Feminists have long sounded the alarm about the dangers of supermodels, starving themselves underweight and Photoshopped to perfection, causing bad body image in young girls, which may lead to anorexia or bulimia. However, a recent article by Express has suggested that men may be falling victim to an equal and opposite body image problem: that of the fitness model.
Fitness models are presented as an ideal reached through eating right, exercising and generally living a healthy lifestyle. However, to reach the perfect, camera-ready body, most fitness models endure a perverse regimen that leaves them far frailer than even the average man, much less an ordinary fit man. They are so weak they are often completely unable to stand up or speak, and it may even be fatal.
That’s far from the picture of fitness the magazines present.
Unrealistic body ideals leading to poor body image for everyone? This is not the gender equality we’re looking for.
And the consequences for men may be terrible. The rate of plastic surgery among men has been rising; eating disorders among men, especially “muscle dysmorphia” (commonly known as bigorexia), have become more common; steroid use may cause health problems and even death.
Organizations like Operation Beautiful have campaigned to increase girls’ body image; awareness has been raised of the signs and symptoms of anorexia in women. However, there isn’t an equal effort to raise awareness of male body issues. Between the Myth of Men Not Being Hot and the unrealistic bodies promulgated by fitness models, men are trapped between a rock and a hard body, and there may not be a way out.
Excellent writeup. I recently came to the realization that I may have fallen prey to some of this myself, even while being cognizant of how it affects women. I wonder if we can come to a place of recognizing this dual problem any time soon.
I wrote a post last year about muscle dysmorphia here.
I took classes with a bodybuilder whose body fat was so low he wore thermal underwear in air-conditioned rooms.
Back in my young slacker days, I worked at a copy shop that did business for an agency representing sports models. It was very eye-opening; one of the things that stuck with me is that sports models have to have very low body fat so that they will look “cut”. Normal levels of subcutaneous fat hide muscles.
Fitness models do undergo extreme workout, diet, and supplement regimens that often include steroids and other chemical enhancements. Before a show or a photo shoot, they restrict food and water to further increase the visibility of underlying muscle structure. Add some good lighting, body oil, and Photoshop to that and you get the glossy pics you see on the cover of “heath and fitness” magazines (we won’t even venture into the “Muscle and Fitness” territory). Real people do not walk around looking like that. The models themselves do not walk around looking like that. After a photo shoot, they often go on eating binges as a reaction to the previous semi-starvation, setting up a loss and gain cycle that can lead to long-lasting health effects and eating disorders. Now not ALL fitness models fit this description, but many do. It’s not real, it’s not healthy, and most people like a variety of body types in the people they date anyways.
The movie “Bigger Stronger Faster” covers some of this and talk with a fitness model about his training and supplement regimen as a part of a documentary made by a guy who who was trying to look at this subculture among American men, specifically prompted by the involvement of a family member. Good viewing but a little tough to watch at times. More info here: http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/movies/30bigg.html
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think it’s kind of odd that this is getting such a blip in blogs and newspapers right now because male fitness models really aren’t a huge industry versus female fashion models and every other type of job that pressures women to maintain a certain body image. And there’s still a huge difference between men’s and women’s media, even if it’s closing in the wrong direction. You still don’t have everything from master cleanses and raw food diets getting pushed at men, thankfully. When you actually read the advice in men’s health and fitness magazines it’s by and large realistic and sound, drawn from accredited sources, versus the kind of quackery that seems to find its way into everything from fashion to yoga magazines.
On the other hand, these trends are worrisome but I think they’re also unavoidable. Women make more money, they are starting to look for more sex appeal in a man rather than just someone who is a provider, so there’s more pressure on men to maintain a certain look. Then there’s the whole metrosexual trend, which is nothing more than a product of Madison Avenue.
