For all my talk of body image, today I’m really excited to get the perspective of Thomas Fewer, LPC-S, on men’s body image. Thomas is the founder and director of the New Orleans Counseling Center.
Do men have body image issues? Yes, some do. Would they like to discuss them with you? No, most would not. I am a male. I am also a professional counselor. The majority of clients that I’ve seen in my practice have been females. That certainly doesn’t mean that women have more mental health issues than men. It just means that they’re more willing to acknowledge when they need help and then ask for it. This may not be surprising news but, when it comes to body image, men’s reasons for staying silent are a little more complex.
Male reticence on this topic revolves around the need to prove masculinity, avoid shame and not appear vulnerable. Let’s first look at the relationship between body image and masculinity. In our culture to be a man is to be strong. Displaying physical strength is one sure fire way that we, as men, can prove our masculinity to ourselves and others. When we are uncertain of our masculinity we will go to extremes in this area. Compulsive working-out, steroid use and physical aggressiveness can all be ways men cope with unhealthy body images. Weakness, dysfunction or inadequacy of any kind, especially in the physical realm, are not manly virtues. Simple things like going to the doctor for a routine check-up can be seen as potential threats to our perceived virility. This puts men at even greater risk because health problems are allowed to linger on rather than being caught early.
Shame also plays a large role in the development of body image issues in men. This can sometimes be traced back as far as being teased in the locker room during junior high gym class. It can also be triggered by a fear that we might not “measure up” to other partners that our girlfriend/ wife has been with. The natural aging process itself can also be an immense source of insecurity in men. Oftentimes shame is caused by men comparing ourselves to some imaginary ideal male that we will never be. Regardless of what is at the root, shame remains a powerful force is the male psyche. Steven Krugman states that:
Boys are discouraged from open acknowledgement of doubts, insecurities and fears. Fears of self-disclosure and the secrets of one’s shameful inferiorities- physical, sexual, emotional- breed social and emotional isolation. In their mutual silence about common concerns, they lose the opportunity for social amelioration and modulation of shameful experience.
Basically we become closed off and do not let ourselves become vulnerable to anybody.
If there is a male in your life that you feel has a body image issue I would not recommend trying to address it directly, at least not at first. This is an emotionally charged area that requires a man to to be quite vulnerable to discuss with you. Validation and openness can go a long way.Yes, men do need validation of what you admire about them both mentally and physically. They also need to know that you are open to listen to them if and when they are ready to talk about it. To conclude I would like to leave you with five strategies for attempting to address this issue with the man that you care about:
- When he discusses body-related concerns express interest and then listen.
- Model vulnerability for him by disclosing an insecurity of your own.
- Make non-threatening observations of behavior changes (i.e. “It seems like you’ve been hitting the gym a lot more lately.”)
- Bring it up in the context of a doctor/ counseling visit.
- If his health is seriously at risk due to this issue be more direct.
Thank you, Thomas! To follow up on Thomas’s article, I recently found Defining the New Male Ideal a compelling and worthwhile read as well.