Lately, Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Calabasas, California, has heard the same refrain from his male clients: “I’ve put on a little weight and I’m worried about seeing my friends again.”
“They’ll tell me, ‘I almost want to call [my friends] before I go out and say, when I see you, I’ve gained weight. Please don’t judge me, or joke about it, please don’t say anything about it,’” he told HuffPost.
For men, that’s the real problem, Flores said. “Body image issues are an issue, but instead of holding space and connecting with each other around it, we tease and make fun of each other, and that’s what perpetuates so much of that shame.”
Now more than ever, men need a space to talk about that shame. Experts like Flores and other men HuffPost spoke to say the extra time they spent at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many guys’ existing body image concerns.
“Men have been struggling with body image issues for years, and it’s just been an unspoken issue that they’ve had to struggle with silently,” Flores told HuffPost.
“But now with the pandemic, we’ve become more isolated,” he said. “That isolation has caused us to reach for connection via social media, and when we connect via social media, we’re seeing idealized lives and idealized versions of the body that aren’t realistic for most of us.”
More time behind screens can be problematic for boys and men, just as it is for girls and women, said Kyle T. Ganson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work whose research focuses on eating disorders among boys and men and muscle-building behaviors.
“I think about some of the male bodies that are present on social media, like Dwayne Johnson and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the most followed accounts, and how they display the male body ideal ― muscular, strong, lean,” he said. “That is often very hard to achieve for the normal male.”
Even if your social media feed isn’t full of impossibly toned soccer players and the Rock, it’s been hard to miss the articles and memes bemoaning the “COVID-15” ― the excess pounds we put on during the pandemic and now “need” to lose.
Researchers are beginning to look into what the pandemic and lockdown did for our psyches and beliefs about our bodies. A small 2020 study found that pandemic-related stress may be linked to an increase in body image issues in men and women. The research, which involved 506 U.K. adults, found that anxieties stemming from this time period were associated with body dissatisfaction and a desire for thinness in women, and associated with body fat dissatisfaction and a desire for muscularity in men.
The study’s lead author, professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, said much of that dissatisfaction sprang from overconsuming images on social media.
“Our screen time increased, meaning that we were more likely to be exposed to thin or athletic ideals through the media, while decreased physical activity may have heightened negative thoughts about weight or shape,” Swami said in a news release.
“At the same time, it is possible that the additional anxiety and stress caused by COVID-19 may have diminished the coping mechanisms we typically use to help manage negative thoughts,” she said.
“There has been this pressure for people to change their bodies through eating and exercise, which, if taken to the extreme and mixed with the rollercoaster of the pandemic – the ups and downs of COVID waves, trauma, death, anxiety, fear – can be problematic.”
Flores, the dietitian, said most of those negative thoughts are along the lines of, “I gained weight during the pandemic and I’m so scared now that others are going to judge my body and think less of me because I gained weight.”
“But the reality is, the pandemic has been a shared trauma for all of us. It has been a brutally hard year and a half for us to survive,” he said.
People also know how brutally hard it is to navigate life in a fat body, especially in the U.S., where weight stigma and fatphobia are so firmly entrenched in our culture. Instead of processing that trauma and fighting the relentless societal pressures, efforts are redirected into transformation and weight loss, Flores said. The “post-pandemic body” is the new “summer bikini body” – only with more pressure. (You don’t have to fit into your trunks or bikini, but you’ll have to squeeze into work clothes once you’re called back into the office.)
Larry Smith, a comedian who lives in Illinois, started to feel the pressure a few months into the pandemic. Prior to March 2020, he was hitting the gym four to five days a week. When lockdown began, he figured it would last a couple weeks, tops, and looked at it as a way to take a break from working out. But then he started noticing his weight gain.
“As someone who has always had to fight this part of myself, I started working out at home,” he told HuffPost. “I bought more equipment, I developed routines, I worked out twice a day, because I didn’t want to lose any more ground.”
But without the gym, Smith always had a nagging suspicion that he wasn’t giving enough, and his self-doubt and depression, which he’s prone to in even non–pandemic times, quickly set in. There were several months he gave up on exercising entirely. “What was the point?” he thought. He wasn’t going anywhere, he wasn’t doing stand-up, no one saw him.
