Body-Image Pressure Increasingly Affects Boys

Cultural ideals are becoming an equal opportunity anxiety-inducer, and eating disorders are increasingly common in men. But the symptoms in men and women don't look the same.
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Culturally, we’re becoming well attuned to the pressure girls are under to achieve an idealized figure. But researchers say that lately, boys are increasingly feeling the heat.

A new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.

The trend toward weight obsession among boys is cause for worry, says Dr. Alison Field, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study. “You want people to be concerned enough about their weight to make healthy decisions,” she says, “but not so concerned that they’re willing to take whatever means it takes—healthy or unhealthy—to achieve their desired physique.”

Of the boys who were highly concerned with their weight, about half were worried only about gaining more muscle, and approximately a third were concerned with both thinness and muscularity simultaneously. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent were concerned only with thinness. Those statistics reflect a major difference between boys and girls when it comes to weight concerns: whereas girls typically want to be thinner, boys are as likely to feel pressure to gain weight as to lose it.

“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”

If boys are increasingly concerned about weight, changing representations of the male form in the media over the last decade or two are at least partly to blame. “We used to really discriminate—and we still do—against women” in terms of media portrayals, says Dr. Raymond Lemberg, a Prescott, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders. “If you look at the Miss America pageant winners or the Playboy centerfolds or the runway models over the years, there’s been more and more focus on thinness.”

But while the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”

Even toys contribute to the distorted messages youngsters receive about the ideal male form. Take action figures, for example, which Lemberg suggests are the male equivalent of Barbie dolls in terms of the unrealistic body images they set up for young boys. In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”

In the face of the ideals they’re bombarded with, it’s no surprise that adolescent boys, like waves of girls before them, are falling prey to a distorted image of themselves and their physical inadequacies: Previous research suggests that up to 25 percent of normal weight males nevertheless perceive themselves to be underweight.

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Jamie Santa Cruz is a reporter based in New York

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