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Men Have Body Image Issues Too: June Is Men’s Health Month

By Dorian Capers

Body image issues amongst men can lead to shame, overwhelming anxiety, guilt, and even depression. Although typically framed as a women’s issue, body or weight dissatisfaction is experienced by nearly 40% of men.

In acknowledgment of Men’s Health Month, I would like to share the following. At the beginning of the year, I was moving and downsizing. I was buying a new bed, I wasn’t bringing my old couches, and I needed to get rid of at least half of my clothes. I rented a truck to transport my couches and foosball table to the dump, and my neighbor graciously offered their muscle to help. “I am not a young man anymore,” I joked, “and I am very out of shape. Phew!” I thanked my neighbor for his help and continued with moving out over the weekend. As I threw away batches of clothes, trying on different things to see what fit, I found it odd how insecure I felt about pants not fitting.

I noticed this feeling again after I moved in with my partner. We were placing an order for clothing online, since I kept only a few pairs of pants, and she asked me what size I wore. I had to take a moment to reflect that my body had changed and so did my clothing size. I felt ashamed that I had “let myself” gain weight these past 2 years.

A few weeks later, these feelings emerged front and center after I had a video call with a family member. My niece video-called me and additional family members joined the call. I smiled into the front facing camera, we exchanged greetings, and we listened to the wild ramblings of a 4-year-old for a while. “Wait here, I have to potty,” the child said. After she had left, the adults had a moment to talk, and a family member blurted out, “Your face is looking awfully fat, Dorian. Did you gain weight? How much are you weighing now, boy?” I wasn’t shocked, but I was hurt. “Ouch, thanks,” I replied.

I began looking at my body in the mirror more often. I apologized again to my partner about my weight gain. “I love your body, and I love you, just the way you are,” she would reply. Surely, I shouldn’t shame myself and beat myself up about this, I thought to myself. Besides, I’m a guy and I’m not constantly evaluated by my size like women are. How could I complain?

What are the facts?

Despite the body positive movement we have seen in recent years, many people still struggle with body image. In a U.S. study of appearance and weight satisfaction, “Only about one-fourth of men and women felt very to extremely satisfied with their appearances (28%; 26%) and weights (24%; 20%)” [1]. This study also found that there were many personality and life satisfaction correlations to an individual’s personal body image.

“Men and women with higher body masses reported higher appearance and weight dissatisfaction. Dissatisfied people had higher Neuroticism, more preoccupied and fearful attachment styles, and spent more hours watching television. In contrast, satisfied people had higher Openness, Conscientious, and Extraversion, were more secure in attachment style, and had higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. These findings highlight the high prevalence of body dissatisfaction and the factors linked to dissatisfaction among U.S. adults” [1].

What does science say about body image and men?

While body image issues are typically framed as a women’s issues, men, and especially gay men, also struggle with body image. “Surveys on male body image found that 20 percent to 40 percent of men were unhappy with some aspect of their looks, including physical appearance, weight, and muscle size and tone” [2]. This study also found that gay men not only felt more judged and more objectified based on their appearance (77%) but were more vulnerable to social pressures and prone to dissatisfaction with their bodies [2]. This would lead gay men to feel a greater need to be attractive and more likely to consider plastic surgery than straight men.

A study by the U.K. Mental Health Foundation also reported some unsettling findings. “Almost three in ten adult men (28%) aged 18 and above have felt anxious because of body image issues according to the survey findings” [3]. Additionally, 11% had suicidal ideations and approximately 1 in 20 purposefully hurt themselves because of body image issues [3].

Where does that leave us?

While one-third of all U.K. adults have experienced anxiety or depression related to body image [4], body image disorders and eating disorders are still characterized as “women’s issues” and discussed through a female lens. In an early installment of The Mental Note Podcast, this issue is discussed with great poignancy by retired NFL player Patrick Devenny. In the episode Trouble in The NFL With Devenny, moderated by Ellie Pike, MA, LPC, Patrick discusses his struggles with body image, an eating disorder, and getting help.

