Body Image & Men

14 Jun 2019

Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you can name a recent superhero film and you probably know about Love Island.

Although completely different genres, the two share connective tissue: both are summer staples, both are massively popular and both feature dudes that are built up and ripped to shreds.

Superheroes and Love Island - they're extensions of the perfection era, when near-unattainable figures are force-fed to an audience that’s rapidly developing body image issues.

Even the men. Especially the men.

Showcasing real people in advertising, particularly in the fashion industry, is starting to get traction. Airbrushing, size-zero models, fake skincare and the like are out and natural curves are coming in. 

But whatever small progress there is, it's mostly a female thing.

A recent editorial in the Daily Telegraph – entitled Advertisers now portray men the way they portrayed women in the 1950s: as either dumb or pretty – reported that some men would rather have a ripped up body than get married, find a relationship, have kids or get promoted at work.

This might all sound like basic narcissism, but male body image issues are, to a greater or lesser extent, powering anxieties. And problems are cooking.

Male Body Image

Just like in sex (male = stud, female = s***) there are silly gender stereotypes at play when it comes to fitness and body image too. When females become diet and fitness obsessed, folks easily assume there's self esteem or body issues underneath.

When males hit the gym and start carb-counting, they’re dedicated, disciplined athletes. Boys are usually quite happy to stick to this narrative.

In 2019, Harley Street nutritionist Rhianna Lambert, described how the eating disorder stereotype mostly - and wrongly - applies only to “privileged, appearance-obsessed women”, but that “people of every race, gender, sexuality and personality (show) disordered eating patterns”.

According to Beat, the UK's leading eating disorder charity, one in four people with eating disorders are male. Other sources suggest men account for one in three sufferers. Whatever way you slice it, male eating disorders are on the rise.

In fact, between 2010 and 2016 the number of men admitted to hospital with eating disorders grew 70% - the same growth rate over those years as for young UK women.

Releasing this research, Dr William Rhys-Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty told the press that “pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. (There is) unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.”

It gets worse?

An increase in male eating disorders is one thing, but further research suggests that, for many, it doesn’t stop there.

In the body-perfect era of constant photographs, social media and image-obsession, steroid use among UK young people quadrupled in 2017 versus 2016. The Home Office’s crime survey found the biggest rise in anabolic steroid use was among 16- to 24-year-olds, with an extra 19,000 taking the drug.

Up to one million Brits are said to be using steroids, mostly for image reasons. The problem is especially stark in young people - and young males.

Long term health

Aside from grinding down a person’s mental wellbeing and self-esteem, eating disorders carry a barrel-load of health implications: organs suffer; bodily functions stutter; hair falls out; sleep’s a problem; mood’s a problem. The list goes on. 

Steroid use also puts tremendous strain on one’s organs, especially the heart. It can also lead to low libido and sexual atrophy, spots, aggression, poor sleep, erratic behaviour and wild mood swings.

In addition, most UK steroid users are teens and twenty-somethings. These are prime experimentation (drugs and alcohol) years, and mixing any of the above with steroids puts nightmare pressure on one’s bodily and mental health both.

If you’re worried …

As is the constant theme of this LifeSearch Let’s Start Talking campaign, talking is an excellent place to start if you or someone you care about is exhibiting problem behaviours.

On that, look out for excessive dieting or daily trips to the gym, obvious under-eating or eating large amounts of food in one sitting. 

If someone is generally obsessed with weight and appearance, they seem withdrawn and/or habitually consume material on fitness and body types then it’s worth asking a sensitive question. 

You can also look for more obvious red flags such as laxative use, evidence of steroids, or signs of purging after meals.

None of it’s real, really

In the spirit of talking about the rather taboo area of eating disorders - especially among men - it’s worth giving air to the truth in all this. 

And the truth is that Hollywood superheroes have access to the best health, fitness and nutrition services money can buy - they also have plenty of free time to invest in sculpting the perfect frame.

If you work a job and live a normal life, finding the time, expertise and the cash to train like an A-lister won’t come easy.

In Love Island, casting directors deliberately serve up the perfect vision of the body beautiful - it’s not random and it’s not an accident.

Choosing talent is based on a number of criteria, including abs, muscles and how good they look in a thong. The show is set in paradise; it presents flawlessness. That’s its whole vibe. So of course they handpick Greek gods and goddesses. 

It’s interesting that we may have stumbled upon a small bit of progress re Love Island. In 2018, show winner Jack Fincham was, relative to his beach buds anyway, carrying a little extra timber around his middle.

Granted, Jack’s gone and got himself all ripped up now, but maybe there is some small hope in a sea of perfection. 

If you’re worried about yourself or someone close to you, talk about it. Talk about how superheroes and Love Island simply aren’t real as a first step towards a healthier, better bodily balance. 

Website: Beat - The UK's Eating Disorder Charity
Helpline: 0808 801 0677


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