The media is powerful. i learned this lesson during my first job out of college as a staffer for a state legislator. The media’s power rests in its ability to influence what we think about and how we think about it–whatever it may be. The “it” can range from politics to the economy to entertainment to fashion…or even what the ideal male body should look like.
When thinking about this issue’s theme and what topics would be appropriate for this column, I thought about the role the media plays in shaping the male identity through images of the “ideal” male body shape. After all, it’s summertime, when we shed more of our clothing and reveal the naked truth about our bodies. An increasingly great part of our identity seems to be attached to our body–at least this is what the media is hoping for.
Body image is a newer phenomenon for guys but one that women have been subjected to for decades. It’s as if the advertising world woke up one morning and realized that they could manipulate men just as they have women by getting us to buy into a certain message. The message: if you want to be successful and powerful and sexually desirable, if you really want to be somebody, then you have to look like the images seen in the mainstream media. The images of chiseled torsos, perfect pecs and sculpted six- pack abs are now the new standard of what a so-called “real” man’s body should look like. Of course, the viewers are not the only ones being manipulated–so are the digitally enhanced images themselves. As if we are too naive to recognize that.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with working out or wanting to stay fit and push your body to its natural potential. Attraction is what we all want. Regular exercise can release stress and improve physical, mental and sexual health. But when a healthy desire for fitness morphs into an obsessive compulsion to achieve the “perfect” body, then problems such as eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder can certainly develop. These disorders have the potential to devour every part of your life–work, school and relationships.
Research clearly shows that time spent reading fitness-centric information correlates with higher levels of body dissatisfaction. But media doesn’t come with surgeon general warnings. And if you believe what they tell you, the male body is not ideal (i.e., you are not ideal) unless you have that sought-after six-pack. It’s a message that is too hard for some to stomach, so they devote themselves to achieving physical perfection.
The constant message to get the perfect body –coupled with those people who are genetically predisposed toward obsessive preoccupations or compulsive behaviors or who struggle with a low self-esteem–can create the perfect set-up for eating and body image disorders. And don’t kid yourself. Men are not immune to these problems. A 2007 Harvard study found that 25 percent of people struggling with anorexia and bulimia are men. Some researchers believe it is closer to one-third!
Gay men seem particularly vulnerable; one study found that up to 42 percent of males battling eating disorders are gay. Other studies show that gay men, in comparison to straight guys:
– Have higher levels of desire for muscularity and thinness (think lean, toned and cut)
– Experience greater body dissatisfaction
– Diet more, are more fearful of becoming fat, more dissatisfied with their current level of muscularity, and more likely to hold distorted thoughts about the importance of achieving the ideal body shape
– Tend to exercise to improve appearance, while straight men tend to exercise for health and enjoyment
I am reminded of a young man in his mid-20s whom I observed at the gym recently. During my 20 to 25 minute cardio routine, I watched this guy weigh himself at least four times. He would complete a set of weights, then check to see if the numbers had budged. Did he really think his body was going to change that much in a matter of minutes? Who knows? But my guess is that he re- ally wanted to change the way he felt just as much as he wanted to change the way he looked.
Just as troubling was a recent article in The New York Times entitled “Stretching a Six Pack.” (Honestly, a more appropriate title would have been “stretching the Truth.”) The author’s subject was Kellan Lutz and the reasons for this young actor’s recent success in Hollywood. if we are to believe the author, the reason for Lutz ’ success is not his talent at bringing fictional characters to life or his dedication to his work or his natural charm and charisma. Nope. As the author puts it, the reason for Lutz ’ stardom is “success by six-pack.” Yes, the reason this young actor is successful is because of his abs. Don’t try to figure out the logic in this–there isn’t any.
But the media folks are not alone in their attempts to manipulate our ideas about male body shape. Toy manufacturers are getting in on the game, too. During the holidays last year, I was surprised to see how the Star Wars action figures my young nephews were playing with had no resemblance to the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo I played with as a kid. The new action figures were huge! Evidently, Luke and Han have been doing some serious steroids over the years. The insidious message sent to boys is the same message sent to adult men: if you want to be somebody, then you have to have the body.
Ask yourself: do you want to be somebody or someone? If you choose the former, then your identity will simply be skin deep and subject to all kinds of things outside your control–genetics, aging, illness or some writer for The New York Times. If you choose the latter, then you have the freedom and power to shape your body without it shaping you.
Did You Know?
In the past two decades, the number of men who report dissatisfaction with their physical appearance has tripled (British Medical Journal).
About 10 percent of men suffer from the two best- known eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia