My new documentary Men Like Us opens in Auckland this Thursday. One of the nine wonderful guys featured in it, 30-year-old Raymond Wilson, talks about the struggles he had throughout his 20s with body image.
For a decade, he was a twink in a bear’s body, unable and unwilling to accept that he naturally had a bigger frame and that having the skinny, angular David Bowie look of the early 70s was not something he’d be likely to achieve.
The Bowie reference is mine, not his. For Raymond, he emerged onto the gay club scene in the late 1990s and simply saw the image that we all see at those clubs: a population of the “young, thin and beautiful” having a good time and getting more attention than a pork belly at a Bar Mitzvah.
He tried so often to change his body to fit the ideal that he thought he wanted, that he thought he needed to look like in order to – not just be happy – but to fit the definition of what a gay man should be. For Raymond, that was losing weight.
But what about men at the other end of the scale?
Muscle worship has always been a part of gay culture, and its pervasive influence in bear circles is being felt more and more through the rise of the “muscle bear”.
There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your body and having fitness goals that make you strong and healthy, but how far is too far, and what happens when – as Raymond discovered – you’ve set yourself goals that are not for your own benefit but for the benefit of others?
This month’s edition of InPsych, the Australian Psychological Society’s magazine, has a series of featured articles on men’s health, including one by Assistant Professor Vivienne Lewis from the University of Canberra entitled “Body image: is it just for girls?”
She notes a Victorian government study that found “body image dissatisfaction for Western men is estimated to have tripled in the last 25 years from 15 to 45 percent”, before going on to talk about “muscle dysmorphia”, a “distressing” condition that is actually recognised as a disorder in the DSM-IV, the psychiatrist’s bible.
“The condition is most prevalent in men and centred on a distorted body perception where muscles and body size are perceived to be smaller than they actually are. Often these men are already muscular and lean but are on a relentless pursuit to define their bodies even further, obsessively trying to become more lean, toned and muscular.
“This perception is accompanied by engagement in excess behaviours such as exercise, weight lifting, dieting and use of dangerous body enhancement products to build muscle, including the use of steroids.”
It’s this last part that’s of the most concern, because it’s at this point that your fitness goals have truly passed the point where you’re trying to build strength through what you’re humanly capable of, and have turned to substances that are going to distort your body just as badly as the false image you see in the mirror.
Lewis notes that the incidence rate for muscle dysmorphia is unknown, because men who experience it rarely present for treatment. She is, however, a psychologist writing for an audience of psychologists.
Look around. Think about the guys you know, and love. You may know someone who is going through this. You may even have turned a blind eye to it because you don’t know what to do or say.
Muscle dysmorphia is serious, because it can also go hand in hand with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts at worst. For some men, as Lewis says, “the goal posts keep moving and the more they try to achieve a perceived fitness or health goal the further they actually move away from health and fitness.”
Talk openly with your friends about their body concerns, regardless of size, whether it’s big guys who wish they were smaller or vice-versa. Being comfortable in one’s own skin is a switch in the brain that individuals have to learn to turn on themselves, but if you’re concerned about a mate, one thing you can do is help them to realise that they may have lost perspective.
This is not going to be an easy conversation to have, but the most important ones rarely are.