Are young men under increasing pressure to look and act a certain way? Valerio Esposito investigates
Originally published in Boomerang Magazine.
In the gym, the place where men tear themselves apart, ripping the tissue in their muscles and trying to erase their past selves. Three screens are hanging from the ceiling and the football game is on. Two goals are scored, but stay ignored. The men are hypnotised, their steely gazes magnetically attracted to the mirror, glued to a reflection that feels alive, but has no place in reality.
“Women have had to deal with this since the beginning of time – the pressure to be, look and dress in a certain way – but men are just starting to adjust to this,” says Andrew McMillan, poet and lecturer at the Manchester Writing School.
He recently wrote a poetry collection, Physical, revolving around the subject: “There’s very little poetry that examines, from a man’s perspective, what it means to be a man.” In the poem ‘Strongman’, he initiates an intimate reflection on the role of men in the 21st century with a question: “What is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?”
“When I was 16 I had an eating disorder, I lost a lot of weight and I started exercising. At that point I started observing gym culture, where mainly straight men build themselves and get bigger as a sort of compensation for something else.
“A lot of the aggression comes from this idea of not really knowing what they should be and still trying to search for this sort of dominance that they feel they’ve lost.”
As society moves forward, the roles are changing and the modern man starts breaking, in the hope to be reborn as a better version of himself: more beautiful, more muscular, more man.According to a study by the Bristol-based Centre of Appearance Research, men are becoming increasingly worried about their appearance, with more than 80 per cent showing anxiety about how they look or are perceived.
As a result of these anxieties, some men resort to illegal drugs, extreme diets and compulsive exercise. Data released by the NHS has revealed that, over the past seven years, the number of men seeking treatment for an eating disorder has risen by 70 per cent, with the number of male diagnoses increasing from 480 in 2010-2011 to 818 in 2015-2016.Increasingly, these types of disorders turn into more severe conditions, such as bigorexia or muscle dysmorphia. According to the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, one in 10 male gym users in the UK are believed to have some form of muscular dysmorphia.
“Men with muscle dysmorphia experience constant obsessions about their perceived lack of musculature or the fear of losing muscle mass,” explains Roberto Olivardia, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Adonis Complex, which explores the secret crisis of male body obsession. “This is coupled with compulsive behaviours of mirror checking, weight lifting, and constant scrutiny.”
According to Olivardia, this condition has many negative implications, often resulting in depression, substance abuse and suicide, since “these men rarely receive understanding from others, who mistake this body image disorder as vanity”.
Lorenzo Cerciello understands all too well the devastating consequences that muscle dysmorphia can have on a man’s self-perception, having worked as a personal trainer for five years: “One day, as I was training, I was approached by a man. He looked at me and told me he admired me and wished he could be as big as me. I thought he was kidding but I quickly realised that he was completely serious. He was three times as big as me.”
Much like women, men are now bombarded by a number of influences coming from the media, which promote an unachievable idea of how a successful and attractive a man should look. In his solo performance
Feasting on Famine, Canadian dancer Shay Kuebler introduced the concept of “corporatisation” of the male body: “Men want to identify with what they see on TV or the magazines. In turn, the media take that and shape it into something even more extreme. And there is a whole industry that feeds off these insecurities.
“If the media allows a sustainable body image, we’re not going to be able to keep it growing. It’s something that we keep enhancing over and over and then normalise it. It’s the corporation model applied to the body, built on the idea of a constant need for growth. And that’s just not going to work.”
The recent rise in these types of disorders is partially down to social media. Platforms like Instagram, for example, are built entirely on their users’ perceived aesthetic. The opinion of young people seems to be deeply affected by one’s self-portrayal on these platforms, a trend which is progressively shaping the perception young men have of themselves and others.
“We use these devices as this kind of mirror for ourselves,” Shay continues. “When people push themselves to these extremes, it’s because they want to be looked at. And now we can show ourselves on a device where we can get thousands and millions of people to look at us, basing our sense of worth on a rating system that becomes a lens into what it means to be male.”
Joe Warner, editor of Men’s Fitness, says that it’s too easy to demonise the media and point your finger at men’s magazines: “The one thing we’ve always tried to do is to offer smart training and nutrition advice. There’s no point in dieting for six months, being absolutely miserable to get a six pack and then screwing up your relationship with food or friends and family because you’re always at home eating chicken and broccoli.”
But these pressures to look a certain way can sometimes come from unexpected sources. A recent study draws a link between video games and their “negative impact on male body satisfaction”, explains researcher Zeely Denmat, pointing out how “popular games tend to uphold these unrealistic standards of muscularity and bulk”.
However, eating disorders and body image issues existed long before video games and social media were invented and the origin can perhaps be traced back to the notion of what it means to be a man, which is a product of both societal and biological factors.A 22-year-old London student, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us about his challenging struggle with his body image, after coming to hate himself for the way he looked: “I was young, I was bullied, I had some issues at home and I was pushed around a lot since I was skinny. That drove a rage inside me, which I chose to release through exercise.”
Now that he has established a healthier relationship with his body, he admits that, at the time, the strongest influence came from his small group of male friends: “Growing up in a small town, I could not show weakness. I could not express my feelings or people would think I am a homosexual or something. In my group of friends, instead, we pushed each other to get bigger and stronger, because that’s how you get respect.”
Nancy Mramor, a media and health expert and licensed psychologist, confirms these impressions on the internal dynamics in male groups, explaining why men might not want to be associated with other men with a lesser physique: “In general, women have a cooperative spirit and men have a competitive spirit,” she says.
“It’s like the man who steers away from his friend who just got divorced, because he does not want to be seen in the same way. We are often judged by the company we keep and if appearance is the overriding way in which you judge your worth, then you are less likely to be sympathetic to others.”
Indeed, a survey conducted by the Credos advertising think-thank has shown that, when it comes to appearance, the strongest influences come from friends, followed by social media, advertising and celebrities.
Joe Warner points out that while these issues hold some degree of responsibility, the answer to our questions may be more nuanced than that: “We came out of a huge recession, for the first time young people are really struggling to get on the housing ladder, there’s not the jobs that there were twenty years ago and university is more expensive, so some kids may feel that their body is the only thing they have control over.”
In the meantime, he urges people to not get caught in the blame game but to focus on finding an effective strategy to stop this epidemic: “We can keep on pointing our finger to Hollywood, the magazines or social media, but in many respects it doesn’t matter how we got here, what’s important is what we can do about it and what we’re going to do to stop it.