Spring is here! This is the time that many people have been waiting for. Both guys and girls alike have been training hard during the frigid winter months with the belief that, “summer bodies are made in the winter”. Traditionally, getting “beach body ready” is associated with women. But that idea is so 20th century! Now, through the influence of social media and many other factors, guys are just as likely to stress about their appearance during these warmer months than are women.
Let’s take Instagram for example. I don’t know about you guys, but my page is filled with diet tips, workout routines, and guys who have the body type that I desire. The posts from these extremely “ripped” gentlemen are a double-edged sword. One side is inspirational. These people put in a lot of time, dedication, and patience to mold their bodies, like art, into the creation that they see fit when they look in the mirror. Guys, like myself, who strive to be in better shape look up to these men as hope that it is obtainable. The other side of the sword can bring about despair because of society’s decision that these model’s bodies, a body type that is not like mine, is what is considered favorable. Take a walk in history through People Magazine’s, “Sexiest Man Alive” covers. Most, if not all, of the men who have won those competitions have had favorable bodies. What an honor it must be to be considered the sexiest man to walk the earth at a given time!
The idea that men don’t worry about their bodies is simply not tur.e Liek the male peacock, we like to “strut our stuff” to gain the attention of those that we might find attractive or more importantly, for the man that we see staring back at us in the mirror. He seems to be the hardest to impress. There can be negative consequences that are associated with the sometimes obsessive desire to be “Instagram worthy”. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) specifies Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder as a sub-disorder of Body Dysphoric Disorder. Muscle Dysmorphia is defined as a preoccupation with the ides that one’s body build is too small or not muscular enough. MDD occurs almost exclusively in men. This diagnosis can leas extreme exercise programs and long hours of weight lifting. These men may workout to the point of injury and often times ignore said injury to continue their muscle growth. The individuals typically engage in unhealthy diet habits such as mass consumption of protein rich foods to increase weight. In extreme cases men may result to the use of steroids or other addictive performance enhancing drugs.
I conducted a doctoral research study in 2017 that studied men who considered themselves members of the fitness culture. The study conducted interviews of 7 men and observed their gym habits. I paid close attention to how these habits and thoughts about their routines and physiques affected their mental health. According to these men, a muscular or fit physique not only brings desired attention, but also validation of a man’s masculinity. Society has equated a muscular or physically fit man with being more masculine than those men who are smaller in stature and weight. Obtaining this physique has become a social norm for the masculine guy. Maintaining a muscular physique is yet another gender norm that we men are expected to adhere to in North American culture.
One gender norm that is changing is the notion that men do not talk about their feelings. It is not as far fetched in today’s times to have men lying on your counseling couch as it was previously. It’s possible that some of the guys who may end up in your office may experience symptoms related to a negative body image. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic wand that we can use to “bibbity, bobbity, boo” our clients into the most muscular guy at the ball. Nor do we have a single can of spinach that we can give our clients to instantly make them ripped like Popeye. But we do have, is research that states that cognitive behavioral techniques work best with treating clients with dysmorphic disorders. One gender norm that is changing is the notion that man do not talk about their feelings. It is not as far fetched in today’s times to have men lying on your counseling couch as it was previously. It’s possible that some of the guys who may end up in your office may experience symptoms related to a negative body image. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic wand that we can use to “bibbity, bobbity, boo” our clients into the most muscular guy at the ball. Nor do we have a single can of spinach that we can give our clients to instantly make them ripped like Popeye. But we do have, is research that states that cognitive behavioral techniques work best with treating clients with dysmorphic disorders.
One of the first steps in CBT is gaining an understanding of the problem. Body/muscular dysmorphic disorder may be the result of an underlying issue or concern. Like most eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia is likely caused by biological, psychological, and social factors. For some it could be a traumatic event that was caused by unhealthy choices. One of the gentlemen I interviewed during my doctoral research recalled a moment when he had to run after a bus that he missed. Because he was overweight at the time, he couldn’t reach the bus. He equated his health and the laughter of bystanders with his image. This moment pushed him into a lifestyle that would eventually lead to BDD. Another interviewer that identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community discussed his desire to be viewed as attractive. He explained that some members of the community can be superficial and in order to fit in with certain crowds, you have to look a certain way. These are short examples of how discovering the root of a client’s BDD or MDD may open the door to a helpful discussion about your client’s obsession with obtaining the “perfect” body.
We counselors need to help the clients to identify their automatic thoughts first. As a Theories Class refresher, an automatic thought is one that is triggered by a particular stimuli that leads to an emotional response. Individuals maintain certain beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. It is safe to assume that our male clients with BDD/MDD have similar negative views of the world and themselves as it pertains to what is beautiful and accepted as what is not. These automatic thoughts can lead to cognitive distortions or faulty ways of think. As long as a client’s negative view of themselves does not match their positive automatic thoughts about the world, they will feel as if they can’t comfortably be happy with themselves as they currently are.
As trained professional counselors, we are no strangers to working with clients with anxiety. Anxiety is a big part of dysmorphia. Clients may experience it when thinking about how others may perceive them. That faulty perception can then be reflected on themselves. Helping clients to overcome anxiety is key. Anxiety is a fear of the, “what if’s” in our lives and 99% of the time, these events never take place. A person who struggles with BDD/MDD may be preoccupied with the thoughts of “what if”. “What if I gain/lose weight”?”What if I don’t look like him/her”? Or more common these days, “what if I don’t get enough likes”? By helping clients to confront the negative thoughts that plague their minds, we can potentially eliminate the harmful, and most times irrational, thoughts that haunt them. Perhaps the most helpful things that we counselors can do is help our clients learn the importance of both acceptance and change. The DSM described most men who suffer with Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder as usually already appearing to be in pretty good shape. Although it may be challenging, we must try to help our clients to see their muscles as half full rather than half empty. Introducing them to habit of positive self talk may help them to remember that it is ok to have a cheat meal or to miss a day at the gym. If our clients are unhappy with the way that they look, it may be helpful to help them find healthy ways to change. Pointing them into the direction of nutritionists or personal trainers may be a healthy alternative for those who take extreme measures to alter their bodies.
Be proud to strut whatever you have at the beach this season fellas!. Remember that maintaining a muscular body takes time, effort, and patience. If you aren’t where you want to be this year, set that goal to be there by next beach season. Be proud of the way that you look and be sure to wear your shades and sun block so that the rays of the haters can’t touch you!
~Dr. Andrew M. Watley, PhD, LPC NCC