About halfway through the pandemic, Smith agreed to do an outdoor comedy show. Looking at pictures of himself taken at the show afterward, he felt ashamed.
“I was fixated on my midsection. The heft that I was carrying around,” he admitted. “I tried hiding it, but it was just there. Then I started picking out my other flaws: The things I always hated about myself. Am I cross-eyed? What is that dent in my head? Are my shoulders too slim? Too big? God, don’t stand up during that Zoom show, they’ll see how fat you’ve gotten.”
Smith said he “went from accepting that I was, and always will be, a work in progress to thinking that I was a pile of junk, not worthy of love or for anyone to even look at.”
It wasn’t an entirely new feeling. Smith’s weight has yo-yo’d his entire life. He “basically starved himself” in high school, working out twice a day to try and get a six-pack that never materialized.
Smith was stuck at a crossroads of wanting to work on his appearance but also worried about returning to an unhealthy mental space. Since then, he’s spoken to his therapist about his feelings of worthlessness along with concerns about returning to the stage and having audiences fixate on his weight.
“Both physically and emotionally, it’s a work in progress,” he said.
Overexercising Through The Pandemic
Other men threw themselves into arduous home workout routines and dieting, making a project of their bodies and running themselves ragged because doing so gave them a much-needed sense of agency and control, Ganson said.
“There has been this pressure for people to change their bodies through eating and exercise, which, if taken to the extreme and mixed with the rollercoaster of the pandemic – the ups and downs of COVID waves, trauma, death, anxiety, fear – can be problematic,” he said.
“Food and exercise become ‘easy,’ at-your-fingertips things to try to control in a world of lots of anxiety and uncertainty,” he said.
Matthew Scraper, a minister in Oklahoma City, was among those who threw themselves into a weight-loss goal during the pandemic.
In 2019, his daughter, then a senior in high school, asked him to run in the Oklahoma City marathon with her. The pair started running together, assuming that they’d run in the 2020 marathon, but of course, a physical race never happened.
Still, for the entirety of 2020, Scraper found himself running farther and farther. “The more I ran, the more weight I lost,” he told HuffPost.
Scraper genuinely loves running — he’s getting ready to run a half marathon this month ― but he admits his pandemic preoccupation with getting fit retriggered some of his body dysmorphia issues from the past.
“I’m constantly concerned about what other people assess when they look at me. The pandemic took away external stimuli which prevented me from being able to distract myself with other things outside of my body.”
Body dysmorphic disorder affects nearly 8 million Americans, which is more than 1 in 50 people. The mental health disorder causes you to dwell on one or more perceived flaws in your appearance, even when there’s no flaw to speak of. The condition impacts nearly as many men as women.
For men, the fixation is often centered on weight or muscularity. Muscle dysmorphia ― sometimes referred to as bigorexia ― is an emerging condition primarily affecting male bodybuilders, but also others simply at the gym looking to build muscles and dreaming of getting “Arnold big.”
For Scraper, his BDD has played out as a deep, longstanding concern about gaining weight. “There’s a tremendous amount of social media derisiveness directed toward people who are overweight,” he said. “Similar to the way that you seem to see the same cars that you’ve just recently purchased on the road, I seem to see all fatphobic posts online.”
The more weight Scraper lost during the pandemic, the more anxious he became about whether or not he would gain it back through his diet, so he decided to make that more restrictive, too.
“I would say that I’m constantly concerned about what other people assess when they look at me,” he said. “The pandemic took away external stimuli which prevented me from being able to distract myself with other things outside of my body.”
This unforgiving attitude toward the body is more common among men than most realize, Ganson said. When it comes to body goals and ideals, women are fixated on thinness, but for boys and men, there is more and more pressure to achieve the muscular, lean body ideal that’s omnipresent on Instagram, in any way possible.
“This ideal often leads boys and men to engage in compulsive exercise or overconsumption of proteins and elimination dieting, like not eating carbs,” Ganson said.
“Additionally, boys and men are much more likely to use muscle-building dietary supplements and substances, such as whey protein and creatine powders, as well as steroids, to change their bodies,” he said.
Here’s the unnerving thing about all that: While there’s typically a threshold we notice when women or celebrities get dangerously thin, overall, we’re less inclined to notice the behaviors that boys and men engage in to transform their bodies.
