young men's body image

Young Men’s Body Image

As a female college student, I have participated in a fair number of conversations about body image and self-esteem. For many college women, these conversations revolve around how much they had to eat that day, that they cannot treat themselves for a while, or that they need to get back on the treadmill this semester. Thinking this way has become second nature for women.

College guys are different.

I have witnessed the packs of guys at the gym who stay in the weight room for hours trying to surpass their bench number. I have overheard friend groups of guys sizing one another up, deliberating what they should be focusing more on: chest or arms. I have walked in the drug store aisles and see dozens of protein and “bulk” supplements, picturing buff guys flexing on the covers. I turn on the TV and see commercials of guys with eight packs, promoting products while having beautiful women wrapped around him. 

Isn’t there something wrong with this, and why aren’t we doing anything about it?

The pressure for women to look a certain way has been a concern for decades, where images of the “ideal body” are plastered all over social media, instagram, TV and billboards. Some campaigns in recent years, such as American Eagle and Dove, have tried to tackle this issue, and make women’s expectations of their bodies more realistic. When it comes to men’s body image, the concern is not being addressed and most are not aware. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), around 4-10 percent of college-age men have (known) eating disorders. They say this has greatly increased in the past couple of decades in part due to increased sexual objectification of men and the portrayal of the combined lean and muscular ideal in media images

Dr. Nicole Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University expands on the shift of increase, stating, “The attention and the ideal male image has shifted to one that is unattainable and unreasonable for most men to believe that they should achieve.” 

Muscles for men have become the new cosmetic, a way to express the strength and manliness that men demonstrate to others. Trine Tetlie Eik-Nes, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), confirms that muscles have become a form of cosmetics for men. In her research at NTNU and Harvard University, Eik-Nes has concluded that most bulking-obsessed men are not building muscle to improve their skill in sports or athleticism, but that they are building up the idea of the ideal, strong male. In turn, men who don’t have the “bulking look” can feel undesirable. This outlook dissatisfaction has shown over the years in men; a large three sample survey analysis of North America (conducted in 1972, 1985, and 1996), has concluded that negative body image among men has become increasingly widespread. Over the 24-year period, appearance dissatisfaction grew from roughly 15 to 43%. 

“Girls are supposed to be thin and have small waistlines. Boys should have wide shoulders and big muscles. Those are the narrow ideals that young people grow up with today. It turns out that this unrealistic body image is as challenging for men as for women.” Eik-Nes have been one of the few researchers to help conclude this epidemic facing men in our image-obsessed society.

There are additional body image concerns facing men other than the bulking obsession, including other body features such as height, aging, and fat accumulation. Data has indicated that features of the societal ideal, such as ideal height, associate individuals with higher levels of charisma, education or leadership qualities, increased career success, and even a more robust dating life.

Along with the growing body image dissatisfaction, an increase in supplement use and cosmetic procedures have increased as well. In Eik-Nes’s study she discovered that young men ages 18-32 were correlated to have four times the probability of using legal and illegal supplements, and anabolic steroids. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Male cosmetic procedures have increased 325 percent since 1997. Though college students might not be undergoing these procedures (at least anytime soon), the increase of cosmetic procedures and extreme body morphing measures among men constitutes for future concern.

Though women seem to be at the center of concern for body image issues, men are more complex than we think. Along with the recent increase in body dissatisfaction, supplement use and cosmetic procedures are becoming more popular in men as they as being more persuaded by the mainstream media depictions of the “desirable male”. 

With the constant pressures that come with continually building muscle and a desirable body image, it is important to never underestimate how much this can affect the men in your life. As a woman who has seen many instances falling into these scary statistics, I have no doubt that male body image is an issue on the rise in our society and within our own social circles.

Image by Efes Kitap from Pixabay

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