It’s well-established that girls and women feel a ton of pressure to have the “perfect body”—but it doesn’t only weigh heavily on them. Guys, too, deal with endless societal expectations to bulk or “man” up like a Marvel character, for example, and to lose weight or stay “lean” in order to satisfy diet culture’s impossible standards. The social consequences of not living up to these ideals aren’t the same for men, to be sure—their value isn’t inextricably linked with their appearance the way it is for women, for one thing—but that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.
While millions of men struggle with disordered eating and poor body image, research shows that they’re less likely to speak out due to the popular—and might we add inaccurate—assumption that only women experience these problems. And it’s worth noting that body dissatisfaction is particularly common among gay men, who face a unique and intense emphasis on looks.
“Eating disorders and bad body image can affect people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, and sizes, but unfortunately many men suffer without getting treatment due to the stigma,” Jason Nagata, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies eating disorders in boys and men, tells SELF.
The signs aren’t always obvious and can differ from person to person. Some guys engage in extreme dieting or otherwise restrict what they eat. Others might become preoccupied with working out or rely on performance-enhancing drugs to “get ripped.” “At the extreme, these behaviors can lead to muscle dysmorphia—an obsession with becoming muscular,” Dr. Nagata says. “Men may also withdraw from usual activities or friends because they’re so concerned with their body size, shape, and/or appearance.”
Stars like Ed Sheeran, Zac Efron, and Kumail Nanjiani have spoken out about some of the specific challenges men face, but a lot more work needs to be done when it comes to challenging harmful stereotypes and promoting inclusivity, Dr. Nagata says. On that note, if you’re a guy who struggles with bad body image, these are his best tips for feeling better about yourself.
Identify your triggers—especially on social media.
Maybe you’re totally aware that you have a problem but don’t know how to address it. Or perhaps you’ve spent your whole life believing it’s totally normal to think this way, after years and years of absorbing our culture’s unrealistic body standards—which, again, hurt people of all genders.
Regardless of where you’re at, Dr. Nagata suggests reflecting on the people and images that trigger thoughts that something’s wrong with you or that you need to “fix” your appearance. For example, do certain friends regularly comment on or mock others’ weights, or peer-pressure you into adopting a toxic “cheat day” or “skip meal” lifestyle? Are you following fitness influencers who promote a V-shaped torso and six-pack as “ideal” or “healthy”? If you nodded yes to any of the above, the people or content you’re exposed to may be contributing to your sense of shame or inadequacy.
Thanks to social media, “men’s bodies are on display more than ever, and these pictures may be heavily filtered, photoshopped, or the best one out of hundreds of different shots and angles that didn’t make the cut,” Dr. Nagata says. In other words: If you’re constantly comparing yourself to muscular models, influencers, or celebs, it’s no wonder you feel like shit. And in the case of your IRL connections, you shouldn’t feel like you’re being judged or objectified by your own pals or dating partners.
So don’t be afraid to set boundaries (by changing the subject or flat-out telling someone you’re not cool with negative body talk), or to unfollow or mute anyone who leaves you feeling self-conscious, ashamed, or guilty, Dr. Nagata advises. The people you choose to surround yourself with should make you feel inspired and accepted, not like you’re in a never-ending competition and falling short.
Be honest with yourself about how your exercise and/or food routine really makes you feel.
Exercise has numerous health benefits and isn’t in and of itself an indicator of a problem, of course. However, an obsession with working out—to the point where you feel anxious or guilty when you take one rest day or use a trip to the gym as “punishment” whenever you eat certain foods—can signal that your regimen is actually hurting, not helping, your well-being, according to Dr. Nagata.
“You should be engaging in workouts that are fun or stress-relieving, but with eating disorders or muscle dysmorphia, exercise can be taken to the extreme and cause worry or preoccupation instead,” he says. The same goes for your diet: There’s nothing wrong with trying to incorporate a variety of nutritious foods in your meals, but if the way you eat is leaving you feeling drained or constantly hungry, health clearly isn’t the motivation.
That’s why Dr. Nagata suggests a more realistic routine that you can sustain in the long run—rather than “quick fixes” or extreme programs that zap your energy and make you miserable. That may look like learning to follow your body’s cues when it comes to hunger and fullness, or taking more days off when you’re feeling sore or just need a break. It can also be helpful to engage in a mix of different activities (like hiking, yoga, or swimming)—instead of sticking solely to strenuous strength training. Because underfeeding or overworking your body (and hitting the gym for the wrong reasons) kind of defeats the purpose of your “healthy” habits.
If you can’t get things under control on your own, call in the experts.
Asking for help and admitting that you’re struggling is easier said than done—especially for men, who have historically been taught that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Bottling everything up, however, won’t do you any favors, because self-critical thoughts and behaviors thrive in the shadows, Dr. Nagata says.
“Speaking with a health care professional or therapist who specializes in body image issues can be incredibly beneficial, as difficult as it can seem,” Dr. Nagata says, adding that these experts are trained to be empathetic and offer personalized treatment plans to fit your individual situation. “Plus, they’re bound by confidentiality and will keep any information you share private.”
You can start by asking your primary care provider, if you have one, for a recommendation or a referral to a specialist, or googling experts near you. Just be sure to pay special attention to their areas of expertise and credentials: If you’re specifically looking to challenge negative self-talk or low self-esteem, for example, you may benefit most from talking to a licensed therapist or counselor (with PhD, PsyD, LMHC, LCSW, or LPC after their name); if you need dietary guidance, a registered dietitian (RD or RDN) who specializes in disordered eating is probably a better fit.
There’s also a possibility that you’re not quite ready to speak out, which is totally okay, Dr. Nagata says. In that case, there are also various helplines and online support groups that can provide you with anonymous assistance.
And remember: Being unhappy with your body or struggling with food and fitness stuff doesn’t make you weak or any “less of a man.” In fact, it takes a ton of courage to not only acknowledge what you’re going through but to proactively do something about it.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can find support and resources from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). If you are in a crisis, you can text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line for immediate support.