“These behaviors may not present as problematic from the outside as some of the behaviors that girls and women may engage in, like significant food restrictions, weight loss or purging after meals,” Ganson said.
“A boy or man who is going to the gym for three hours a day and using a plethora of supplements is less visible,” he said.
The reality, of course, is that conflating muscles and a swole Schwarzenegger-esque appearance with being healthy has the same danger as conflating looking thin with being healthy.
Even men who’ve had a relatively healthy body image through the years have struggled with their weight and appearance during the pandemic.
Micajah Reynolds, a narrative video game designer and former pro athlete, became a father during the pandemic, and the stress led him to gain weight.
“I was eating probably three times as much as I normally do because of my partners cravings, and with nowhere to workout, I put on 40 lb,” he wrote in an email to HuffPost.
When not caring for his child, Reynolds said, he would stare in the mirror and fixate on his newfound weight and how uncomfortable it made him. He was also concerned about how others would perceive the “new” him; at one point, he scraped all the old pictures from his social media account so as not to invite before and after comparisons from others.
“I felt like I didn’t look like that person anymore,” he said. “Honestly I didn’t feel like that person anymore.”
“I see how people would think their comments [about weight loss] are helpful but they really aren’t and even bringing it up can be painful for someone.”
So given all that, Reynolds related quite a bit to Jonah Hill this month when the actor urged fans on Instagram to stop commenting on his body, even to compliment him. (Hill’s weight has fluctuated through the years — every time he loses weight, the media either gushes over his “stunning transformation” or speculates on whether he’s had “lap band surgery.”)
Reynolds gets where Hill is coming from. Even positive comments when you get fit play with your self-worth, he said. What happens if you regain the weight? Are you worthless again?
“I see how people think their comments are helpful but they really aren’t and even bringing it up can be painful for someone,” Reynolds wrote.
How can men play a bigger part in the body acceptance conversation?
In The New York Times a few years back, Katharine A. Phillips, a psychiatrist who’s known for her pioneering medical research on body dysmorphic disorder, posed an interesting question: Will men ever have a body acceptance moment of their own?
“Patriarchy has meant that women around the world have dealt with incomparable pressure about their bodies for centuries; and yet for men there is no equivalent to the feminist body-positivity movement, which has gained more traction in female spaces,” she wrote. “Nor does the average social circle for men accept or reward truly opening up about bodily insecurity.”
On Reddit and incel-beloved forums like Lookism.net, men reinforce each other’s body image concerns — “yeah, you’re right, you do have a weak jawline and need to lose 20 pounds” — all while callously recommending the surgeries and implants that could fix the flaws.
Body acceptance is rarely the name of the game on those message boards. And unfortunately, you’ll find very few in-person support groups for men concerned about their looks (though Flores does host a small one in LA).
More often than not, conversations about the male body get co-opted by famous men (or at least internet-famous ones) who’ve attributed their “I-got-shredded-and-you-can-too” success to “optimizing” their body, Ganson said.
“For instance, Jack Dorsey’s promotion of intermittent fasting, ‘bulk’ and ‘cut’ cycles,” he said. “What’s evident when you hear their advice is that’s largely OK for boys and men to eat what they want or engage in disordered eating that’s masked as improving performance.”
These men emphasize the male body as a tool, which creates a huge disconnection for men experiencing real emotional pain about their bodies.
Scott Martin, a freelance writer and journalism student at Ryerson University in Ontario, Canada, hates what he sees when he looks for online conversations about the body image issues guys experience.
“The unfortunate reality is that men’s rights and men’s issues online have been coopted by misogynist or reactionary elements: Men in $6,000 suits with home personal gyms telling you how to be an alpha or a sigma or whatever,” he said. “That, I feel, naturally bleeds over into men’s fitness.”
It bleeds into non-fitness-related online communities, too.
“There’s a video game series called ‘God of War’ that released concept art for their version of Thor, and men were complaining that he was fat instead of being built out of sculpted muscle,” Martin said.
“That’s ridiculous because if you look up the strongest people in the world, they have a distinct layer of fat around their stomach,” he continued. “But you don’t learn that online, you see the ‘ideal’ male body celebrated, and the ‘fat’ male body used as a punchline.”
