There is a growing trend among Indian boys and men to hit the gym, relentlessly spend endless hours with dumbbells, treadmills and barbells, consume energy drinks and steroids, follow weird diets prescribed in health magazines to achieve muscle mass, taut and six pack abs. An increasing number of boys and men dissatisfied with some part of their body are taking refuge in cosmetic surgery to divest of their minor or almost imaginary defects. The cultural ideals of the male body have changed in the Indian society over the last 20 years and men are experiencing a huge pressure to enhance their physical aesthetics. Body image and vanity are no more exclusively a woman’s problem but gender parity is fast becoming a norm.
While, it is psychologically healthy for men to have a physically attractive, muscular and fit body but there are some men for whom the drive for a desirable body becomes a painful obsession creating a terror in their minds. Despite having a well-sculpted body and doing regular heavy workouts these men are grossly dissatisfied with the way they look and a large part of their life begins revolving around physical aesthetics. As a result they feel hugely anxious and depressed. However, because there is a deep sense of shame associated with these concerns they rarely talk about or share them. They can hardly see that there is a problem in their mind and not their body; but they continue to entertain the fantasy that once they have the ‘hypothetically perfect designer body’ all their troubles would magically vanish. Therefore, they continue to work on their bodies.
Various Manifestations of Body Obsession
- Pervasive and Persistent Dissatisfaction: No matter whatever they do in terms of improving their appearance, they continue to feel inadequate and dissatisfied with their appearance in one way or another. This distress pervades their psyche and starts affecting almost all areas of their life.
- Compulsive Exercising: For some men, exercise is not an activity that they enjoy daily basis to perform exercises that they feel would enhance their appearance such as weight lifting, push-ups, crunches and running on a treadmill. These men get frustrated if they have to skip their work-outs due to some reasons.
[Read: Fitness Do's and Don'ts]
- Body as the Top Priority: Men suffering from body obsession give top priority to their body and they can sacrifice almost everything for its sake. Their academic or work performance, relationships and social interactions suffer as a result. There are boys and men who miss important work or cancel appointments just to ensure that they hit the gym regularly.
- Use of Special Diets and Drugs: It is becoming extremely common among men with body obsessions to go in for special diets and at times illegal and harmful drugs to build bulk or have a lean body. Some of these diets and drugs can harm the body and have serious health consequences in the long run but people using them badly crave for the short gains.
[Read: Health Dangers Due to Diet Fads]
- Feeling Ugly: Despite paying excessive attention to their bodies and appearance, some of these men find some parts of their body as very ugly and worry excessively about it. Where possible, they take excessive caution in hiding these parts from other people. Almost anything could become this ugly part- nose, , thin arms, hair loss, sexual organ, fat thighs, and rounded hips.
- Cosmetic Surgery: For some men the sense of dissatisfaction is so huge that they feel that the only way to feel better is to remove or fix the defect surgically. An increasing number of Indian men are resorting to cosmetic surgeries: nose jobs, hair implants, silicon implants, breast reduction, chin reduction, face uplifts and so on.
- Shifting Preoccupations: The trick about these body obsessions is that once someone remedies a perceived defect, they either continue to feel dissatisfied or the preoccupation shifts to another area of the body. Thus, after undergoing a nose job a man may either feel that the nose still looks bad and contemplate another surgery or he may start worrying that there is a lot of fat around his abdomen. This happens simply because the problem is somewhere in mind and not so much in the body.
Causes of Body Obsession
- Media Images: Media has been projecting powerful and unreachable images of the male body with washboard abs and bulging biceps. There are numerous ‘before’ and ‘after’ illusory stories depicting that a change in a man’s appearance gave him everything: wealth, success, relationship, confidence and happiness. Men watching these images get an implicit message that if there is anything wrong with their appearance then too much is at stake for them and they can incur huge potential losses. This drives them to ‘fix’ the minor or imaginary defects in their appearance.
- Sexual Anxieties: Quite a few men with body obsessions have an underlying sexual anxiety. The original anxiety is that they are inadequate, their sexual organ is not good enough and they will not be able to satisfy their partners. This anxiety is very threatening to the person’s ego and therefore the mind performs a protective function, it displaces this anxiety onto the other body parts. It is more comfortable for a man to worry about the size of his biceps and improve upon them than suffer from inferiority related to his sexual organ. For these men, a perfect muscular body is a paragon of omnipotence, stamina.
- Insecure Masculinity: Men who develop body obsessions have an insecure masculinity, in the recesses of their mind; they do not feel man enough. While the reasons for having an insecure sense of masculinity differ from one man to another there is a contribution of cultural factors. In the Indian context, all children have an extended contact and affiliation with the mother in their early childhood. While this has huge benefits for their psychological and emotional benefits but this also makes them identify with the mother. Due to this boys especially develop a feminine side in their mind but as they grow up some of the boys find it very undesirable and try to battle it or get rid of this. An excessive drive for masculinity therefore is also an attempt to fight inner femininity.
- Self-Issues: Men who are preoccupied with their body appearance also have a flawed sense of self. They feel that they are undesirable and girls and women will not like them for what they are but that they need to have a perfect body to make others like and accept them. Their inner sense of self is defective and they wish to hide it by making an outer impression of desirability, youth, vigor and attraction.
In case you are suffering from body obsessions, give a careful thought to the way you have been functioning. Even if after doing a lot in terms of improving your appearance and muscles you feel dissatisfied or you fear that you are likely to lose it then it is time to deal with your mind. Body obsessions can be incarcerating spirals, the concern may shift or you may feel that if you achieve slightly more muscle you would be happy. But this stage is an illusory ideal, one that is unreachable. Once you become aware about the way your mind is functioning you would feel quite relaxed. Thereafter you could think of deriving your sense of worth from other sources rather than just physical appearance. Exercise and grooming should be rejuvenating and fun but not terror.
Author: Pulkit Sharma is Clinical Psychologist at Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (VIMHANS), New Delhi.
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