Building up the male body image
The release of “Skyfall” marks the return to the silver screen of the iconic James Bond, the suave spy who is often described as the “ideal man.” He’s got the smooth moves, the exciting lifestyle, and, of course, the muscular physique many men aspire for.
Even if they aren’t directly emulating 007, many men work out in order to achieve a body like his. Bond may be in his 40s, but men of all ages are increasingly hitting the gym, and are doing so earlier in life than ever before.
According to a study published last Monday in the journal Pediatrics, young boys today are increasingly fixated on the idea of a muscular, chiseled body as the ideal for a man. The study notes that “the use of muscle-enhancing behaviors is substantially higher than has been previously reported and is cause for concern” due to the risky behaviors boys are partaking in to achieve these bodies.
Boys barely into puberty report regular muscle-building workouts, before their bodies are ready for it. Taking supplements in high school is becoming the norm. Perhaps most worryingly, anabolic steroids are increasingly prevalent among adolescent boys, with 6 percent reporting the use of steroids in the Pediatrics study.
Steroids are a health hazard for any person taking them without the supervision of a doctor, and pose particular dangers to young men. Steroids “stop testosterone production in men,” says Dr. Shalender Bhasin of the Boston University School of Medicine to the New York Times. This can lead to serious withdrawal problems when boys in puberty try to take them.
The idea of young adults suffering from body image issues is not new; the issues young women face because of the media pushing the need for unattainable bodies on them are well documented. For young girls, this results in serious health issues like bulimia and anorexia.
But while not taking away from the seriousness of the issue in regards to women, the Pediatrics study shows that body image issues apply to men too. The idea of the perfect female body and perfect male body are pushed onto young adults by American culture, and this results in both young women and men damaging their bodies to achieve it.
For men, the ideal body is muscular, lean and tanned – in the New York Times article, a young man cites soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo as the ideal male body. This body image is the result of traditional stereotypes associated with men, related to a hegemonic form of masculinity that pervades American culture. Men are meant to be physically strong and powerful, able to win fights and dominate others physically. For many men, their identity as males depends on their ability to prove this first in a fistfight.
This unhealthy view of masculinity as dependent on physical power and aggression manifests itself in many ways, from the innocent like a premium on team sports, to the serious like high rates of domestic violence. Here, it results in body shaming those who do not have the ideal male body, and pressures them to go to extreme lengths to attain it. As a result, we see young men taking health risks in order to achieve an unattainable image.
These risks are not just limited to premature body-building, however. Gay men face a particular social pressure to be thin and lean. For example, a College Humor video making the rounds on social media shows a series of gay men threatening to “steal your girlfriends” if straight men don’t change their attitudes. One stereotype associated with gay men on display in the video is the idea that all gay men are thin and lean, with one man simply saying into the camera, “and we [gay men] are in better shape, because we go to the gym. That’s right, we ALL do.”
As a result of this pressure to be thin, gay and bisexual men have a much higher rate of eating disorders than straight men do. Men will suffer from disorders such as bulimia out of a desperate attempt to get thin and achieve the body expected of a gay man.
The perfect and unattainable bodies pushed on young men result in unhealthy behaviors for much the same reason the idealized bodies pushed on young women do so: there is a greater emphasis on beauty than health in American culture. Women are pressured to be skinny, not healthy, and so turn to unhealthy behaviors in order to become skinny. Similarly, young men risk their health in order to get a big body that will look good: bod for the beach, curls for the girls, as the saying goes. The added social pressures of power and aggression result in the idealized male body skewing towards big and muscular.
These pressures need to be removed, or the health and well-being of all adolescents will continue to be put at risk. Young adults need to be educated on the idea of a healthy body, as opposed to a perfect body.
It’s time for society to put the spotlight on other body types, for men and women, besides the traditionally idealized versions we always see, because while a perfect body is attainable by none, a healthy body is a positive goal for all to strive for.
Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.