Chris Wilson on Men and Body Image – Smart Sex Smart Love

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  • Episode Transcript

Men are increasingly concerned about their body ideals, and yet, society generally minimizes these concerns or doesn’t acknowledge them.

We have a society of men who feel unable to speak up about these concerns and often sit with it, which causes them to have emotional distress which can result in depression, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and health issues related to excessive exercise and rigid food consumption. Listen as Joe and Pennsylvanian therapist Chris Wilson, chat about the emotional distress men can experience with the pressures on them to have the ‘perfect’ body, and how social media and celebrities play their part in men’s body image dysmorphia. For men’s mental health, “we need to break this code of silence men have on talking about their bodies,” says Chris.

Connect with Dr. Wilson:

Speaker 1:        Welcome to smart sex smart love. We’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboos and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. I’m dr Joe court. Thanks for tuning in.

Speaker 3:        [inaudible]

Speaker 1:        today on smart sex smart love. We’re going to be talking about men and body image. On today’s show. I’ll be just discussing how men are increasingly concerned about their body ideals and yet society generally minimizes these concerns or doesn’t acknowledge them. We have a society of men who feel unable to speak up about these concerns and off with often sit with that which causes them to have emotional distress, which can result in depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and health issues related to excessive exercise and rigid food consumption. My guest is Chris Wilson, doctor of human sexuality, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapists from Pennsylvania. His work with men often focuses on expectations of their bodies including physical ideals, erectile functioning and concerns of how others perceive them and working with the LGBTQ community, he often helps process couples issues coming out, concerns, body image concerns, dating and social relationships. Chris believes we need to start acknowledging these body issues men have and address them in larger social construct. Welcome Chris.

Speaker 4:        Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1:        Oh, so glad to have you and we only have 30 minutes and so much to discuss, so let’s just jump right in. Okay. Okay, sounds great. Well, what would you, can you explain body dysmorphic disorder first because people hear that and they’re like, what? I don’t know what that means.

Speaker 4:        Yeah. The basic idea behind body dysmorphic disorder is that people become fixated on body aesthetic aspects and it can be anything from fixation on like body parts such as their node or their ears being too large, but often times what we see with men in particular is body dysmorphia that actually focuses on muscle and it’s really called common known as muscle dysphoria because it’s about the idea of having too little muscle mass or not being big enough not in which equates to not being masculine enough or manly enough. And so these men had this idea that in order to achieve the symptom masculinity, Manliness, the need to have the large physical bodies and that takes time and energy and the way to do that and often times through an excessive eating regiment or through excessive exercise work combination of the two and work stream cases, it can actually lead them to use steroids which have a host of health problems and could potentially can lead to death

Speaker 1:        really awful. How do you work with that and in the therapy room with them to help them with that

Speaker 4:        part is really kind of helping them to try to look and help them break down what a typical normative physique would look like versus a physique that is built on this predication of overly masculine, overly muscular. Also going back to a little bit more history about how they developed this challenge, when did they start feeling the sense of having to need to be this ultra masculine expectation or depiction of what it means to be a man? And typically speaking in the clients I work with, they will boy having really early messages of a young person, you know, under the age of five, getting you little messages about being what it means to be a guy. You need to be strong, you need to be masculine, muscular. You need to be the strong little man. Um, you know, you need to be the big support for your brother. You need to be this, you need to be that. It’s a level at which we start grooming young boys to be men at a very early age. And we do something similar to women, but in a very different way.

Speaker 1:        Yes. And when you, when you say ma male body ideals, did you already describe that or is that something different?

Speaker 4:        No, maybe I didn’t describe it. So I’ll go back. So meal buddy ideals are specifically around the idea that we’re supposed to be muscular, large being, but men are supposed to be able to physically take up space. There’s strong, um, aspects of it that are not necessarily physical but kind of a part of the encompassment in terms of a persona or things such as being stoic, being unemotional. And these are all pieces of what it means to be a man. And what has historically been part of the idea of hegemonic masculinity? The idea that men are for a non ceiling, almost robotic, like workers, uh, provider, uh, people who are there to support the family, but through financial means are all encompassing and they all connect back through your body ideals that men feel that they have to have.

Speaker 1:        Yeah. And I feel like, um, this is happening more and more. I feel like it wasn’t like this 30 40 years ago when I was younger. I feel like unless I wasn’t seeing it. Is this newer to you or is this always been the case and we just haven’t talked about it?

Speaker 4:        Oh, I definitely would say that we’re looking from a timeline standpoint, we’ve be an ebb and flow around what it means to be a man. It changes from decade to decade. And if we just look at, um, you know, let’s say circa of the 1954, uh, you know, the fifties and sixties, man, for the most part, the 50 man in particular was the working man. He went out in business. He would either a daily route type Orkney with in the business and his, since I didn’t become from being able to put on a power suit, go to the office, go to the meetings and that kind of identity carry a big sentiment. He is and well, a certain level of aesthetic was there, meaning that you don’t want to be a big old beer belly, but you weren’t expected to be super muscular, masculine either. It was really kind of focused around, you had a slim figure and you were kind of fit, but you weren’t like super muscular.