But tying these trends into the regimen that male fitness models go through, as if this was something new for men, is a bit of a stretch. Men have always been pushing their bodies to the extreme and paying the price for it. Look at guys who were in the military. Look at athletes such as Muhammad Ali. Look at what happens to retired football players (American football). Look at construction workers. Look at coal miners. They all put their bodies through brutal physical abuse and when they get older they all pay for it. In fact by comparison, the plight of the male model is summed up by this quote from the movie Zoolander: “khoo, khoo, I think I’ve got the black lung.” Plus, there have been extreme body builders for generations, in fact guys can walk into almost any gym in the country and see other men who are in such physical condition that it’s already unattainable for most other men. So I don’t see how this is really a new thing. People didn’t seem to pay attention to it before.
Thanks for putting a name to the “Myth That Men Are Not Hot.” This drives me crazy! I blogged about it a while ago here: http://talkinreckless.com/2009/12/11/wait-was-i-not-supposed-to-be-turned-on/
Have you read my post The Sexual Marketplace Is A Misandric Idea, which goes into more detail on the myth? Also, Noah Brand’s series on libido is really good.
Most men (and most women) find ordinary men and ordinary women attractive. The source of the unrealistic body ideal is the mass media, which gets money up the wazoo for making people feel bad about their bodies.
Yes, all those kinds of physical abuse of male bodies are bad, and I don’t quite understand why “not paying attention to it before” means we shouldn’t pay attention to it now.
I wish this got more attention too. There is a thriving magazine/supplement/gear industry that breeds a similar insecurity in men about their bodies that is also peddled to women. Where women are expected to remain skinny and to be “toned but not too bulky,” men are expected to get bigger while having virtually no body fat.
As a woman who works out pretty frequently and has had body image issues and a history of disordered eating, I recognize- in some of the men I see and speak to at the gym- patterns of body/muscle dysmorphia and real obsessions with weightlifting where it really interferes with their quality of life. I wonder if one of the reasons this doesn’t get much attention is because, unlike starving oneself, exercising is seen as healthy- and so it looks like a “healthy” obsession.
I know in my past that I’ve had periods of obsessive exercise, but it wasn’t really ever recognized by others as being “bad” for me (even though I wasn’t actually healthy). And, because the guys who are fitness models “look” healthy and because “fitness” implies healthy, I think many people aren’t aware that being a fitness model can be unhealthy.
Anyway, this is my first comment here, but I’ve been reading this blog and I like it so far 🙂
I think that the thought of exercise as healthy might definitely be one of the causes, in addition to the whole “men don’t get mental illness” thing and the complete lack of awareness that men can have body image issues too. Dieting can work the same way– some women can diet in a very disordered way, but because they’re being “healthy” it isn’t viewed as anorexia. (Or the perennial, facepalm-y stories of women losing weight because of chemo and their friends coming up to them and saying “you look great!” and asking what their secret is…)
There was a recent article about an increase in eating disorders in preteen boys.
It’s just a little ironic, that’s all… men have always abused their bodies for various reasons, but it’s only now that we’re finding out that some men are doing things that outwardly appear to look like what women do (bulimia, anorexia, etc.) that it’s cause for concern. It just makes me think, “that figures…”
Anyway, I really disagree with your assertion about the media being the cause. I think it’s a sensationalist claim especially with regards to men. You have to keep in mind that men have plenty of other sources of body images than marketing campaigns and there’s a strong tendency for men to cringe when they see male models. My theory is that male fashion models are really aimed at girlfriends, anyway. They’re the ones who always want to force me to dress up one way or another and then tell me how much of an improvement they’ve made. Great… anyway, the way I relate to most other guys is how fast we can run a 5k, whether we’re doing marathon training this week, or how much can you bench press? It’s never about how sculpted is your abdomen. So I just find it hard to believe that it’s those images that really have an effect on what men expect of their bodies.
Nice man I like it this is the first post which I liked on google.
I got a little of that at the end of this past school semester. It was a very hard year full of not-so-great mental health, but everyone was all “oh man, you look so good, did you lose weight?” Yes, yes I did. It’s because I wasn’t eating.
Aliaras: Are those the same people who compliment anorexics on their self-discipline?
Just curious — do you know how low they had to cut their body fat percentage?
I think it really depends on the men you ask. I, for instance, appear to have a completely different view than you do in the second paragraph.
