Men have been suffering in silence under the heavy weight of body expectations; drastically taking measures to fit their own body into the ideals they see on the cover of men's fitness magazines. Think this is outlandish? Men don't have body image issues, do they?
That's exactly the problem; men face stigmatization that prevents them from talking about poor body image, dysfunctional eating or worse, diseases like anorexia nervosa and bulimia bervosa, precisely because we assume poor body image is a woman's problem. It is hard to say with certainty, but some studies have shown that 25 per cent of individuals with anorexia and 36 per cent of individuals with bulimia are men. That's not insignificant. That does need our attention too.
I'd like to remove that shame for a moment and talk about what I see in my practice as a naturopathic physician, and a practitioner whose primary focus is healthy weight loss and management.
Many of the men that I see do not fit the criteria for a diagnosis with anorexia nervosa: the individual refuses to maintain a healthy body weight, is afraid of gaining weight, and exhibits significant distortional thinking about this size and shape of his or her body. Bulimia nervosa exists where the individual binge eats and avoids weight gain through vomiting or other purging methods (including excessive exercise).
And yet these men reveal, as we go about trying to unpack the reasons they have maintained an unhealthy weight or feel that they have, many similarities in their attitudes towards their bodies that I see in women: a belief that the shape they are now means they are unworthy of love and happiness, a misguided belief that the muscular men they see on men's health magazines are the norm (to which they are failing to measure up), and a fear of gaining weight or remaining the same size that significantly impacts their quality of life.
Men may not be as subjected to body shaming in the media, we may normalize some less-than-perfect male ideals (the "dad" bod, for example), but they are not immune to cultural messages that they should look a certain way: chiseled, fit and lean. What we know of men and body image is largely misunderstood or unknown.
Men simply don't want to talk about feeling crushed by advertising images, what they might assume are the expectations of potential and current sexual partners and investing their worth in the circumference of their biceps. And this silence also means that when a problem manifests -- whether disordered eating, substance abuse as a result of poor self-esteem or a more clinically recognizable eating disorder -- it is likely to go untreated.
If you are reading this and think that you might have a problem with body image, it is important to know that counselling does help. Speaking with a professional about your relationship with food and with your body will help you to accept and clarify your feelings, and find a way of severing unhealthy associations. If weight is a current problem, this is an essential step in creating a healthier lifestyle. I do also recommend that anyone with emotional sensitivity to their current weight throw out the scale. Do your weigh-ins under the compassionate care of a health professional who is supporting you in your efforts.
And finally, as with all my patients, I recommend the conversation shift from calories to quality of life. Focus not on your weight and the way things look right now, but on cultivating strength inside of you so you can appreciate the vitality of your body and all that it allows you to do. And of course, if your problem overwhelms you be kind enough to give yourself the help you need.
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