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The Male Ideal Isn't

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Chiseled pectorals, bulging biceps and a washboard-flat stomach are the societal images of today's "ideal" male body. In struggling to live up to this image, many young men in the United States are developing eating disorders.

About 1 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, a problem once thought only faced by women.

"The number of men with eating disorders and body image disturbance is steadily increasing," said Brian Kassar, a counselor at Montana State University.

Kassar, who has worked in clinical settings at a number of universities with men who have eating disorders, said that eating disorders include a variety of behaviors which include restricted eating, intense fears of becoming fat, binge eating, purging or compulsive overeating.

"Studies show that men's dissatisfaction with their body image has tripled over the last 30 years and that as many as one in 10 men have eating disorders," Kassar said.

This body image disturbance is defined by a man having distressing thoughts, fears or worries about his body. This is often accompanied by desires, preoccupations, and attempts to alter appearance through diet, exercise or disordered eating.

The images of the overly muscular male are prevalent in fitness magazines, fashion advertisements, popular movies and television. Even toys reflect the trend. Kassar noted research that described that the action figure GI Joe in 1974 would have a 31 inch waist, 44 inch chest and 12 inch biceps if he were a real man. The GI Joe of today has a real male equivalent to a 28 inch waist, 50 inch chest and 22 inch biceps.

"This trend is a matter of concern because researchers think that it impacts how men view their own bodies," Kassar said. "The muscular form being portrayed may not even be attainable without the use of steroids."

In 1999 men spent $3.3 million on men's grooming and toiletries, $4.27 billion on gym memberships and home exercise equipment, $1.6 billion on hair transplants and restoration, and $5.07 million on cosmetic procedures like pectoral implants and liposuction.

Kassar noted that a study of college males found that when asked to pick their ideal body type, study participants picked body types that had an average of 28 pounds more muscle then their own bodies.

"Body image disturbance often goes unnoticed because men tend to look healthy or engage in what we typically see as healthy behaviors like working out," Kassar said. "While working out is healthy, excessive exercise can be detrimental if it's done in order to allay the fear or anxiety accompanying an unhealthy body image."

Disordered eating in men has given rise to the term muscle dysmorphia or reverse anorexia. The term was coined by the authors of "The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession." With muscle dysmorphia, men who are large and muscular look in the mirror and want to be bigger. So they then work out even harder and may even take steroids and get even larger.

The symptoms of muscle dysmorphia include being anxious and depressed about your body or about working out, needing to work out every day, missing school or work to exercise and working out to the point of exhaustion.

Kassar says that research is showing that this condition is rising because of the changing roles of men and women.

"In the past, a man's masculinity and strength were explicit and his role in society clearly defined," he said. "Now men may feel the need to exhibit masculinity on a more explicit level through their physical appearance."

According to Kassar, body image disorder in men is more difficult to treat because many men view it as a woman's problem and don't seek treatment.

"Many physicians don't think to address the issue with men and, also, overeating is more acceptable in men," he said. "There's also a bias in treatment programs. Most programs are female only and the majority of preventative and educational programming is geared to women.

Kassar suggests that the key to ending the cycle of eating disorders in men is for them to reconsider what the "ideal" male body type is and become aware of how the media manipulates that image; stop and think what is motivating them to exercise or diet. Exercise for health first and appearance second, and seek help from a physician or counselor if there are problems with weight, eating or body image.

By Brenda McDonald -- Posted for March 13, 2002


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Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factcouraud. (2007, May 22). The Male Ideal Isn\'t. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License