Man’s own image

Chelsea Woods

Many Villanova students would agree that walking across campus is like walking through a fashion magazine. While on the surface this may seem harmless, it reveals that the cultural obsessions with body and style penetrate even to the microcosm of a university. It is here that the competition is highest and the fight for the best looking is brutal. It is a silent fight – one in which almost everyone participates and almost no one is immune.

In a society where outward appearance is often valued above individual character, it seems that beauty no longer needs to be natural. Rather, it can be injected, tucked, shaped and toned. The recent Academy Awards demonstrated that the gown was more important than the Oscar. The covers of almost every magazine display the perfect body type as the one with the best abs, the biggest breasts, the most voluptuous hair, the most chiseled jaw and the most rippling biceps. It leaves one wondering what are the consequences of such messages.

The immediate guess might be self-esteem issues, body-image misconceptions and even eating disorders. The second guess might be to associate these things primarily with the female gender. While these are reasonable conclusions, one cannot discount males entirely when examining the effects of society’s body messages on the human psyche. Men take an equal hit from the pressures of body image – an obsession that has become a full-time job and full-contact sport among adolescents today.

The message sent to young men is often very different from the one received by women. While young girls are handed the image of a tall, thin woman, men often receive a muscular, strong-looking male as their model.

In “Males With Eating Disorders,” edited by Arnold E. Anderson, M.D. this cultural image is addressed: “Through their peers and through the media, young men are confronted daily with a definition of manhood … the popular ideal overemphasizes physical strength, force and athletic skills.”

Oftentimes men are expected to possess strength and excel in physical activities such as athletics. With these expectations comes a certain male body type valued by the majority.

“I feel that a guy who’s strong and fit is [considered] more attractive than a guy who’s not,” freshman Sean DeWolf says. “With guys, I don’t think it’s so much a pressure to be thin as it is to be physically fit and look strong. The more defined [your body is], the better.”

He feels that the pressure, however, comes more from girls than from other guys.

“It’s almost like feeling that you have to look better than other guys for [girls] to appreciate you,” he says. “Looking like you can protect [girls] is what goes into the mentality.”

This wraps back to the bullet point on the cultural list of desirable male traits: a man must be strong. The way in which men seem to achieve such a goal is through exercise, primarily weight training. “Lifting,” as it is termed, is a common practice among males done in order to increase their musculature. This is especially desirable among athletes.

“For an athlete, the body is the tool for performance in a sport,” says freshman Nick Esposito, a former hockey player. “Optimal performance is the aim. The body is not the aim. It’s just the means to the goal.”

In this way, males differ from women in how they deal with the pressures of body image.

“I think [guys] have a better shot at being content with their bodies,” Esposito says. “For girls, it doesn’t really seem like there’s a reachable goal. For guys, if you can get buff, you’ve reached a goal.”

However, when athletics enters into the equation, the line can becomes less clear. It can become an obsession for guys. Because of the emphasis placed on the body in sports, male athletes usually feel more pressure to be strong and fit than men who do not play a sport. One of the ways this manifests itself is in male eating disorders.

“Even though I went to an all-girls’ school, I was never exposed to the potential for a guy to have an eating disorder,” freshman Kate Devine says. “As a girl, I know that most girls are not attracted to skinny guys, so I never thought a guy would have an eating disorder.”

This brings to light two common misconceptions. The first is that males are not vulnerable to eating disorders. However, the National Eating Disorders Association’s Web site states that 10 percent of all individuals that suffer from an eating disorder are male.

The site also highlights that men involved in low-weight sports, such as wrestling, running, gymnastics and crew, are highly susceptible to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa “because their sports necessitate weight restriction.”

The second misconception is that eating disorders are restricted to those that facilitate weight loss.

“Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind with male eating disorders is a male gymnast,” says DeWolf, referring to a male who is extremely thin.

However, this does not present an accurate picture of the phenomenon. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness’ Web site notes another type of eating disorder, coined “reverse anorexia.” According to the Web site, “reverse anorexia is a disease in which the person believes that they can never be big enough. They will work to become larger and larger and will continue to bulk up because they think that they will never be muscled and buff enough.” This opens up the potential for a greater majority of males to be suseptible to such a disorder.

The study of body issues remains a difficult one. It is often hard to gauge who is suffering from the mental and physical effects of body image. However, many feel the pressure to fit society’s ideal body type.

It is an issue that affects men and women alike; in order for it to be examined accurately, both sides of the coin should be equally considered.