“I don't think I've ever been more stressed out my entire life than [when] going through training camp. The concept of getting to the NFL versus staying in the NFL are two totally separate things. Teams know okay, you're not getting it done, you can't perform under pressure, you're out. Bring in somebody new.” After leaving the NFL, Patrick’s struggles with food and body image only continued. “You literally have gone at that point 23 years of your life aspiring to be one thing and now it's done.” He began heavily restricting his diet, working out at the gym obsessively, and crashing and bingeing at night.

“It's tough. It took me literally hitting rock bottom in different aspects of my life in 2015, to realize that I didn't have a life. I was scared to death to go eat with people, because I couldn't control what I was going to eat. I was scared to not go to the gym for a day. All those concepts that dictated my life to the point where I had no life. I was so alone, had no friends. Had friends, but none that I would ever go see. Started to notice this can't be right. This cannot be normal.”

It took hitting rock bottom before he began to get help, and even then he felt like he had to convince people that he had a problem. His body looked fit, but his workout and eating habits were compounding his struggle with mental health. Receiving information with “ED” in the subject line was also triggering. What male wanted to be associated with an eating disorder let alone one that could be confused with erectile dysfunction?

“Now you have a connotation of ED, all these things that play into it that will never allow men to step into it and actually be open to the concept that [recovery] is possible. It was one of those things that caught me so off guard but really made me realize the uphill battle associated with eating disorders in males.”

Patrick experienced 24 consecutive weeks of therapy, aided by a dietitian and a psychiatrist who provided specific eating and exercise regimens and guidelines. When asked by Ellie Pike if he could offer advice to anyone listening, he replied that any person, male or female, whose daily life is consumed by thoughts about food, heavy emotional burdens, and a self-punishing mentality should know that they’re not alone and that effective help really is available. “If I can help somebody feel there’s hope for them, that’s the only thing I can ask for.”

Conclusions – back to the present day

I noticed and became more aware of body positive social media simply because I was struggling with some of the same themes there. I found a body positive post on Buzzfeed featuring a body positive influencer whose message really spoke to me. In one of her videos, she reminds viewers that “you’re supposed to fit in the clothes that you fit into” and “bodies are meant to grow and change as you age.” That reminder resonated in me. I began to feel less guilty and less ashamed of the body I have today. I recognized that my body has changed throughout my lifetime and that I should take care of it because I want to and because it’s healthy to do so, not because of the social pressures we’re all subject to. I bought some equipment to help exercise a little more, not because I felt guilty but because I wanted to. And I learned a few things. I learned that a smaller body isn’t necessarily a healthier body. I learned that men also struggle with body image, and that’s valid. Most importantly, I learned to accept my body wherever it may be on my journey to my healthiest self, both mentally and physically.

We all struggle with body image whether due to a pair of pants not fitting, a family member making a rude comment, our own compulsion to portray a certain image of ourselves, or our overvaluation of the criticisms around us and undervaluation of the gratitude we feel for the bodies we have. Love yourself first and foremost, and continue from there.

Sources

1. Frederick, D., Sandhu, G., Morse, P., & Swami, V. (2016). Correlates of appearance and weight satisfaction in a U.S. national sample: Personality, attachment style, television viewing, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Body image, 17, 191-203. [online] Science Direct. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2022].
2. Pallarito, K. (2016). Many men have body image issues, too. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/men/news/20160318/many-men-have-body-image-issues-too [Accessed 20 May 2022].
3. Mental Health Foundation. n.d. Millions of men in the UK affected by body image issues – Mental Health Foundation survey. [online] Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/millions-men-uk-affected-body-image-issues-mental-health-foundation-survey [Accessed 20 May 2022].
4. Mental Health Foundation. n.d. Body image report - Executive Summary. [online] Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/exec-summary [Accessed 20 May 2022].

Written by

Dorian Capers

After studying Psychology and Fine arts (Drawing and Painting) at Emory University, Dorian found himself working in digital marketing serendipitously. He has worked for international companies and…

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