For adolescent males, pressure to build muscle is real

“I think a lot of guys grow up judging themselves by their peers,” one Carmel High School junior observes. “If they are stronger, faster and smarter than their peers, they’re better. They have worth. It’s all about being better than the guy next to you.”

According to the Textbook of Psychiatric Epidemiology, at least 10 million men in the U.S. will suffer the effects of clinical and subclinical eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa, laxative abuse, fasting, binge eating disorder and anorexia nervosa at one point in their life.

As a male’s age increases, the frequency of males with body image issues and eating disorders increases. In a study of 1,383 juveniles by Dr. Karina Allen from the University of Western Australia, eating disorders were reported to be on the rise with age, from 1.2 percent at 14 years old and 2.6 percent at 17 years old to 2.9 percent at 20 years old.

But contrary to women, men drop sizes or bulk themselves up to get inadequately fit, instead of getting skinny. Is there a way to combat this? In a sense, yes.

CHS junior Alex Poletti suggests that there is an easy way to start fixing this problem: “Talk about men’s bodies the same way we talk about women’s.”

Almost half of high school students, or 44 percent, were trying to lose weight, as stated by a 2009 Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey. However, the study did not indicate in what ways males tend to change their bodies.

In one way, some males turn to performance-enhancing drugs and steroids, such as creatine, human growth hormone and testosterone, to beef themselves up. However, users may turn a blind eye to the drugs’ side-effects: liver damage, stunted growth, acne and more physiological effects.

Dr. Rebecka Peebles, co-director of the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, notes that “natural” powders marketed at supplement centers, such as GNC, are not natural at all and are not even regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“They actually can include all kinds of things in them,” says Peebles, and many of their ingredients “are actually anabolic androgens and just packaged as a natural supplement.”

CHS Anatomy teacher and former sports medicine teacher Matt Borek says that the real problem with high schoolers trying to gain weight is that their bodies are incapable of adding the body mass at this age. He cites that the metabolisms of teens are so high that students cannot add much weight on until their metabolism slows. Any gains that athletes receive are either from true muscle mass growth or added water weight because of workout supplements.

Ivan Davidek, a CHS senior and avid heavy weightlifter, has noticed that steroid users tend to be few and far between and much older as well.

“Most of the time it is obvious if someone is using steroids,” the weightlifter says, “and I have seen maybe five or six people at my gym who definitely take steroids.”

Instead of comparing himself to others, Davidek says that he simply wants to get stronger by lifting weights—he is not doing it for anyone but himself.

“My main motives are just to get stronger,” Davidek says. “It is a great competitive outlet for me. I am competing against myself. I couldn’t care less about how my muscles look if I can’t do anything with them.”

Davidek also thinks that weight training is tantamount to most conventional sports and that it requires similar sets of skills.

“One needs to practice the movement with perfect form over and over again to get better at it,” Davidek says. “This is what I base all of my training on: using good form every workout to ingrain good neural patterns into my muscles. If I stop seeing progress, I’ll try to add new variations to my programming and see if they work or not.”

Unlike the CHS weightlifter, other males tend to want to add muscle and be lean, following the ideal body type perpetuated in the media. Some males internalize the images that they see in the media and begin to push for a masculine look, often putting themselves at risk of health problems.

This internalization, of course, is problematic. But how are some of these unattainable body ideals spread?

For the most part, media is the culprit. The American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that juveniles spend about seven hours a day on media and that many of the messages they see are being applied to their own physical appearances.

This does not mean that the media, however, is totally negative, but that it does have unintended consequences that are often overlooked. Because of the increased awareness of their bodies by the media, some males feel the need to validate themselves by looking like the people they see in the media–according to professor of instruction Renee Engeln, males continue to struggle with their body image.

“[Men are] feeling either too thin or too heavy to meet the male ideal,” Engeln says.

This can easily turn into a full-blown obsession, and for some that constantly go to the extremes to construct the perfect image of themselves, this can lead to a rare condition called body dysmorphic disorder.

One online user, who goes by the name of Matt, tells a harrowing story of how his BDD took control of his life and paralyzed him from the outside world.

“I was drawn to the things that I hated and it caused me a lot of distress,” Matt says. “I had painful steroid injections into the scar tissue to try to soften them…. I filed my own teeth with a razor to try to make them even…. I saw uneven ears, uneven nostrils, and overdeveloped muscles on one side of my forehead.”

Many youths—and adults, as well—across the nation feel the same as Matt did, and experts say that their camouflaging of these issues does not help to rectify the actual issue at hand. There is a glimmer of hope, of course—by recognizing the flaws in how we, as a society, view this problem, actual change can occur.

Destigmatizing the taboos surrounding male eating disorders might be effective because doing so might result in wider access to diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Poletti says that recognition needs to take place first in order for real change to occur.

“When people realize that the media is giving men these unrealistic expectations, we can make a change,” he says. “Men aren’t being told to love their bodies: they are being told to work for bodies they can’t possibly achieve.”

While men’s body image issues are much different than women’s, taking the techniques used with women that are evidence-based, such as psychotherapy, cognitive and dialectical behavior therapy, could lead to improvements in the clinical field. Strengthening the focus on male-centered disorders and pinpointing the source of these problems, like exercise abuse, social pressure and shame, could help others recognize that they, too, are not alone in their struggle.

-Ellie Alto