Illustration by Joanna Baker
In the boys’ locker room, the sound of the tardy bell is drowned out by the slamming of lockers and a deafening chatter. Boys stand shirtless, talking casually with each other. On the outside, they seem confident and proud. However, this isn’t what gym is like for freshman Jake Sanchez*. Instead of changing with everyone else, he prefers to find a stall by himself.
Sanchez has struggled with body image issues throughout middle and high school, and he is not alone. Although body dissatisfaction is generally associated with women, it is also common among men. According to a study at the University College London, 80 percent of males’ ideal bodies did not match their current ones. But because this issue is so taboo, male teens and adults often have to deal with it silently and without support.
“They might not be as vocal about it, and they might hide it in different ways, but nevertheless it does happen,” civics and economics teacher David Jaramillo said.
Jaramillo served in the U.S. Army for 14 years before becoming a teacher. He described the military as a hyper-masculine environment where deep conversations about oneself and one’s insecurities were essentially off-limits.
“The military is a very ‘alpha male’ culture where body image is all about how much you can do, how much you can push yourself,” Jaramillo said. “You don’t ever cry, and you don’t ever show feelings, and everything is about outdoing each other.”
According to Jaramillo, this same “red-blooded” mentality is present in school athletics. High school athletes are constantly being measured against each other, and it can take a negative toll on their self-confidence.
Research supports this. According to a 2002 study conducted by Stockholm University, professional athletes, male and female, were much more likely to experience perfectionist tendencies and anxiety. Athletes who already had low self-confidence to begin with were especially affected by this negative perfectionism, as they relied on their own competence to validate themselves.
Whether they are athletic or not, boys develop a sense of self-image as early as kindergarten. They compare themselves to their friends and classmates, and as they get older, they may feel like there is something wrong with their body, even when there isn’t.
“They’re going through puberty just like girls are, and obviously they have a lot of questions about their body, so it makes sense that they would have issues with their body,” Jaramillo said.
Sanchez is a perfect example of this. Over the years, he has realized he is bigger than most of his classmates, and this has greatly affected his self-perception. In the past, he was invariably a victim of cruel fat jokes and mean-spirited teasing. While students don’t make fun of him to his face anymore, he regularly sees people stare or give him dirty looks.
“If you’re not buff or you’re not at least under 200 pounds, or something that’s average, then you get looked at differently,” Sanchez said. “You’re judged based on what you look like immediately.”
Unfortunately, Sanchez feels pressured to hide his negative feelings about his body, and he never hears about others experiencing what he has experienced. Thus, he feels isolated — and so do others experiencing negative self-image. According to freshman Aaron Macey*, he is often met with advertisements targeted at vulnerable males who are unhappy with their bodies.
“You can’t go five minutes on the Internet without seeing a pop-up ad trying to sell some enhancement product,” Macey said.
While advertisers seem to be aware of men’s insecurities, Macey says that many regular people have no idea this is a problem.
“I think that people need to understand that men are insecure, too, whether they’re skinny or chubby,” freshman Drew Merrill*, who also admits to having struggled with self-image, said. “People think that men have to be muscular in order to be manly.”
Just like with females, there is an idealized portrayal of males in media. In movies and television, the “attractive” men are practically all stock characters: tall, muscular, not too fat, not too thin.
“You can’t be seen as anything along the lines of ‘hot’ unless you’re somebody with an extremely, unrealistically fit body,” Macey said. “I think that image is much more widespread, accepted, and potentially damaging to men than most people realize.”
According to Macey, when men don’t fit this precise description, they are seen in a different light: as nasty and disgusting. He adds that this stereotype is easily internalized.
“The media needs to empower women, but it also needs to cherish men,” Macey said. “We’re all human.”
Despite its clear prevalence, not all men struggle with body image. This may be a contributing factor to how little males’ self-image is talked about in society. No one knows exactly how large of an issue negative self-image is over the entire male population.
“There’s less societal pressure on males to maintain an attractive appearance, so lots of men are ambivalent to the media’s body image cues,” senior David Lutin said.
Lutin has never endured body image issues. Based on his personal experience, he doesn’t believe body image issues in males are nearly as widespread as in females, and therefore, the media should continue to focus on the female aspect of the problem.
“To be perfectly honest, I think most men understand that there’s a continuum of sorts when it comes to body image,” Lutin said. “The morbidly obese and the frighteningly muscular man both have a serious problem, and I genuinely think that most men can understand this concept pretty well.”
But regardless of its frequency, negative self-image extends beyond just emotions. A 2013 Harvard study followed adolescent boys through a period of 13 years and tracked their self-image as well as their mental health. According to the study, boys who saw themselves as overweight or underweight showed significantly higher rates of depression throughout adulthood.
Small displeasures can spiral into serious mental illnesses. Because of this, many men and teens with body image issues subsequently need therapy. A. Todd Lindsey, MA/LPC, is an Atlanta psychotherapist who frequently works with boys and adolescents.
“In my experience, body image issues are very common in males, especially adolescents and young adults,” Lindsey said. “It’s just a matter of whether they will admit it. With so many of the actors in Hollywood and characters in video games muscular, it’s almost become the norm to be sculpted perfectly. Our society promotes unrealistic body ideals, and it’s difficult for males not to compare themselves to those standards.”
Unfortunately, for some people, this issue is much greater than just dissatisfaction: according to Lindsey, body image issues can lead to deadly eating disorders, drug abuse and suicidal tendencies.
However, these issues are not always permanent. Entering into therapy can help some people change their mindset, regain their confidence, and ultimately reverse their unhealthy habits.
Lindsey said, “Some skills I attempt to teach my males are positive self-talk, nutritional education with a referral to a specialist, if needed, concentrating on their ‘inner beauty,’ learning about their own bodies, relaxation skills to help deal with the depression or other emotions, setting realistic goals and celebrating themselves as they are.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities of students personally affected by this issue.