Brian Cuban is a lawyer, activist, and the host of Brian Cuban’s Legal Briefs, a syndicated morning show on EyeOpenerTV. He is a survivor of anorexia and bulimia as well as a recovering drug/steroid addict and alcoholic. He details his struggles with body dysmorphic disorder (a disorder characterized by preoccupation with a distorted sense of self-image) in his first book, Shattered Image.
Recently I’ve noticed a trend of blaming an increase in body image disorders (including eating disorders) on digital media, television, and movies. The theory goes that a rash of films, TV shows, and advertising featuring amped-up male heroes and superheroes—the new 300, Batman, etc.—is to blame for driving unrealistic standards for the male body and for the growing number of males with eating and body image disorders. Similarly, media featuring painfully thin, wafish, and "unblemished" women are often blamed for the high rates of eating disorders among women.
In focusing all of our blame and attention on the media, we fail to understand the nuance and complexity of these very serious disorders.
But while the media may play a part in stimulating dissatisfaction with our bodies, its role in causing a level of body dissatisfaction that would lead to problems like eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder is overstated. And in focusing all of our blame and attention on the media, we fail to understand the nuance and complexity of these very serious disorders.
Male Eating Disorders and Media: How Things Have Changed
At first blush, charging the media with responsibility for increased body dissatisfaction makes perfect sense. More than 80 percent of Americans watch television daily, for an average of more than three hours per day. That’s a lot of boob tube influencing our perceptions of what is “normal” and “desirable!"
There’s no question that there's been an uptick in body image dissatisfaction throughout our society.
There’s also no question that there's been an uptick in body image dissatisfaction throughout our society. One recent study found that nearly 18 percent of adolescent boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique, and an estimated 10 million men and 10 million women in the U.S. will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. Many are unlikely seek help, in part because of the stigma around people with eating disorders.
So much has changed since the pre-Internet, four-television-channel days of my youth—an era where the only “perfect” images teens laid eyes on were when our buddies were able to steal of copy of their parents’ Playboy.
Today it’s a different ballgame. Images in the media are so often digitally altered to display bodily "perfection." Some cultural theorists argue that “macho” movies —such as 300 and its recently-released sequel—send males the message that, if we can make ourselves look like Spartans, our life will be full of conquests, women, and success (and that these are the mark of a “real man”). Joky terms like “manorexia” and “bigorexia,” (neither of which exist as a clinical diagnosis) have entered the pop culture realm.
Males and Body Image Dysmorphia: The Realities
In reality, the true DSMV-classified disorder is called “muscle dysmorphia." It’s a subset of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which, in laypersons’ terms, is a preoccupation or obsession with a small or even non-existent (imagined) bodily “defect” to the level that it results in destructive behaviors such as eating disorders, steroid abuse, plastic surgery abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, and so on Body dysmorphic disorder: some key issues for DSM-V. Phillips, KA, Wilhelm, S., Koran, LM, et al. Depression and Anxiety, 2010 Jun;27(6):573-91.
Not everyone who struggles with body image is diagnosable, and those who do have a disorder are at risk of serious consequences.
Unfortunately this diagnosis has been hijacked by some celebrities who don’t have a clear understanding of what the disorder really is, using the term to signify general body dissatisfaction. But not everyone who struggles with body image is diagnosable, and those who do receive the diagnosis of body dysmorphic disorder and/or muscle dysmorphia are at risk of serious consequences.
Let’s take my example: I abused steroids heavily as a result of BDD. I almost lost my leg from using dirty needles. My steroid abuse was not related to any movies, media images, or media pressure to look good. It was not influenced by Conan The Barbarian or Rambo (the 300 of my day). Instead, I was cycling through destructive behaviors that included 27 years of battling bulimia and drug and alcohol addiction in order to find something that would change the obsessive-compulsive “delusion” I saw when I looked in the mirror.
What was the environmental influence in this warped reflection of Brian? It was the fat shaming by my mother when I was a child at home. It was the weight bullying, including physical assault, by other kids at school. It was the desire to be accepted by the kids I saw every day: the popular kids, the kids who went to the prom, the kids walking down the high school hallway holding hands. I wanted that, I didn’t feel worthy of it, and I went to dire lengths in an effort to convince others (and myself) that I had value.
Every man (and person) has his own story and way of reacting to his environment, and each has his own genetic and psychological makeup and environmental pressures.
Like me, every man (and person) has his own story and way of reacting to his environment, and each has his own genetic and psychological makeup and environmental pressures. Media images may play a role in the increase of body image dissatisfaction among males, but it is important to remember that we all respond to media stimuli differently—and that each individual may have a host of factors in his life that spur him to develop an eating disorder, regardless of the images he sees on the screen. To try to establish a direct and sole connection between media images and eating and body image disorders trivializes the nature—and very serious consequences—of these issues.
Hollywood, the general media, and all of us as informed members of society need to act responsibly when making broad claims about the nature of mental illness. “Muscle dysmorphia” is being thrown around so loosely as to imply that every boy who wants to bulk up or slim down has a psychological disorder. This is irresponsible. We must stop stoking fires by blaming the Spartans and generalizing and "pop culturalizing” real disorders and real suffering. It helps no one.
To be sure, the sensory bombardment of “perfect” bodies has likely lowered the threshold for our collective discontent when we look in the mirror. That is sad and troubling, and it should be addressed. But feeling dissatisfied with one’s body—no matter how common it is—is not the same as having a psychological disorder.
To try to establish a direct and sole connection between media images and eating and body image disorders trivializes the nature—and very serious consequences—of these issues.
While we continue to explore the role that media plays in our lives, we must remember that there is no easy explanation for why so many people are affected by eating disorders—and that any “solution” must be as nuanced as the problem.
Do you think the media plays a role in the rise of eating disorders? Why or why not? Share in the comments below, or get in touch with us on Facebook!