The worst thing you could do if you have male body image anxiety is to watch Magic Mike XXL. Ripped physiques gesticulating to hordes of horny onlookers. They’re construction workers by day; exotic dancers by night. 0% body fat. 100% muscle.
While we were dating, my wife suggested a night apart. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I told her that I heard Magic Mike was The Hoosiers of stripper cinema. And honestly, it wasn’t half-bad. Channing Tatum looked like a star, the plot was much darker than anticipated, and the film hit all of the dominant tropes of a classic sports film. Aging athlete comes out of retirement for one last show while the young up and comer takes the stage successfully at the end.
But at the end of the day, the marketing of the film was based around one thing: ripped dudes grinding to Genuwine.
Magic Mike star Joe Manganiello discussed the stress of being in shape on set: “It’s interesting because, in True Blood, I know the shirtless scenes are coming from about three weeks out, and there’s a way to kind of peak for that day. But when you’re shooting a film like Magic Mike, and you’re doing dance routines for two weeks at a time, you have to peak every day. So that became kind of crazy. We had a gym in the parking lot, and we’d all be lifting weights on set all day.”
After the credits ended, I slunk over to the bathroom mirror. I was exhausted from work, experiencing some depression, and finished eating over a dozen donuts in the last week. My shoulders slumped, I struggled to look at my reflection.
All of my physical insecurities screamed at me. You’re pudgy. You’re not chiseled. You’re not Channing Tatum. You know, all the traditional ones.
But my feelings of inadequacy aren’t unusual. A study by Rochelle Bergstrom and Clayton Neighbors states that “many men, like many women, are dissatisfied with some aspect of their bodies. However, body image disturbance among men is more complex than it is among women. Whereas women almost uniformly ascribe to be thinner than they are, men desire to be either thinner or larger than they are, a pattern that has been noted among boys of various ages and adult men.”
Body image anxiety and dysmorphia affect all genders, and not everyone experiences them in the same way.
Body image issues exist for guys too.
My struggle with male body image isn’t unique. The ideal body for a man is slender, with little to no body fat so that they can see what muscles are hiding beneath the surface. Think Brad Pitt from Fight Club, his shirtless physique looks massive on the big screen. “Everyone thought he was huge, but he was, like, 155 pounds. If you strip away fat and get guys to 3, 4 percent body fat, they look huge without necessarily being huge,” said Mark Twight, trainer for the cast of 300.
According to Bergstrom and Neighbors’ research, “the potential consequences associated with ascribing to these ideals are often varied and unique. For example, and perhaps not surprisingly, body dissatisfaction among men is associated with low self–esteem.” I remember looking at myself in the mirror after watching Magic Mike and thinking about how I should just work harder to get abs or eat less pizza.
I wasn’t alone.
Recently, several actors, musicians, and performers have opened up about their struggles with male body image. Robert Pattinson, star of Twilight and the newest Batman, told a Style magazine that he struggled with body dysmorphia. “I don’t have a sixpack, and I hate going to the gym. I’ve been like that my whole life. I never want to take my shirt off. I’d prefer to get drunk.”
Studies show that nearly 45% of men are dissatisfied with their overall appearance. Body dysmorphia is often “characterized by obsessive thinking about a flaw on a specific part of your face or body.” Frequently these “flaws” are imagined, exaggerated, and hardly noticeable to anyone else.
For men, body dysmorphia usually takes shape in muscle dysmorphia, a preoccupation with being sufficiently muscular or lean. Bergstrom and Neighbors reports, “The prevalence of muscle dysmorphia, a disorder characterized by obsessions with muscularity, has also been increasing in recent years.”
The increase in muscle dysmorphia can be partially attributed to media portrayals of the ideal male body.
I watched my weight increase 20 pounds over one school year. Two Krispy Kreme Glazed Donuts and one Chocolate Iced were my escape from the realities that I hated my job. I’d pick up two cheeseburgers and medium fry from McDonald’s for the ride home.
I didn’t have the energy to keep going to the gym, only to order more food. My six-pack turned into a four-pack into a no-pack.
