There have been many efforts to raise awareness for body image issues and eating disorders, especially among girls, who try to strive towards an unattainable or unrealistic body and torture themselves physically (and mentally) in the process. These health conditions, especially eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, are deathly serious. But they aren’t solely unique to girls. Teen boys can and do worry about their body image, often to a similar level of detriment. Male anorexia does exist, may be underdiagnosed, and does carry a significant death toll – but many teens with male body image issues are worried about being too small rather than not thin enough.
As with other body image issues, the core of the matter isn’t your teen’s actual body. While we should take care of ourselves, many physical elements are relatively set in stone when we’re born – from potential height to facial features and bone structure. Even the level of muscle we can put on is dependent on our genes, and not everyone can hit a genetic lottery. Teen male body image issues are born from an intense self-loathing and a feeling that – no matter how one looks – it isn’t good enough.
Understanding Teen Male Body Image Issues
While some boys do struggle with an obsession with thinness, our focus today will be on a different kind of body dysmorphic disorder, commonly called muscle dysmorphia. Teens with muscle dysmorphia generally perceive themselves as less muscular than they are or feel that they need to be much more muscular.
This can lead to unhealthy eating habits, exercise regimens, and even anabolic steroid abuse. It’s important to separate a healthy and positive relationship with sports and progressive physical goals to a disordered perspective, where self-destructive habits are a symptom of underlying self-loathing and depression.
Teens with body image issues aren’t training to reach a certain goal, nor are they training solely because they enjoy it. Their eating and exercise habits are an unhealthy coping mechanism and consequence of a mental health issue that stems from a disordered self-image. Even professional bodybuilders, who win awards for their dedication to size and symmetry, have confessed to looking in the mirror and seeing nothing but flaws.
How Do Teen Male Body Image Issues Develop?
As with other mental health issues, there are several factors at play. One might appear more prevalent than others – such as being bullied for one’s looks, pressure from coaches or peers to perform and get bigger, or an obsession with online fitness content. But it’s usually multiple factors coming together that lead to the development of body image issues. These include:
- Home environment and stress
- Pressure to perform
- Peer influence
- Depression and anxiety
Advertisements and Social Media
It’s become something of a staple to blame social media for our societal problems, especially mental health. Still, the evidence for social media’s impact on self-esteem and male body image is quite strong. The very nature of social media as a reflection of society’s pop interests and a medium that plays an active daily role in shaping a teen’s worldview means that teens are strongly influenced by what they see online.
When it comes to masculinity and male attractiveness, teens are regularly bombarded with images of incredibly muscular athletes, actors, and influencers, not all of which attained their bodies through “natural” or healthy means. It’s no secret that the average Hollywood star has been steadily trending towards a more muscular body in the last few decades, and male influencers – especially in the fitness industry – are all chiseled out of the same marble.
The average teen or adult male can pack on some muscle in a year of training and make about half of the same gains in their second year, diminishing returns over time. Some are luckier than others, and some take longer to develop. Most fitness transformations – especially in industries where these are meant to make a sale, from movie tickets to diet programs – go “above and beyond” regular exercise and healthy eating, to the point that they may often use some supplemental help.
We aren’t talking about protein shakes, either. For impressionable teens, these unrealistic transformations and training goals can be actively harmful – especially when they realize they aren’t making anywhere near the same amount of progress. These influences aren’t black or white. There is certainly an argument to be made for the positive impact of a social media feed revolving around health and wellness.
And teens with interest in physical fitness and sports are just pursuing their hobby, as any other teen might. But as with anything else, the dose makes the poison, and to an insecure teen, overexposure to the “ideal male body” can greatly warp their sense of what is normal and healthy. Where that line should be drawn depends entirely on the person.
Body Image Issues and Mental Health
Low self-esteem and body image issues correlate heavily with existing mental health issues. This means that boys struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions are more likely to feel inadequate about how they look, regardless of what pressure they’re exposed to (or lack thereof). Sometimes, it’s enough to look around and realize that you look different from your peers to begin feeling down about that difference, especially if you perceive it to be negative.
Conversely, a burgeoning body image problem can lead to other mental health issues later down the road. What might begin as a hobby, but has since turned into an obsession, can fuel feelings of depression and anxiety, especially concerning one’s appearance and physical fitness. You can look conventionally attractive, perform above average in sports, and be stronger and fitter than your other classmates, but still be deeply unhappy with your body. Maybe you think your quads are too small.
Maybe you feel weak because you only bench more than your peers but haven’t claimed the state record. Meanwhile, a teen with a healthy body image might not be the strongest, tallest, or fittest in their group, but don’t feel worried about it either. When struggling with body image issues, how you currently look never matters – your goals will always shift towards the unattainable and will become a source of constant misery rather than a form of motivation. The problem doesn’t start with your body. It’s always a matter of mental health.
How Are Teen Body Image Issues Treated?
If your teen is showing signs of body dysmorphia, such as being deeply unhappy about how they look, being overly critical of their body at all times, and going to unhealthy lengths to try and change themselves, it’s a good idea to contact a professional first. It takes time to address and confront disordered thinking, especially when it’s rooted in strong self-loathing. Teen male body issues require learning to accept oneself, tackling low mood and anxious thoughts, and developing a healthier way to cope with negative thinking through therapy and medication.