The World Anti-Doping Association released a report last week on widespread doping and performance-enhancing drug use among Russian athletes, stirring worldwide controversy. Illicit and often unhealthy body-enhancement among male athletes has a long history, from Lance Armstrong to Alex Rodriguez. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to using steroids to boost his physique when preparing for bodybuilding competitions. What is not often spoken about during these revelations — and what must receive wider recognition by the public — is the prevalence and danger of body dysmorphia among men.
Body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with a perceived physical defect, ranging from skin color to body shape. Research suggests that cultural norms about how the ideal body should look contribute a great deal to the prevalence of body dysmorphia. Beautiful, impossibly thin models set unrealistic expectations, and these expectations carry a mental health risk. In recent years, there has been outrage over photo manipulation of female bodies and generally unrealistic standards of female beauty contributing to body disorders. Several countries including France, Israel, Spain and Italy banned the fashion industry’s use of unhealthily thin models. From government and consumer pressure, action is being taken based on an increased awareness of the harmful effects of unrealistic and unhealthy depictions of beauty.
This effort has largely focused on women, and not unjustly. Top positions in the fashion world are still male-dominated, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that this contributes to unrealistic depictions of women. But there is also an unrealistic depiction of men in popular culture. Bulky, muscled men are idealized in film, television and advertisement. For every female superhero clad in slimming leather, there is a male superhero donned in spandex which contours bowling-ball biceps, a bulging chest and six-pack abs. As with women, cultural standards for appearance lead to damaging body image problems. Men almost exclusively suffer from muscle dysmorphia, a form of body dysmorphic disorder, and research has shown that those afflicted are more likely to have attempted suicide and had a significantly higher lifetime prevalence of substance use. But this form of body dysmorphia has only recently been acknowledged in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Male-specific body disorders still remain relatively obscure.
None of this is to say that female body disorders are any less important now that they have received greater awareness in society. There is still much work to be done in the realm of body-advocacy. As a culture, we should not view body disorders as just a female issue, lest we craft a new misogyny. We must fight for both male and female physical health and mental well-being.
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A version of this article appeared in the November 16 print edition. Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]