You would be hard-pressed to encounter a woman who has not struggled with body image, either presently or at some time in her life. The pressures placed on women to conform to a perfect appearance are overwhelming. Recently, there has been a counter-response, with body positivity movements that proclaim all women are beautiful, regardless of size, shape, scarring, acne, or any other variance from the culture’s cookie-cutter norm.
What is much less discussed is the similar pressure placed on men to conform to an ideal body image—a pressure that carries an equal risk of causing unhealthy habits and a damaged state of mental health. While women are coming into a new era of supporting each other while blasting self-empowering anthems by Lizzo, men who struggle with body dysmorphia or other forms of body image insecurities are rarely acknowledged, and therefore receive minimal support. We already know about the saying “Do you even lift, bro?”
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, males constitute 25 percent of those affected by anorexia nervosa, and are at a higher risk for extreme health issues or death because diagnoses in male patients are so rare. It is possible that these numbers would be even higher if male eating disorders were viewed as a more legitimate issue—what is already a taboo subject becomes even more strained when applied to the gender that is supposed to effortlessly embody the perfect masculinity.
When women strive to look like Barbie, there is a natural counter-response that recognizes an unhealthy and unachievable standard. On the other hand, men who, perhaps subconsciously, desire to look like Ken are praised for their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle—it is much easier to see the danger in weight loss obsession than in a commitment to building muscle. NEDA reported that 33 percent of male athletes in weight class sports are affected by eating disorders, due to the extra emphasis on maintaining a particular level of bulk. When a psychological issue masquerades as athleticism, it becomes even harder to recognize and treat.
According to Psychology Today, binge eating, the most prevalent among eating disorders diagnosed in men, passes unnoticed in many cases because of the societal norms that more easily accept men with large appetites. Traditional “masculinity” is harmful on two fronts: normalizing unhealthy behavior, and forbidding the “weakness” required to acknowledge the problem and seek help. Psycom reported the importance of providing men with specialized treatment that makes it easier to overcome the stigmatized idea that eating disorders and their treatments only pertain to women.
Apart from the immediate adverse health effects, there are cultural repercussions of a collective ignorance about male body image. If a man dismisses a woman based on her physical appearance, her sisters will rally around her in righteous rage against the superficial and arrogant male. Still, women dismiss men based on their appearance often, whether it be their height or lack of bulk, without facing similar backlash. Dismissive comments about men’s height, weight, or lack of six-pack abs may seem trivial to women, but can be devastating to the men whose value was just reduced to a judgment of their physical appearance.
Of course, attraction plays an important role in dating, and there is nothing wrong with looking for partners with specific characteristics. Still, it would benefit the dating culture at large if both genders treated everyone with respect, and withheld judgment on another’s worthiness until they had some idea of what lies underneath their outside appearance. As most women can empathize with the harmful effects of low self-esteem, they should be sensitive to the way that their words have power over their fellow human beings, in the dating culture and beyond.
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