Body positivity, body neutrality and inclusivity are the name of the game for women’s fashion and beauty brands. But where have men been in the conversation about body image issues? Turns out, many of them can be found at a gym, quietly whipping their bodies into shape. The topic of body image issues in men, whether it’s body dysmorphic disorders like bigorexia or eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, have long plagued males from as young as 11 years old to those well over their 40s. Notorious for internalising their issues, men prefer to remain stoic in the face of complicated feelings surrounding their body image. However, celebrities like Zac Efron, Sam Smith and Robert Pattinson have started to share their struggles with body image. Channing Tatum, who said that he had to starve himself to achieve his lean physique for the upcoming Magic Mike 3, has also publicly stated that it’s not healthy to be that ripped. You may say that achieving perceived physical perfection is just part of being a celebrity. But even everyday men are pushing themselves beyond their limits due to the rise of fitness accounts on social media that have set the standards for what’s considered physically ‘normal’ today.
A 2020 study published by MaryAnn Liebert Inc called Male Body Image Portrayals on Instagram showed that displaying more muscle on social media garners more likes and views. It’s little wonder then that both adolescent boys and adult men are chasing the ‘Dorito bod’, a term that describes a male body shape characterised by broad shoulders and a small waist that is popularised by bodybuilders. Many enjoy the validation they get through the number of likes they receive on social media, making this ‘struggle’ seem like it’s worth it. But not many have spoken up about why they were motivated to achieve this in the first place. Is it admiration or insecurity?
“The body image issues that men experience are multifaceted and complex,”shares Tan Wei Ying, an associate psychologist at Annabelle Psychology. Tan, who has an interest in body dysmorphia and eating disorders, reveals that physical issues that contribute to poor self-esteem among men typically involve muscularity and adiposity. “Common triggers include cultural and societal expectations, social media use, social comparisons, perfectionistic tendencies and negative life experiences such as teasing and bullying.”
It’s a shallow world
Dominic Chin is no stranger to feeling disillusioned with his body. “I noticed that I was gaining a lot of weight whenI was about 14. I jumped from 61kg to almost 110kg when I was about 21 years old,” the 27-year-old singer-songwriter reveals. He developed a deep sense of self-hatred, and also felt depressed and anxious. Despite this, Chin chose the route of being a performer simply because he enjoyed singing. He hoped to find solace in pursuing his passion, but was quickly proven wrong.
“I thought that only your talent mattered if you wanted to be in the industry. After being in it, I realised that you can’t escape the topic of one’s appearance, whether it’s your own or someone else’s,” Chin admits. “Every detail, from the texture of your skin to how your clothes fit, is pointed out. So, imagine the stress and anxiety I had to endure being hyper aware of every detail, including my weight.”
Chin was prescribed appetite suppressants and he also started working out at a gym to lose weight. Then he developed an unhealthy relationship with food, which he considers his only source of comfort. “I found myself questioning my self-worth every time I ate because I was so afraid of gaining all the weight back,” he recalls. He made the decision to seek psychological help and is happy to report that he is doing well. “It’s not easy to erase all that trauma. But learning how to love myself has taught me to cope whenever I experience intrusive thoughts.”
The glow-up for guys
On the other end of the spectrum, Davin Choo grew up a small and scrawny kid. The 28-year-old e-commerce specialist and freelance personal trainer’s fitness journey was influenced by action heroes of the early ’90s such as Rocky Balboa andThe Terminator. “To me, what Hollywood was showing during that era was are presentation of ideal masculinity,” Choo explains. “Admittedly, there were feelings of inadequacy and insecurity growing upas a skinny child. But these guys motivated me to take my first step into the gym.”
Fast forward to 2022, Choo has amassed a massive following of around 98,000 followers on Instagram. The tables have turned as many now ask him for help in the fitness department. Not only is Choo generous with sharing his fitness and nutrition tips on his social media platform, but he is also not shy about showing off his ripped physique. What he can’t show is the effort he took over six to eight years to get to where he is today. “The fitness culture was not as sophisticated when I started out, so there was a lot of misinformation surrounding fitness and nutrition. There was a lot of trial and error involved in my fitness journey which not many people know about,” he adds.
On whether or not fitness journey posts are toxic, Choo thinks it’s subjective. “What is more pertinent is to recognise that everyone’s journey is different. It is also important to recognise fitness conditions such as body dysmorphia and unrealistic body expectations and manage them early on,” he states.
How then can a man recognise if he has a body dissatisfaction issue?
Navigating the mental maze
“There exists a dichotomy in fitness where chasing fitness is encouraged. But over-obsessing can also be detrimental. Treading this fine line can be difficult,”explains Maximillian Chen, a clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology. He also shares that exercise and a balanced diet can become an issue when they begin interfering with normal daily functioning.
“For example, when an individual begins engaging in weightlifting to the point where they get injured, and continues training through their injuries, it can be indicative of a disorder,” he elaborates. “Other signs include skipping multiple meals, binge eating, camouflaging behaviours, feeling depressed, skipping work and avoiding social settings.”
Tan adds that some men indulge in repetitive actions like constantly checking the mirror and seeking assurance to feel that they are doing something productive about their perceived imperfections. However, these actions make it difficult for the person to realise that their perceptions of their body are inaccurate and unhelpful. “When the anxiety about their body returns, the person may increase the intensity or frequency of these actions.This can lead to a vicious cycle in which the preoccupations about their body and repetitive actions begin to dominate their lives,” he adds.
Changing the landscape
But what is the use of hiding behind pride and ego when it could lead to tragedy? A 2022 report by The Recovery Village called Body Dysmorphic Disorder in Men states that nearly 80 per cent of men with body dysmorphic disorder had contemplated suicide and nearly 25 per cent had attempted suicide.
“Having conversations about body image issues allows men to feel less isolated in the pressures that they face,”shares Tan. Following the examples set by Chin, Efron, Pattinson and Smith will certainly be helpful, but we can also do more to get the message of body acceptance among men across. “The fitness and wellness culture should aim to empower individuals to appreciate their body’s abilities rather than focusing solely on appearance. Dieting and nutritional tips should focus on nourishing the body, rather than starving and promoting unsustainable diets,” Tan suggests.
Social media is another area that must be addressed. “Frequent social media use has been shown to increase the risk of developing body image dissatisfaction and body dysmorphia,” shares Chen. It’s going to be a long while before we see a change in beauty standards for men in the media. Until these undergo a radical shift, it seems that the onus is on the individual and the community around them. Practising mindfulness and knowing when to detox digitally are all part and parcel of training the mind alongside the physique.
A shredded torso, a set of sculpted pecs and toned buttocks are not necessarily a vision of healthy physical standards. Many of us are not models, fitness influencers or bodybuilders, so why put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to look picture perfect when our health is on the line?
For help with body dysmorphia or eating disorder issues, consider reaching out to the Eating Disorders Unit at Singapore General Hospital, the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital or the Community Health Assessment Team for help. You may also reach out to Tan Wei Ying and Maximillian Chen at Annabelle Psychology.