Body Dysmorphia – Not Just a Female Issue

Attending an all-girls secondary school has meant that for seven years of my life, I have been surrounded by empowering, ‘take no shit from the men’ propaganda.  Passionate form tutors and subject teachers persistently reminded me to value myself not for my appearance and to look to inspirational, pioneering female leaders – Amy Johnson, Mary Seacole, Charlotte Bronte – rather than the fabricated images on the front of Vogue and Marie Claire.  Countless talks about female body image and the warning signs for bulimia and anorexia became common place during PSHCE classes.  This emphasis upon female body image, however, has led me to neglect any consideration of male body dysmorphia until very recently.  The phrase has an immediate association with the established conditions bulimia and anorexia, often falsely considered to be purely female issues.  The NHS has estimated that 1.6 million Britons are suffering from some form of eating disorder, with reports estimating that up to 25% may be male.  Pressures through social media are only adding to this, with lesser researched conditions such as ‘bigorexia’, described as ‘reverse anorexia’, demonstrating that male body dysmorphia is on the rise and our superficial, image-obsessed society is encouraging this worrying increase.

Although most women would confess to lusting over Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, his rippling torso and virtually pornographic dance moves speaking to female fans through cinema screens, rarely do we consider the price men must pay to look this good.  Actors such as Channing and – I’m talking to the Twilight die-hards now – Taylor Lautner have perfected their chiselled bodies to a degree which seems impossible for the mere man.  Turn up to the weights section of your local gym, however, and you will start to notice that younger and younger men are supposedly achieving this impossible feat, getting ‘ripped’, ‘shredded’ and ‘cut’ to fit society’s conception of the desirable modern-day male.  Reggie Yates has recently released a documentary with BBC, called ‘Dying for a Six Pack’, as part of his Extreme UK series, focusing on men and their place in Britain.  His investigation into the motivations behind the changing face of male body image has revealed some deeply worrying trends surrounding Britain’s young men.  Not only is there growing recognition that younger men are becoming gym-obsessed, dabbling in drug use through access to anabolic steroids without any form of education; some are even going to the lengths of plastic surgery to achieve the ideal, having artificial six packs created abroad by sucking out the fat to accentuate their muscles.  One of the most concerning techniques to lose water from the body, and therefore create definition, is by working out in environments with very high temperatures, which could lead to dehydration, heat stroke and even problems with the heart.  The original purpose of the gym experience, to get fit, lose weight and tone, has become lost through the desire to create an action figure body.  Just as it is impossible to recreate the Barbie body in a healthy female, the proportions meaning that she would be unable to lift her head and would have to crawl on all fours, the healthy male should not be aspiring to match the action figure image.  

As with many of society’s faults, the increasing power and influence of social media is a key contributor to this problem.  By using the hashtag 'gains', 'ripped', 'pumped' or 'bodybuilder', a series of images automatically flash up on screens displaying unrealistic and, if I’m being honest, grotesque bodies.  Yes they are a sign of time and effort dedicated to a single pursuit; yes they demonstrate commitment to a challenge; and yes, they deeply worry me.  If Britain’s young men are growing up in a generation which endorses protein shakes and dried meat snacks over a healthy and balanced diet, and offers steroids as a ‘quick fix’ to attaining that perfect body, I definitely have a problem with gym culture.  Most worrying is my belief that Reggie’s ‘Extreme’ documentary is becoming more commonplace than we would like to admit. Our inflated idea of beauty, of masculinity and femininity, and conforming to a certain image is demonstrated as much through bigorexia, as other conditions such as bulimia and anorexia.  The sooner we start to realise that body image is a problem for all genders, the sooner something can be done to tackle it.

Edited by Katie Randall