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Extreme body image in media impacts males too

Published: Friday, May 16 2014 4:55 a.m. MDT

Hugh Jackman's physique as Wolverine and other actors throughout Hollywood are raising the question if negative body image in the media affects males too.

Kerry Hayes

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Chiseled abs. Bulging biceps. Perfect pecs.

Hollywood and TV’s leading male action stars — such as Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine in “X-Men,” and Stephen Amell, known to “Arrow” fans as Oliver Queen — possess all these physical characteristics and more.

These images of men with perfect physiques, which have become more prevalent in movies, TV shows and advertisements in recent years, can negatively impact males’ body image, according to Dr. Will Courtenay, a men’s psychologist, researcher and author focusing on men’s issues.

They can also contribute to the perception of boys and men that their bodies are never satisfactory, said Bonnie Brennan, a certified eating disorder specialist and clinical director of the Adult Partial Hospitalization Program for the Eating Recovery Center based in Denver, Colorado.

“The male body in the media has an impact on how males, especially developing males, perceive their own bodies,” said Brennan. “Males are being exposed to the same extreme ideals of body perfection as females.”

Body image dissatisfaction

People have long been aware of the scrutiny females face about their appearance, but males are also pressured to obtain the ideal body.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January shows concerns about physique (and muscularity in particular) among young males are “relatively common.” The researchers said approximately 18 percent of participants in their study (which included 5,527 males) were “extremely concerned for their weight and physique.” Furthermore, the researchers found 7.6 percent of young males were “very concerned about muscularity” and were using techniques that could be harmful to obtain an ideal body.

Other research indicates males also take extreme measures to lose weight. Although past research estimated only 10 percent of people suffering from an eating disorder (like anorexia nervosa and bulimia) were male, more recent studies show males may account for 25 percent of eating disorders, according to a 2013 Canadian Medical Association Journal report.

And the media is partially to blame, according to Dr. Courtenay.

“Over the last 25 years, research shows that men have been increasingly bombarded by images of perfect male bodies in movies and television. This changes men’s perceptions about their bodies. Men are feeling increasingly inadequate physically,” said Dr. Courtenay.

But Brian Cuban, author of “Shattered Image,” a book which details his struggle and recovery from eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and drug addition, said it’s important to remember the media is not the primary factor leading to body issues and dangerous body-reshaping practices.

“I think what the explosion of media images has done in the digital age is lower our normal societal discontent. ... It is much easier for us as a society to look in the mirror and compare ourselves,” Cuban said.

He explained many other factors, including genetics and environment, play a role in body dissatisfaction. “(The media has) lowered the trigger level for people who are predisposed to those issues,” he said.

Changing body ideals

Brennan noted Americans are now inundated with images of males that are “increasingly hairless … displaying six-pack abs, bulging biceps and no fat on their bodies,” along with images of “the rock-star-thin male, whose clothes hang off his body from his shoulders, perhaps capturing an image of eternal adolescence.”

She also said Americans (who have become more health and diet-conscious in recent years, according to a 2011 Harris Poll) strive to obtain these star-like physiques because they equate perfect bodies with satisfactory lives.

“We have images in the media of this everywhere, as if the key to a fulfilling life comes with a perfectly sculpted body that eats a perfectly healthy diet and exercises to their personal limit every day,” she said. “For men, the average guy is usually an image that is being poked fun at or someone who is looking unhappy because they are overweight.”

Mike Robbins — a personal development expert, author and former professional baseball player who openly speaks about his body image issues — added the media reflects our culture’s obsession with youth.

“I think we’ve moved in this direction in our culture where it’s all about perfection. … For men it’s about strength and virility,” Robbins said. “Somehow the natural aging process is seen as a bad thing.”

Finding body satisfaction

So what can males do to avoid focusing too much on cultural ideas of male perfection and develop a healthier body image?

Dr. Courtenay said to realize the Adonis-like men one sees in the media are often artificial.

“Don't buy into attaining the impossibly handsome and muscular bodies portrayed in television, movies and video games — many of which were manufactured, either digitally or with drugs like steroids,” he said. “They're the exception.”

Robbins recommended men, who do not often discuss their body issues, to talk about their insecurities and reach out to others so they can gain support. “It’s OK to struggle with (your appearance), it’s not just a female issue, it’s a human issue,” Robbins said.

Brennan advised people to remember “a perfect body does not equal life satisfaction.”

“A perfect body will also not protect you from the hardships of life — learning to live with all your painful thoughts, feelings and body sensations and do what you value is how we strive to help those on their recovery journeys,” she said.

And Cuban offered the following advice for parents whose children (male or female) have poor body image issues:

“If your child is suffering from body image issues or an eating disorder, it's not your fault. ... There is no shame in a child having these issues. The only failure for a parent is if you allow shame to keep you from putting your child in a position to recover.”

Email: kpolatis@deseretnews.com Twitter: KandraPolatis

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