This was a really interesting post. My experience of being sporty (climbing and cycling) and hanging around with other sporty types is that most of us were fairly clear that being fit is in no way the same thing as being healthy. For most people this manifests itself in endless overuse injuries rather than eating issues but there were exceptions. I don’t know whether this was set off by taking part in these sports and their cultures, or whether they provided an environment appealing to people who already had nascent body issues.
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Unfortunately this is not new news. This has been going on for as long as women have struggled with eating disorders. Far less men are afflicted, yes, but they are not exempt from the illness. You do not often hear a man state: “I had ( or have )an eating disorder”. He realizes he might not be taken seriously.
Also, men are not always trying to emulate muscle magazines and such; often they develop anorexia for the same reasons women do, i.e low self esteem, sexual abuse and a whole slew of other reasons.
Glad this is being recognized but wish it had been much earlier.
It’s nice to have a link.
“REAL PEOPLE do not walk around looking like that.”
This made me smile.
Well, what’s your take on it? Okay so I was over-stating it – guys do care about sculpted abs, etc., to an extent. But I was making a comparison to women and hear me out for a moment… I had a bulimic girlfriend and one example of her thought process was the way she would pick up a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and demand for me to point out all the women who I felt were hot for the purpose of her comparing herself to them. This was her only reference. She had grown up for her entire life with no other basis for what she should strive to look like. With women, I don’t think that it’s the marketing itself that is a problem, but the lack of any other viable source of positive body images for women. At least nothing that’s generally available to every woman. And I just don’t think that it’s possible to say the same thing about men. For a guy to be really affected by marketing, he really has to somehow fall through the cracks or purposefully ignore every other source of body image that he can choose to aspire to.
Like what? I don’t know of any sources of actively positive male body images.
My point is just that, like me, not all men “cringe” at male models, some of us do want to emulate the models we see (and care about how we look and dress and go to great lengths to optimize that), and worry about how sculpted our abs are or defined our biceps are. I know for a fact that the media images I see of “hot men” have an impact on how I see myself.
The only reason I don’t have an eating disorder is that I don’t have the willpower to maintain one. Perhaps it’s a good thing, the strength of my appetite as a protection against anorexia. I hate the way I would look and would gladly starve myself down to a six-pack… but I get hungry, and I eat.
That’s not what having an eating disorder is about at all. And please don’t glorify anorexia.
@doc, there are plenty of images of healthy men who don’t starve and dehydrate for the sake of better lighting effects in front of a camera. Turn on almost any baseball game and you’ll see at least one fat guy coming up to bat being referred to as an elite athlete. There’s basketball, soccer, tennis, track and field, cycling, car racing, golf, even bowling. Then you have astronauts, who are culturally worshiped and seen as sexy without any real focus on their body type. Then there are all the shows about outdoorsmanship, craftsmanship, etc., that likewise show that men can be active without being a male model. Maybe I’m odd, but I spend a lot of time with women who used to watch This Old House because they thought Norm Abrams was hot and loved that he could build a beautiful house with his own hands. And guys grow up being encouraged to play sports and are set up with coaches who instill positive attitudes and self worth. So right there you can see that there’s a wide array of positive body images to be had.
What exactly are you looking for, if not that? The kind of Oprah-esque portrayals of lethargic fat men who are told “you are sexy, you’re beautiful just the way you are!”? I think it’s safe to say that you have a legitimate choice in what you pay attention to. I also think you need to address my point about how my girlfriend (far from atypical) and say whether or not it’s really the same way for men.
@dungone: By the same logic, one could look at any women in the media who aren’t expressly being held up as “fitness models” and call them good role models for female health.
@doctormindbeam, was that directed at me? I know what an eating disorder is and I’m not trying to glorify it. I hate everything about my body and feel disgusted every time I look in the mirror because I see nothing but scrawny arms and a fat gut, despite having a body fat percentage in the “acceptable” range and above-average muscle mass. I have all of the cognitive symptoms of muscle dysmorphia and many of the cognitive symptoms of anorexia. I’ve gone days without eating before, only to gorge myself at the end because I get so hungry. What behavioral symptoms I don’t display I only lack because I don’t have the discipline to maintain such unhealthy behavior – which as I said before, is probably a good thing.
