. Are the dubious “rules of masculinity” supposed to include being viewed as physically attractive by the kinds of persons — whether women or men — a man would like to be most physically attractive to? Where does the notion come from that “[c]ontemporary masculinity does not permit a man to admit his physique is less than ideal”? (This was news to me, as a man — and would be news to most men I’ve known, especially those who have participated in or watched sports.) Why is it presented as odd that quite a few men might sacrifice a year or two of life in their 80s, say, “in exchange for a perfect body” they could enjoy in their virile prime? These questions are being asked seriously.

    Many men who work out, worry about hair loss, or wish they were a few inches closer to 6’2″, for instance, are well aware that they have a physique that is less than ideal by Western standards. Regardless of whether they acknowledge that “there are many ways to be healthy,” they’re also aware of the practical ramifications of generally being viewed as relatively less physically attractive by the kinds of persons they’d like to be most physically attractive to. Recognizing reality of this kind — unless there are truly harmful behaviors or outcomes associated — does not seem like much cause for concern.

    True, I can’t speak for all or even most men. But neither can Tyler Kingkade, and his perspective seems kind of atypical for men.

  3. Anon’ — I didn’t take the essay to be claiming that it was representative of all men, but I did think it was interesting to think about the data it provided along with his personal reflections, particularly because there tends to be much more focus on body image issues for women than men.

  4. noetika: Talk of what “contemporary masculinity does not permit” and “fear of violating the unspoken rules of masculinity” would seem to suggest a fairly typical male perspective. But if such talk is supposed to signal one man’s personal reflections and the perspective of a smallish minority of men, I no longer find it puzzling.

  5. I would argue that most males are well aware that compared to the gold standard of male body, they are far from meeting the bar.

    The interesting question is whether or not some men have a negative response to their own bodies due to the existence of a standard, or for some other reason.

    To me contemporary masculinity needs to be better defined before you can determine its rules. Masculinity is different in different settings. This has to be addressed first.

  6. anon and maybe swm: You seem to be taking the article to claim that what’s unusual is for men to have body image issues. I think rather it’s saying that what’s unusual is for men to talk about the body image issues that they have openly. It doesn’t seem that controversial to me, thinking about men I know, that *admitting* body image insecurity is seen as non-masculine. I do know plenty of men who will freely admit to their less-than-magazine-standard bodies, but talking about how much it might bother them not to live up to that standard is a whole other story.

  7. I would think its somewhat akin to the insecurity a woman would feel about her own body failing to meet certain standards, except for the fact that for men–it is far more socially acceptable to have a “substandard” body than it is for women, and thus the sort of pressure for self-improvement that women experience is far greater, and i would add, far more damaging.

  8. anon’: Here’s some anecdata for you: I’m a dude (and a dudely-looking one at that), I have struggled with body dysmorphia, and although I do talk about it publicly I can’t say I’m all that comfortable doing so (in fact, I never got help, even when it was bad, because I didn’t really think of it as a problem that *could* affect me, let alone for which there were resources). I can also say that I’ve been a regular gym user (5 times a week) for almost half my life now, and if I were a betting man I’d put serious money on the hypothesis that most regular male gym users also struggle with body dysmorphia (to say nothing of most of the regulars regardless of gender). In fact, I’m reasonably certain that I could point out most of the male users with body issues on any given day with better-than-50% accuracy, although I’ve obviously never actually done so.

    I don’t think we’re in the majority, but I don’t think we’re an insignificant minority either. At least, that’s my impression. The study cited is just one study, but that already makes it more reliable than my anecdotes. And it’s consistent with those anecdotes, so… I’m inclined to believe it.

    In fact, Kingkade’s post resonates so much that it’s kind of scary.

  9. This is a very real concern, but had I mentioned it in the many, many, previous threads about female body image I would have been chastised for derailing. So I guess the question is this: do we only talk about male body image in the male body image threads or, when the general question of societal standards for body image come up, can male body image be raised without the accusation of derailing?

  10. maxhgns: I’m sincerely puzzled about responses to my comments. I did not doubt that many men have some body image issues, where this means that they don’t feel good about certain features of their body. As I said, I don’t see why having such issues or “insecurities” is much of a problem — unless there are truly harmful behaviors or outcomes associated. Nor do I doubt that many men who spend as much time in the gym as you describe “struggle with body dysmorphia”: indeed, gyms attract such persons, partly because of that struggle. But many of those men are hardly “hiding” more severe body issues, given their open preoccupation with their bodies — even if, like Kingkade, they haven’t been honest with themselves (which, if a familiar distortion of masculinity, is not “contemporary masculinity”).

    Contrary to “the unspoken rules of masculinity” claim, many men do talk about their body issues, even if not explicitly identifying them in that way: height, muscle mass, weight, hair loss, etc. Anyone who has spent much time around gyms or male athletes, which are archetypes of masculinity, will have heard such talk.

    Audrey: If many men aren’t openly “talking about how much [their body issues] might bother them,” that’s probably because, to be blunt, almost no one really cares to hear it. Men don’t have an affirmation culture — so that when talking about their bodies with other men, they’ll likely get some hard truth and actionable advice (e.g., lose weight and hit the gym). Or, if there’s nothing much to be done (as with height), they’ll likely be met with a semi-sympathetic shrug — since the expectation for men is that we’re supposed to get in where we fit in, rather than insist on trying to bend ideals and desire to the will of our kind who are struggling.

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