CW: This blog post includes topics of disordered eating, body image, and diets. If you or someone you know may be struggling or if you have any concerns, please feel free to reach out to the Wellness Center (717 245-1663 or email email@example.com), or the NEDA Hotline (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline).
Although the events of Love Your Body Week each year aren’t all geared towards women-identifying and non-binary people, it is those people I tend to see at these events and at events that we at the Women’s and Gender Resource Center host. I believe a large part of that is due to the stigma there is around men talking about their bodies, their sexuality, and really anything that might not fall under the normative narrative around masculinity. That is why I think this event was so essential and important. Discussions of the issues of negative body image and eating disorders is so often centered on how so many women deal with these things, which is true, but that narrative ignores the fact that so many men and people who don’t identify themselves within the gender binary do as well.
The purpose of the “Masculinity and Body Image” event was to have a conversation that isn’t had regularly about men, disordered eating, and negative body images. We heard from Professor Suman Ambwani, who teaches about eating related psychopathology, and from two Wellness Center staff members, Counselor Todd Drazien and Nutritionist Courtney Hager.
Professor Ambwani honed in on an important point- that negative body image doesn’t just have one meaning. People can be unhappy with their bodies no matter what they look like and, for men, it is not uncommon to have body dissatisfaction about being too skinny, or not muscular enough. She spoke about athletes particularly, but other men as well, in that the expectations to look muscular or a certain kind of “fit” can be destructive and lead people to disordered eating, working out excessively, and unhealthy dieting techniques. One thing she said really stuck with me- how many times, particularly with athletes, advice or expectations come from people who are trusted and who may seem to know what they are talking about. But while the advice they give may be good for “maximum performance,” it can be unhealthy and lead to disordered behaviors. Finally, Professor Ambwani problematized the good/bad food and exercise dichotomies: That while eating “clean” or “healthy” may seem productive and good for you, it is easy to get lost in that thinking, and then thoughts of what you are eating, and how you eat or work out often take over people’s lives. This really resonated with me, and encouraged me to stop thinking about foods as good or bad, but rather what allows me to feel good, and to not analyze what I am eating to a point where I am not enjoying myself or the people around me.
Todd shared a really interesting part of a longer video (“Man Enough Episode 3 – The Ugliness of Body Image”), which includes famous men talking about body image. It can be shocking to see men you think are normatively “attractive” and “masculine” speak out saying that they too struggle with body image, but that just emphasizes the importance of having these conversations. He spoke about how at Dickinson, he rarely sees male students come in to talk about disordered eating or body image. However, Todd acknowledged that this is not because they don’t exist, but that it is so stigmatized and ingrained in male students that masculinity does not include body issues or thinking about disordered eating. One thing that stood out to me was when he said male students struggling with body image are harder to spot, even for him, because working out and going to the gym often is seen as “masculine,” when really it could be an unhealthy outlet/obsession. Courtney followed this up by adding that men, because of the bias of these issues being seen as women’s issues, often don’t qualify for having an eating disorder based on its medical definition in the DSM, but that in no way means that they don’t have the problems. She also brought up advertisements and popular culture, and how those things often idealize a muscular, naked, “masculine” man. Much like women who try to strive to look like the “ideal” woman created in popular culture today, men see those “manly men” and strive for that ideal. But, and Courtney really focused on this point, that ideal is often not healthy for the individual.
And here is what I thought was one of the most useful and important statements throughout the event. Courtney said that idealized body types are often not healthy, or even attainable, because everyone’s body structures are different. For many people, their bone structure would not allow them to look like what they are striving for (if that is the media’s “ideal” person), because it is physiologically impossible. While this causes shame and the ways people strive to change their bodies can be dangerous and hurt their bodies, I think this point needs to be made to every single person struggling with body image. Your body is yours, and it is built in a unique, individual way. Of course, there are strategies to help yourself look and feel your best, but your best is NOT the same as those images we see in the media of idealized people, which may not even be those models’ or actresses’ or athletes’ best. Courtney said that health is not what the media depicts it as, but rather what each of us truly want to feel like in order to live a good life.
I would like to acknowledge that I came to this event having spoken about these issues prior. However, almost every time a professional has spoken to me about body image, whether that be about myself or about body image as a social issue, it has been framed as a women’s issue that affects so many young girls. It is of course important to recognize all of the female-identifying folks who struggle with body image and disordered eating. However, these problems need to be framed as a human issue, and we need to stop leaving other folks out of the conversations and the aid that is available.
Written by Sophie Ackert ’21, WGRC student worker
February 17, 2021