Although we usually talk about how negative body image affects women, it’s also a real and serious issue for men. Around 63% of guys said that they always feel like they could stand to lose weight, and 53% don’t like having their picture taken because they worry about how they’ll look. Feeling better about yourself and your body is a challenge, and it gets especially complicated when you’ve been trying to lose weight.
What Is Body Image?
Body image is how you think and feel about your body and your perceptions of your appearance. Many men struggle with negative body image and worry about not measuring up to others’ expectations of how men should look that they see in movies, advertisements, and even kids’ action figures. These expectations include pressure to be tall and both muscular and lean.
How Negative Body Image Affects Your Weight
People with negative body image, who see themselves as overweight or out of shape, often feel motivated to lose weight. But studies have shown that negative body image makes it harder for you to lose weight and makes it more likely that you’ll gain it back. This happens because poor body image drives you to try fast but ineffective weight loss methods, like crash dieting for a short period of time. These approaches don’t get at the underlying feelings and concerns that cause negative body image. You may still feel self-conscious or inadequate and lapse into comfort eating or bingeing.
When you feel bad about yourself, it’s harder to stay motivated to follow a diet and exercise routine, especially one that’s intense, highly restrictive, and not sustainable in the long term like a crash diet. Giving up on your weight loss efforts and falling back into your normal behaviors will make you feel even more demoralized, making a vicious cycle of low self-esteem, brief and overly intense weight loss regimens, and returning to old habits and/or gaining back the weight you lost, and experiencing more low self-esteem because you failed to meet your unrealistic weight loss goals.
Having a negative body image also affects other areas of your life, as for how you perceive yourself affects how you interact with others and approach different activities and challenges. For example, if you feel self-conscious about your body, you may avoid social activities because you think that your friends and acquaintances look better than you and will judge you. This feeling can also prevent you from reaching out to make new relationships and make you reluctant to date or seek out new opportunities at work. Feeling bad about your appearance can affect other areas of your self-esteem. You may hope that reaching unrealistic standards for your body will make you a better, more valuable person overall, and then feel even more inadequate when you don’t meet your goals. If you do lose weight, you might still “feel fat” or feel insecure about yourself as a person.
The yo-yo cycle of weight loss and weight gain you experience from trying to lose weight with a poor body image also affects your health. In particular, it can increase your risk of developing heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. Dieting can also make it more likely that you’ll develop a serious eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
Improving Your Body Image
Developing a more positive body image, on the other hand, can help you lose some weight and keep it off. When you approach health and weight loss from a more positive and accepting position, it’s easier to develop a healthier lifestyle that’s good for your body, and that makes you feel good about yourself. A positive body image takes out the elements of guilt, shame, and self-criticism that make dieting with poor body image so hurtful and ineffective.
What Does Positive Body Image Look Like?
Someone with a positive body image has a healthy and accepting relationship with their body. They have a realistic, non-judgmental idea of what their body looks like, and a realistic understanding of what healthy people and bodies can look like. They don’t spend a lot of time evaluating their body, checking for flaws, or comparing themselves to others. Having positive body image doesn’t mean that you think your body is perfect or that you always think you look great, but it does mean that whatever dissatisfaction you have with your appearance doesn’t get in the way of living your life.
Ways to develop a more positive body image
Changing the way you look at yourself takes time and work. With effort, you can become more, positive, accepting, and non-judgmental towards your body. Some common techniques include:
Changing the way you talk about yourself: Negative body image depends on self-criticism, a voice inside yourself that highlights your perceived flaws, tells you that you’re worthless, and blames you for not trying hard enough to change. These negative comments make you feel worse about yourself and ignore how hard you may be working to lose weight. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. When you notice that you’re self-critical and unrealistic, take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this true? Is this realistic? Why am I thinking this way about myself? Is this how I would talk to someone else?”
You can also work to replace the critical voice in the back of your head with an understanding and supportive one. Come up with a list of things that you like about your appearance, and things that you appreciate about your body beyond your looks. Focus instead on what your body allows you to do — go fishing, hug loved ones, play with your kids, walk your dog, and so on. Remind yourself of these positives when you find yourself thinking negatively about your body; even if it doesn’t meet idealized standards, it works for you. Over time, this way of thinking will come more naturally to you, and you’ll experience self-criticism about your body less often.
Embracing “Health At Every Size:” The Health at Every Size philosophy emphasizes that weight and size are not the same as health. Not all overweight or obese people are “unhealthy” and not all thin or average-size people are “healthy” because there are many factors that determine both weight and health. With this in mind, you can try shifting your focus from strictly losing weight to emphasizing behaviors and activities that contribute to your overall health, like eating a nutritious (and not necessarily calorie-restricted) diet and finding physical activities that you enjoy. Prioritize things that make you feel good, physically and emotionally. Embracing overall health can help you lose weight in a healthy way that won’t make you feel restricted or ashamed, and that’s part of a healthy lifestyle.
Remembering that size doesn’t determine health can also help change your attitudes towards other people and their bodies. When negative body image makes you compare yourself to others, you’re likely to assume that everyone slimmer than you is healthy and perfect, and also to blame people heavier than you for their weight or assume there’s something wrong with them. Instead, you can acknowledge that everyone’s body is different and that everyone you see has health and lifestyle routines and circumstances that you can’t assume.
Talking to your friends: One of the hardest things about negative body image is feeling alone in your struggles. This is especially true for men because men are discouraged from talking about their feelings, which can feed into your own self-criticism. Chances are, most or all of your friends and coworkers have some concerns about their own appearance and body image, including those whom you compare yourself to. And it’s likely that they feel like they can’t talk about it. Starting the conversation with friends, you feel comfortable with can help them open up as well and allow you all to provide support and perspective.