“But positive commentary makes them feel more self-conscious, too. It’s almost like objectification, they’ve reduced you to something that’s to be labelled.”
Does that mean it’s wrong to compliment someone? I don’t think so. I like compliments. I’m even fine with specific questions about weight loss from people who seriously want to know, maybe because they are trying to do the same thing.
But appearance is tricky, maybe even more so for men, if for no other reason than there are fewer support systems.
“Women have risen up about Barbie, whereas men haven’t found their voice,” said St. Petersburg therapist Kathleen Bishop, a licensed clinical social worker. “They’re thinking, ‘Maybe the reason the girl is not interested in me is that I’m not as buff as the dude in the corner.’?”
A study in which Thompson participated a decade ago, of west-central Florida boys ages 13 to 17, found that 5 per cent took anabolic steroids. Three other studies of teenage boys, from 1992 to 2005, show that same figure or higher. And the May 2017 Current Psychiatry Reports correlated extreme measures by adolescent males to look both muscular and lean, including steroid use, with more conventionally defined eating disorders among females. In some cases, boys being treated for anorexia shifted from “thinness-oriented” to “muscularity-defined eating disorders presentations.” The authors concluded with a plea for more research into traditional and muscularity-defined eating disorders in males.
Signals from popular culture seem to run in two different directions. In the 40 years since Star Wars debuted, Thompson said, action figures have bulked up significantly. “Han Solo has increased in size dramatically,” Thompson said. “The Hulk 30 years ago was not that big. The Hulk today is huge.”
At the same time, millennial male models appear almost gaunt, and it’s hard to imagine a muscular man fitting into their slimcut clothes. “You look at professional golfers, there is no more muscularity anymore,” Thompson said. “They all have the same body type. They are lean, they talk about the speed of the club doing the work. Look at Hollywood actors other than the Rock (Dwayne Johnson). Look at Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds or almost any leading male actor. They are all really skinny.”
Thompson thinks he knows the best way to find out how males feel about their bodies. Ask them. “It’s almost like we need to do a focus group, get 10 or 20 boys together, 15 to 18, and say, ‘What’s your ideal body type and why?’ I don’t think we know.”
My own ideal has changed several times, from muscular to lean to whatever comes next. I still struggle with fear. I look forward to the day when eating doesn’t feel like taking a panther for a walk. Will it stay on the leash?
At the same time, not being in crisis is a tremendous relief. I remember in my most stressed-out moments that I am alive and healthy. I take a deep breath, then another.