I have no idea! Notably, none of them go to or are closely involved with my school, because those people know better and instead express concern.
@Dorkboy: Well that, actually, does sound like the hallmark signs of an eating disorder. I’m really sorry. Have you considered seeing a nutritionist and/or a psychologist about it? It can be extremely damaging to your body to let that kind of thing go unchecked. I’m sure you look nothing like the awful image you see of yourself.
@doctormindbeam – There’s not a whole lot a nutritionist can do for me since by American standards my diet is actually pretty healthy. I’m a whole bundle of neuroses beyond the body image issues so I am in therapy; since my symptoms are largely cognitive my therapist is more concerned with my self-image than what I’m eating. I don’t have enough of the behavioral symptoms to be diagnosed with anything outright (one of the many failures of the DSM), but that’s a far cry from actually being well.
This makes me want to jump onboard this blag to talk about men and eating disorders (I have a psych background as luck would have it, which I like to think makes me extra qualified to talk out my ass), but I feel like I should hang around here a lot longer before inviting myself to the party.
@Dorkboy: Write something up and drop us a line.
@doc, that’s valid to some degree. If you just focus in on “fitness model” as the only source of body image that you’re supposed to listen to, then of course there won’t be any alternatives for men. But when you look at how most of the women in the media look like, you’ll see my point. There’s aren’t a lot of other dimensions for a woman to be seen as successful and desirable: being skinny and hot is a common denominator. Whether they’re tennis players or news anchors, the take-away is that there’s really only one way for a woman to be valued.
@OzyMandias (the piece author):
I get your point, and I’m on your side. I do think there’s a male paralel to the female problems, but male fitness models are not it.
A better example would be roided up bodybuilders.
Honestly, sorry for being contrarian, but the truth is always my first friend. Most male fitness models tend to be “naturals”. In other words, they’ve had a six-pack for as long as they can remember and don’t to bother about nutrition or anything. Heck, most of them have just walked into a gym, swung a few weights and got pretty good bodies.
And no, its a complete lie that they’re “frail” and whatever. We’re on the same side, and I think body dysmorphia and the adonis complex are serious problems. But let’s not use untruths to promote awareness, mmmkay?
For a photo-shoot, most fitness models, they just diet for 1-2 weeks and jog a little. That’s it. Nothing special or especially rigorous.
Honestly, the people doing the rigorous trainings and super-complicated crap are still fat and not on magazine covers. Most people on magazine covers tend to be “naturals”. Its the fat “keyboard jockey” you see blogging about weightloss that kills himself trying to get leaner, and never does.
What you painted might have been true if you talked about heavy-weight professional bodybuilders. Those guys have really, really screwed up health and can’t even walk a flight of stairs. Fitness models? Sorry, totally untrue.
I was reading a study that showed that men on average over-estimate how much muscle they need by 30-40 pounds (I think). That means, they think they need to look like heavyweight bodybuilders. So please stay away from the fitness models who’ve done nothing wrong. Having a six-pack is not a crime.
Muscle dysmorphia is a serious issue and so is bigorexia. I’m with you on those, but please don’t conflate them with having a six-pack or being ripped. Being ripped is perfectly healthy. Many fat people are going around trying to paint being lean as supposedly being unhealthy, but that’s just pure BS.
It’s lack of muscle that’s a problem. Underweight is only an issue if you have no muscle. Annorexic boys and girls are not unhealthy because they don’t have fat. They’re unhealthy because they’re underweight.
A female fitness model has less bodyfat than a fashion model, but is far healthier. There’s no need to confuse the two.
Moderator Note: Ableist slur removed.
Like on the other thread:
You realize this was linked in the OP, right?
The media often caters to fat people who want to feel like supposedly being lean is this amazingly hard work by sharing anecdotal horror stories.
So you linked me to a story sharing an anecdotal story of some dude who’s only way of being lean is torturing himself? And? I have hundreds of anecdotal stories of achieving this without torture.
The story is also written in a very exaggeration-filled manner… basically its fear-mongering language to cater to people who want to hear that being lean is hard – because they need an excuse for not being it.