Martin, who says he gained weight during the pandemic, also pointed out that you have to have an incredible amount of free time and be relatively well-off to maintain the rippling muscles you see among Marvel actors and on fitspiration Instagram accounts. Sure, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into maintaining the Chris Hemsworth ideal, but also a lot of excess time and money to pay for trainers and carefully calculated diet plans from nutritionists.
Conversations online and offline may be sorely lacking, but Martin said it’s encouraging to see male celebrities start to discuss what goes into the peak, “optimized” male body.
Tiffany Brown, an assistant professor of psychology who studies eating disorder and muscle dysmorphia risk for LGBTQ+ and male populations at Auburn University, is heartened by that, too.
“Encouragingly, I have seen a lot more conversation in media and popular culture about body image issues for men ― along with mental health issues for men more broadly ― than I did even five years ago,” Brown said.
In a recent interview with Vulture, for instance, actor Kumail Nanjiani talked about the adverse effects of getting ripped for his role in Marvels’ “The Eternals” and having so many people newly invested in him as “fitspiration.”
For the first time in his life, Nanjiani started seeing a therapist regularly because of it, the actor told journalist E. Alex Jung:
[Nanjiani] began to realize that even the praise was dangerous, because the issue was not actually his body but how he thought about it. He was pure lines and angles, but he still felt a wash of body dysmorphia seep in whenever he looked in the mirror. Nothing was ever good enough. His ideal shape was Arnold Schwarzenegger from his Pumping Iron days. And even if he achieved that, who knows? He might still fixate on the problem areas.
What’s important about Nanjiani’s reflections on his experience is that media and consumer culture have taught men that becoming lean and muscular will make everything better, Brown said ―you’ll be happier, achieve more success, have better and more sex. Nanjiani is saying “no, not really.”
“Kumail’s story reminds us that that experience is not true,” she said. “For many men, overvaluing appearance takes a toll on mental and physical health, at the expense of other aspects of their lives and values.”
That’s important to recognize if you’re struggling with body image issues. It’s equally important to externalize any blame and shame about your body, Flores added.
“You have to realize that there’s a huge societal influence on having a ‘good’ body and that pressure is really internalized,” he said. “We didn’t ask for that pressure to be put on us, but it’s been with us most of our lives and we’ve learned it since childhood.”
By externalizing the shame, we give ourselves room for self-compassion, Flores said. We can move toward talking about our bodies from a place that’s rooted in kindness and self-compassion instead of judgment.
“Men’s rights and men’s issues online have been coopted by misogynist or reactionary elements: Men in $6,000 suits with home personal gyms telling you how to be an alpha or a sigma or whatever, That, I feel, naturally bleeds over into men’s fitness.”
It’s also vital to actively seek out community, wherever you think you can find it: Maybe you hear a friend make a cutting, self-deprecating remark about his own weight gain and decide now is a great time to share your own experiences with him.
Martin, the journalism student from Ontario, has found comfort and understanding from the women in his life, especially his girlfriend.
“One day I posted a picture of some old swim shorts I bought in 2019, halfway through 2020 and I said something like, ‘My goal is to fit back into these,” he said. “My partner sat me down and had a very serious conversation with me about the idea of ‘beach body’ culture and how it plays out.”
The men we spoke to almost all mentioned how important it was to diversify their social media feeds, too. You don’t need Instagram feeding you pic after pic of weight lifters and their gains and gym routines or targeted ads about whey protein powder.
“We aren’t stuck with advertisers constantly forcing us to believe that you have to look a certain way to be found attractive,” Smith, the comedian, said. “I mean, all of the memes and tweets about a shirtless Bob Hoskins in ‘Roger Rabbit’ being the moment some people realized they were attracted to something different is more helpful for guys’ self-confidence than any ad campaign Dove can shove at us.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with following Hemsworth and watching his gym routine, but if you don’t broaden your following list, those videos in the aggregate might start to eat at your self-confidence.
“The truth is, social media can make you feel bad if you’re not careful,” Smith said. “But you watch Jack Black jump around athletically on his Instagram? That makes you realize that you don’t have to have a tight six-pack to feel joy and to bring others joy in the process.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.