Sometimes I’d be reminded of Magic Mike, or watch a Youtube video about Chris Pratt’s body transformation and just feel less than whole. I didn’t want to take my shirt off in bed; I didn’t want my wife to see me naked. I felt unattractive, depressed, and out-of-shape.
I couldn’t see a way out.
The ideal male body image.
According to data and surveys collected by Treadmill Reviews, “the average ‘perfect man’ would be just a tad taller than 6 feet with a weight of 187 lbs. That’s roughly the size of Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, or Gerard Butler, in case you were wondering.” Their data also concluded that the perfect male had a 33-inch waist, 41-inch chest, and exercised for seven hours a week.
The idea of the “perfect male body” comes at an early age. Common Sense Media reports that “approximately a third of boys (33–35%) age 6 to 8 indicate their ideal bodies are thinner than their current body.” This comes from the fact that “young children engage with some of the more extreme body portrayals in media in the form of toys such as dolls and action figures.”
Think about G.I. Joe action figures for a second. The packaging showcases a singular male soldier with rippling muscles bulging out of their shirt sleeves. Documentarian Jackson Katz “observes that the GI Joe doll’s biceps have been steadily enlarged over the years to the point that the figure’s body proportions are virtually impossible for any real man to attain.” Other action figures for comic book characters like Batman and Thor’s similar enlargement creating impossible body proportions.
Did you notice any similarities between the descriptions of the G.I. Joe action figures, cast of Magic Mike and “perfect man?” Exercise and muscles. The ideal male body image differs from the perfect female body image in that “the female ideal is known to be slender, the male ideal is slender and muscular.”
As a child, I was obsessed with being muscular. Thanks to a particularly healthy metabolism, no matter how much I ate or what I snacked on, I couldn’t gain weight. I watched MTV’s Spring Break where jacked college dudes grinded on bikini-clad ladies while VJ Bill Bellamy hollered out “Whoomp! (There it is)” by Tag-Team.
I thought to myself, that was the life.
So the next morning, I woke up, packed up my wrestling figures, and laid down on the floor of my bedroom. I proceeded to do eight crunches and two push-ups. My arms tired, and stomach sore, I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll just go eat some Lucky Charms instead.”
Throughout high school, I weighed a paltry 113 pounds at 5’11 and ¾. I joined the high school wrestling team, but the singlet given to me slinked off my shoulders. The traditionally tight spandex fit me more like a loose pair of sweatpants. All of my peers showed signs of physical strength in the weight room. Most were able to do a chin-up.
My twig arms could barely hold onto the bar. I was depressed. Skinny guys were never the cool ones; they were the dorks. Urkel and Screech. They were never invited to Spring Break.
The dangerous lengths we go to attain the “Perfect Body.”
As a child, I fell in love with professional wrestling. Larger-than-life superheroes displaying incredible feats of strength on television every Saturday morning. I remember Hulk Hogan’s 24-inch pythons. An American flag draped behind him.
Hogan gesticulates towards the television. “To all my little Hulkamaniacs, say your prayers, take your vitamins, and you will never go wrong.” I believed him. I prayed, even though I wasn’t religious. I ate Flinstone vitamins every morning.
There were only two people I wanted to be when I grew up: Zack Morris and Hulk Hogan.
What I didn’t realize was how Hogan got his 24-inch pythons.
Gunnar Peterson is the personal trainer for Hollywood’s biggest stars. Actors such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sylvester Stallone have spent hours working out alongside Peterson. When asked how to attain a body like The Rock or Rocky, Peterson says “Unless you are independently wealthy and have no job and can devote everything you have to preparing—and you’re a genetic freak—there’s a very, very slim chance that you will ever look like that.” Men struggle to understand that the perfect body is a fantasy.
Part of the fantasy is the masculinity and honor attached to muscular physiques. No one believed in skinny Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, men want to be the super soldier version. The heroes in cinema and television are often hyper-masculine, dependable, and brave. Thus the idea that to be brave and honorable, you must be muscular comes into the male psyche.
“If I wasn’t playing some young hero who can swing a sword, I wouldn’t care what my upper body looked like,” says Kit Harington, star of Game of Thrones. “Playing these hard warriors, it would be a mistake to not look muscle-y.”
