Taut skin, high cheekbones, pouty mouths, washboard stomachs. These ideals are impossible to avoid in our modern world as they radiate from cologne ads, magazine covers, store websites and television commercials.
And they are often impossible to attain.
These ideals, even if they are meant only for sales purposes, have harmful effects on young people. But while much attention has been focused on females, little has been directed at their male counterparts.
Robyn Silverman has long studied body/self-esteem issues among youth. She received her doctorate in child development from Tuft’s University in Boston and is considered an authority on body image. She recently published the book, “Good Girls Don't Get Fat.”
While acknowledging that girls are typically more affected by body issues than boys, mainly because of the emphasis on unrealistically thin figures, Silverman said males are vulnerable, too.
“Boys are absolutely affected by images out there of people like say Matthew McConaughey or other very, very buff figures. We see figures on magazines where they’ve been photo-shopped and retouched to the point where every muscle is showing,” she said.
This new ideal is a relatively recent phenomenon, she said. “If you look at the G.I. Joes and you look at Superman from when I was little, they were not as big and buff as they are now. The action figures have actually changed to reflect a more buff, larger body frame that is, of course, unattainable by most boys.”
Not only has the model male image changed, so have attitudes. In times past, it was considered unmanly for boys and men to be concerned with their appearances, but not these days.
“When our parents were young, I don’t think that it was like that big of a deal,” says Casey Taylor, 13, of Garrett, Ind., north of Fort Wayne. “But now you have like people looking at magazines and stuff and saying, ‘You don’t look like this.’”
Casey says many of his peers worry about their bodies. “A lot of people at our school are overly concerned with the way they look because they always get judged a lot by like the pictures and magazines and stuff that they see,” he said.
Media images factor heavily into the unrealistic expectations teens have of their bodies, but they aren’t the only influence. Family and friends also play heavily into it as well.
Casey and his friends say criticism flows freely along the hallways of their school. Dayton Sweet, 15, also of Garrett, said that while his friends don’t obsess about their looks, he has seen other kids suffer for their appearances. “I think a lot of the younger people wouldn’t have self-image problems if people stopped bullying ’cause I think that’s where a lot of the problems of self-image come from,” he said.
Teens not only want to have the right body but the right clothing as well. But the marketing of certain clothing promotes the same – unattainable – body types, according to Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Mass., who treats boys and men with eating and body-image disorders.
"You just walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch store and you’re bombarded with this huge mural, basically, of a guy with perfect pectoral muscles and a perfect body,” said Olivardia, who also is a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the book “The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys.”
“What they’re selling, it’s more than clothes. What they’re selling is a certain image – ‘Wear this and you will look sexier and more attractive and girls will like you more.’”
This focus on physique has implications far beyond the physical. Olivardia says people who see themselves as physically underwhelming may sell themselves short in the marketplace as well.
“Body image has become a factor that has been integrated into how people think they can succeed,” he said. “So the idea that if they are not looking a certain way that somehow can impede one’s success, which isn’t true in most domains. In most things, you could be successful regardless of how you look.”
Poor body image also can be life-threatening. Stories of teens battling anorexia and bulimia abound, but rarely are boys depicted as victims.
“You know in health class, when they talk about eating disorders? We talked to a lot of my high school patients, and they said it’s never mentioned, the idea that boys could have eating disorders,” Olivardia said.
For boys who seek help, there are few resources. A quick search on Amazon.com reveals most self-help books for negative body images are geared as unisex or female-oriented, with very few specifically for affected men.
Men and boys also come up short if they seek professional treatment. “Some of my male patients haven’t met with the same amount of support. There aren’t treatment facilities that treat men exclusively, and actually, most eating-disorder facilities do not even treat men at all, they’re only designed for girls,” noted Olivardia.
Regardless of how much conversation it receives, though, eating disorders will continue to take a toll on a large portion of society because people are afraid to face up to the problem.
“We have to remember that out of the 10 million cases of eating disorders in America, one million of them are boys and men,” Silverman said.
“If we forget to talk about them, we’re ignoring a pretty large segment of society.”
Reporters Riley Childers, 14, and Nyssa Qiao, 12, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press