Fit but Can’t Quit

Body image struggles aren’t limited to women. Admittedly there is an enormous amount of pressure put on young girls to realise an idealised size, weight or body shape, however it would be fair to say that there is also less stigma attached to women having body issues, therefore it is talked about more and there is much more awareness and help available for women.

            Men in the media are portrayed just as unrealistically as women. The pressure on young men today to have wide shoulders, big muscles and the ever elusive six pack is just as overwhelming as it is for women, yet historically this pressure, which can lead to mental health and body image issues, has been overlooked by health professionals, parents and researchers.

            In attempt to change the narrative around men and their body images, and bring much needed research of it’s kind into the public arena, Harvard and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) conducted a study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, which investigated the relationship men have with their muscles. The conclusion of the study was that boys and men struggle much more with their self image and their bodies than we were previously aware. According to the study, attempting to reach the unattainable male body that is portrayed in the media is causing many young men to feel depressed, overly and dangerously restrict food and binge drink. The study, which assessed 2460 males between the ages of 18 and 31, was able to conclude that the idealised male images portrayed in the media were just as challenging for men as they are for women.

            Unlike past studies done on body image regardless of sex, this one took into account typical male disorders and asked questions which targeted male specific issues. The research findings were quite alarming. Across all demographics questioned the link between those who sought to be bigger and musclier and depression was significant. Anabolic steroids were widely consumed as a way of building muscle, regardless of their legality. These men also purported to binge drink regularly on the weekends.

            According to one of the researchers, Trine Tetlie Eik-Nes, ”This drive for muscularity could be a sign that young men don’t have mastery over their lives, but they may feel that they’re mastering how to work out… In this context, in simple terms, you could say that girls vomit, while boys are much more preoccupied with exercising than normal.” This idea that men who don’t feel like they have control over their lives so turn to obsessively exercising in order to maintain some semblance of control over something is ultimately no different to girls with anorexia or bulimia.

            The study also found that many of these men who train at the gym are not doing it for fitness purposes, or for optimal muscle function. Rather their sole intention is to build muscle for aesthetic purposes. When the only reason to go to the gym is cosmetic, this can indicate a deeper feeling of low self esteem. This feeling of low self esteem will be perpetuated by continuously and obsessively going to the gym. Although the gains may temporarily raise self esteem, ultimately there will always be someone in the media whose unattainable body is better which will lead to men beating themselves up for not being able to achieve the unachievable. Many of the quotes collected in the study demonstrated how men were beating themselves up for not being able to reach an unrealistic goal. Eik-Nes suggests that, although we may not be aware of these preoccupations amongst young men, they are in fact very common.

            When men are obsessing about their body shape to the point that they are at the gym every day and seriously restricting what they eat during the week, it can be a sign of obsession which could then lead to many other more serious mental health disorders. Eik-Nes advises that “Parents’ alarm bells should go off if they have a youngster who’s at the gym everyday, who just wants to eat chicken and broccoli and who consumes protein shakes or supplements all the time.”

            If you are a loved one of someone who is obsessively going to the gym or are noticing that you yourself has an unhealthy relationship between the gym and the food you eat, there is help out there. Test yourself and see how you feel if you miss a couple of nights at the gym over the next few weeks. If you can’t handle it and the negative thoughts that plague you for not going, it would be best if you sought some professional help before any other serious mental health issues surface.