“These bodies are attainable for a small number of people — maybe half a percent of the male community,” says Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Calabasas specializing in male body image. “Yet they’re associated with the idea of masculinity — the notion that as a man, I have to look a certain way, act a certain way.”
Despite the reality that the ideal male body image is a mirage, some men take drastic and dangerous steps to improve their look. Bergstrom and Neighbors state, “Men who wish to increase their muscle composition are more likely to diet and to use steroids, dietary supplements, and other muscle- and performance-enhancing substances.”
Outside of compulsively working out, men suffering from muscle dysmorphia will also stick to strict diet routines. “The main feeding characteristics of a person with muscle dysmorphia is the hyperprotein and hypolipidemic diets with the consumption of dietary supplements in order to increase muscle mass and reduce body fat mass,” said a report from the International Archives of Medicine. These dietary supplements will sometimes replace food altogether, and combined with anabolic steroids, can lead to dangerous results.
1994. Hogan is on the stand for the trial of his former boss, World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vincent Kennedy McMahon in connection with the sale of anabolic steroids. The attorney asks Hogan, “Have you used steroids prior to the WWF?”
A few moments later, the lawyer asks Hogan, “Why?”
“To heal injuries, to keep on going, the schedule was tough. It gave an edge. For bodybuilding. When I first started, it was to get big and gain weight.”
Millions of young boys who looked up to Hogan, who wanted to be Hogan, who wanted to look like Hogan, had their hearts broken as he admitted to the world that his 24-inch pythons weren’t the result of vitamins and prayers. No, his massive presence was the result of anabolic steroids.
I was only seven years old at the time of Hogan’s testimony, and I didn’t fully understand what steroids were, but I knew they were terrible. My friends and I quipped about “roid rage” and needles in butts because we thought steroids were silly.
I understand now.
Film and bigorexia.
There continues to be pressure on men to be more muscular, more durable, more of everything. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the male cast members of Netflix’s reality show Too Hot to Handle. All of the guys from the first episode are physical carbon-copy replicas of one another. There are no lean bodies, no chubby bodies, just muscular mass that is obtained through hours of exercise (and trust me, there are plenty of clips of the dude’s working out throughout the show).
But for a program designed around the idea of people having lots of sex and being attractive, the lack of different body types sends a strong message to anyone watching the show: you need to be bigger, you need to be more than you are.
That pressure on young men isn’t coming just from sleazy reality television either. Look at Thor’s transformation in Avengers: Endgame. He was the strongest Avenger throughout the entire movie franchise (until Captain Marvel arrived on the scene). After the devastation of losing the first fight against Thanos, he succumbs to drinking alcohol, sitting on his couch playing Fortnite, and seemingly no longer taking care of his body.
Instead of showing empathy, audiences are directed to laugh at him and his struggles. Thankfully some actors are beginning to recognize how their superhuman bodies are affecting society. Take Kumail Nanjiani, for example, star of The Big Sick and the upcoming Eternals film. He posted a shirtless picture of himself with the following caption: “I found out a year ago I was going to be in Marvel’s Eternals and decided I wanted to transform how I looked. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world. I’m glad I look like this, but I also understand why I never did before. It would have been impossible without these resources and time.” Nanjiani’s post is a reality check for those who believe that anyone can attain the perfect body by themselves. It took Nanjiani a small militia of folks helping with his diet, exercise, and lifestyle to build that kind of muscle. Most people do not have the money or the luxury for such a thing.
I’d love to tell you that I absorbed all of Nanjiani’s lessons, but that’s simply not true. I still sometimes stare at myself in the mirror, wondering where my abs have gone or why I don’t feel comfortable wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. My body still isn’t where I want it to be, and to be honest; it may never be.
The problem isn’t that we have body image issues; men already know that’s true. The point is that men don’t know how to talk about body image issues. Instead of discussion and honesty, we take our frustrations out on our bodies through dangerous workout routines and unhealthy dieting. Terms like “Manorexia” or even “Bigorexia” tend to shine a more innocent light on a severe illness that allows men to continue avoiding conversations about how they feel.
Talking about insecurities continues to be a theme for my writing because without starting the conversation about our truths as men, we will continue to struggle in silence. No one deserves that.
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