There is more public awareness of the body image issues with which many teenage girls live today than there has been in the past. Medical professionals, parents, teachers, and peers know to be on the lookout for disordered eating behavior in females that might be symptomatic of an eating disorder, although education and awareness programs are still necessary. However, less well understood and recognized is the same problem in adolescent males, which is on the rise.
Impossible Standards for Male Beauty
The media inundates women with images of an ideal body size and shape that is dangerously, unhealthy, and unnaturally thin. Being surrounded by these images causes many women, even those at a healthy weight, to develop body image issues and worry about their weight. Dieting is an almost routine way of life, especially for many teenage girls. Concerns about the obesity epidemic have only made matters worse. Instead of creating more realistic images that demonstrate the beauty in all body shapes and sizes, the media has created a similarly unrealistic standard of beauty for males.
Men are now surrounded by images of idealized thin and muscular body size and shapes that are unattainable for most of them. The ripped six-pack abs and well-defined pectoral and bicep muscles that every male model, athlete, and actor seems to have drives many young men to want the same look. Additionally, GI Joe and superhero action figures also have this stylized body type, potentially misleading young boys about what a real male body should look like, just as Barbie has been accused of doing for generations of young girls. These images set impossible standards for male beauty, causing many young boys to develop body image issues just like their female counterparts. However, their issues are often overlooked because these issues appear differently in adolescent males than they do in girls.
According to a recent study, 18 percent of adolescent males were concerned about their body image, and this and other studies have shown as many as 33 percent of adolescent males engage in disordered eating behaviors due to body image issues.
Disordered Eating Behaviors in Adolescent Boys
While teenage girls often want to lose weight, teenage boys tend to want to gain weight, specifically muscle. Instead of starving themselves or inducing vomiting, they binge eat, excessively exercise, and abuse steroids or protein powders. They are obsessed with their weight, but not with being skinny; instead, they want to get bigger. These differences prevent many people, including medical professionals, from recognizing when a problem exists.
These body image issues can lead to a teenage boy engaging in risky behavior that can damage his developing brain and body. Abusing steroids causes many problems, including hormonal imbalance, acne, breast development, testicular shrinkage, liver disease, and heart problems. Additionally, the protein powders, which are often unregulated and include some anabolic ingredients, can alter the brain chemistry and cause depression and other mental health problems. Overeating or undereating also poses dangers to the body and brain, as does excessive exercise.
Increased Risk of Behavioral Health Problems
The body image issues teenage boys face do not just contribute to an increased risk of developing an eating disorders and associated health consequences. They also increase the risk of developing other mental health conditions and substance abuse problems. A new study looked at the risks young teenager males with excess concern about their weight have of developing an addiction to alcohol, drug abuse problems, obesity, and depression.
The data for this study came from the Growing up Today study. Questionnaires were sent every 12 to 36 months from 1999 to 2010, and a total of 5,527 males aged 12 to 18 responded.
This study found that 9.2 percent of the respondents had high concerns about their muscularity, but did not engage in bulimic behaviors, while 2.4 percent had similar concerns and used supplements, growth hormone derivatives, or anabolic steroids to try to achieve this body shape. About 2.5 percent had concerns about their weight, but did not engage in bulimic behavior, while 6.3 percent were concerned with being thin and muscular. About 0.8 percent had partial or full-criteria bulimia, and 2.9 percent fulfilled the criteria for either partial or full binge eating disorder.
Of the respondents, about 31 percent reported binge eating, purging or overeating without a loss of control. The study also found that many of these people continued to see themselves as underweight, even when they were of a normal, healthy body weight. This is a similar distorted body image to that of teenage girls with a normal, healthy body weight who see themselves as overweight.
This study found that the weight concerns contributed to other behavioral health problems, especially substance abuse and depression. Independent of age and BMI (body mass index), those who were concerned with being thin but not muscular had the highest risk of developing symptoms of depression. Those who were concerned about muscularity and thinness were more likely to use drugs. Those who cared about being muscular and used supplements to enhance their size were more likely to binge drink frequently and use drugs.
Difficulty of Recognizing Eating Disorders in Adolescent Males
Eating disorders are more prevalent in men than once thought. About 1 in 4 current patients with eating disorders are male, and it is estimated that about 10 million men will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders have a high risk of comorbidity with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and addiction. In men, there is also a higher risk of also developing body dysmorphic disorder, especially muscle dysmorphia.
Men face difficulty with being diagnosed and finding the right treatment. Many people do not recognize the symptoms of men, especially as eating disorders are still considered a female condition, even in the medical community. Men are also embarrassed and ashamed to have these issues, especially because they are associated with women, which makes it more difficult for males to seek help. Many treatment programs also are focused on women, or largely made up of women. Males often do not feel comfortable in the programs, which can disrupt their treatment and journey to recovery.
It is important to be aware of the prevalence of the body image issues in teenage boys. These issues can develop into larger, more significant problems including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Just as it is important to teach young women to love their bodies and that the images they see in the media are not natural, young men need to learn that their bodies are beautiful and they do not need to look like a superhero to be attractive.