It has traditionally been women who are subject to unkind and unhelpful scrutiny of their body shape, but evidence shows that men are increasingly likely to be a victim of body shaming. Research shows that between 30% and 40% of men are concerned about their weight, and almost 85% would like to be more muscular.
The issue of increasing body dysmorphia and body dissatisfaction among men was highlighted last year by a parliamentary committee report on body image and mental health. James Brittain-McVey, the lead guitarist of indie rock band The Vamps spoke about his ongoing battle with anorexia.
The musician explained that he first began to struggle with anorexia when he was 14 years old, and he took the extreme step of undergoing liposuction at the age of 19, despite being an ideal weight for his height and physically fit. His issues were triggered again when he took part in the hit TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here in 2018, causing him to lose 6kg.
He told the committee: ‘I went into that show feeling extremely confident. I came out of that show 5/6kg lighter and when my wife saw me, she was shocked, almost scared by how ill I looked. However, I thought immediately I kind of looked good again. I had a six-pack in a way that I hadn’t for 10 years, since the beginning of my issues with food and mental health.’
He added: ‘And I think without realising, I still had unanswered demons in my head about my body.’
Brittain-McVey pointed out that there is a lack of support for men who are struggling with body image issues, and they are less likely to reach out for help than women. A dislike of their body can soon morph into more serious mental health issues, such as low self esteem, anxiety, lack of confidence, and depression.
These issues not only affect the quality of life, but they can also create other problems. For example, low self-esteem and depression are known to lower the sex drive and they can also lead to erectile dysfunction (ED). This in turn can damage relationships, causing the individual to feel even more isolated and unhappy.
Single men with body confidence issues are more likely to struggle with finding a partner, or they may find it difficult to begin a satisfying sexual relationship when they do. This can be because of ED caused by performance anxiety.
Another cause for concern is the abuse of anabolic steroids by men who are seeking a shortcut to a more muscular figure. These drugs are class C, meaning that they can only be issued on prescription. However, they are widely available on the black market and they have several harmful side effects.
These include ED, infertility, shrinkage of the testicles, hair loss, acne, and breast development. They also have serious psychological side effects, including mood swings, aggression, hallucinations, paranoia, and episodes of mania. Anabolic steroids are addictive, and withdrawal can trigger further mental health problems.
Despite the risks, there is evidence that the abuse of anabolic steroids in the pursuit of an ‘ideal’ body shape is growing.
There is little sign of a change in the culture that celebrates a lean and muscular body shape in men. A look at reality TV shows such as Love Island or the latest Hollywood blockbusters will show that the ideal male body shape rigidly conforms to a sculpted six pack that is unattainable without hundreds of hours in the gym, a special diet, and careful lighting.
Men may ‘banter’ and mock each other for being overweight, but in reality the criticism can be debilitating; driving them into a cycle of comfort eating, weight gain, depression, and low self esteem.
Brittain-McVey blames the attitudes of mass media and social media for creating stereotypes and exerting a subconscious pressure on young men to look a certain way.
He told the committee: ‘At that time there was a big fashion trend of these big American surf style companies that came over and indoctrinated many of the youth in the UK to adhere to a certain body physique, live a certain life.’
He added: ‘I had one of their shopping bags in my bedroom of a guy ripped on a beach in Malibu and I think unconsciously every morning I would think that is what I need to look like.
I think social media encouraged me to fall further down that rabbit hole. One of the biggest misconceptions in my opinion is people presuming this is a stride for vanity, that wasn’t what it was.’
‘I think there was a degree of self-destruction within my mind about how I look, and the pressure to conform to those stereotypes and gender constructs and before I realised, my whole life was controlled by this chase to look a certain way.’
‘You’re never satisfied. You think you get to a certain point and you will complete it but there is always another thing you can do or another supplement you can take and at the age of 19 the next step for me was to get liposuction.’
‘How on earth are they meant to feel comfortable within their skin if you go on these apps where you’re constantly scrolling you see another person that looks a certain way. I worry about the future generations and that’s why I think we need to clamp down on what we view to be acceptable in advertisement.’
‘We need to have transparency where the models we see are bodies that represent society and not this small demographic that is completely unachievable. I would love to see a world where companies represent the majority and not the small majority of unachievable body image.’
Unfortunately, eating disorders and dissatisfaction with body image are still viewed as women’s problems even among health professionals, so men may have a difficult time being taken seriously even if they do make the effort to seek help.
However, attitudes are slowly changing, and more men in the public eye, including the cricketer Freddie Flintoff, are willing to speak openly about their body issues.
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