Speaker 4:        We don’t see Uber muscular, hyperactive people come into play until around the 1980s and there was a couple of main things that happen. Then from a cultural standpoint, we start seeing women have more buying power. That starts really kind of a seventies with the women’s movement. And what happens then if advertisers start thinking, Oh, well, how can we attract female pliers? Oh, well how do we affect nail biters? We’ve showed them beautiful wind. Oh, okay, so let’s show beautiful men. Oh, women like that. Women start buying our products and often time all of the things we’re actually, um, advertise first from gay audiences. The gay audience refuse to test, um, test subjects and they would say, Oh, gay men, you liked it. Okay, now we’re gonna extrapolate that and say, Hey, women, do you like this too? Oh, you like this as well. Great. This is a marketing tool now that we can do.

Speaker 4:        And with that we start seeing a projection of much more hyper-masculine images. We see it through Rambo see it through, um, the Terminator who’s now back. Um, we see it through these, uh, the 1998 common client advertisement. These are all things that start to show males of being put on a premise of the beauty which hadn’t historically been marketed to the mass audiences. If we look at gay men specifically, they’ve had some of these things since the 1930s and forties with the pictorial magazines of like the farm boys. Um, but it didn’t project as well until really about the eighties and nineties for the general populace. And then since then, we’ve just seen a consistent, uh, hyper masculine projection. We see it on shows such as teen Wolf and movies like Superman. All these shows that, you know, you can argue the entire, uh, DW lineup of men all feature this. The young men that I’m working now with who were in their teens and twenties have been growing up with

Speaker 1:        I love, Oh, go ahead and carry it over time. I love that you’re reminding us that we teach boys this and these boys grow into young adults and men and people, you know, because I see a lot in my office or in our cultures, people shaming these guys for being this way and what’s wrong with you and why you like this? And we all forget that we teach these little boys how to be this way and to become this way from very early on. And that’s so appreciated that you said that. That’s what you mean, right?

Speaker 4:        Yes. And I, we actually shame them in two different ways. We shame them in the sense of the hegemonic masculinity perspective of you can’t cry, you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t be empathetic. So then they internalize all those things and they hold that in theme code with their body image expectations. We project all the beautiful pictures of people that you’re supposed to aspire to, but then, Oh, you can’t talk about that. Females you all get to talk about that. You can talk about the fact that you know, you don’t look like I’m Jessica Alba or uh, um, I think of another female right now, uh, uh, Scarlet, your Hampton. But it’s a lot more difficult for men to talk about the fact that they don’t look like Chris Hemsworth or, um, he’s gotten Evan or, uh, Chris, Adam, um, you know, the people that have these more hyper-masculine TVs and you see all these advertisements. I mean, if you go on Facebook, you see all these advertised around trying to get these super ideal body, whether it’s through like the keto diet or the paleo diet or, um, you know, SlimFast to be at everything, um, kind of move in that direction. And so we’ve definitely seen a huge uptake in how the image, the imagery and these pressures have picked up, particularly through starting with the 1980s.

Speaker 1:        One of the things I see in the, in my, amongst men, in and outside the therapy room is people, men preoccupied with feeling their penis size is too small or not big enough, right? And they can’t even talk about that openly with each other because then people make fun of and, and then you know, they have average sized penises, they’ll, they talk about the length and, and I say this, that’s average, you know, but they still have this feeling it’s small and you laughingly, um, under with a knowing, understanding, see this too. Is that correct?

Speaker 4:        Oh definitely. I actually had a gentleman on my couch a few months ago who I, you know a thing, you know what you know, talking with him and his wife around his own insecurity around his penis and his wife’s like, no, you’re above average. And I said an ass to them. Like, do you know what average is? And he was, he was like seven. I’m like, no, that’s like well above average. I said, depending on your study, an average can be anywhere from about 5.1 inches to about 5.6 inches in length. And he was like flabbergasted the fact that that would be the number. And so much of that is built around the fact that we have course stereotyped. In his case, he was an African American man. So there’s a lot of stereotypes around African American men having larger penises. But I also think in general we have a lot of young boys and men who have literally grown up with porn at their access point and their fingertips and particularly young men I’m working with right now who are, you know, 1718 1920 these grown up with this literally on hand, you know, something that you and I world older, I mean you and I didn’t have access to.

Speaker 4:        I was a teenager when the internet of became about, but I can tell you back in the day when I would look for porn at 1314 it was literally you would download something, it would take a half an hour and you’d get like a five second clip. You know, nowadays you search the internet, you can find anything you want to turn those on or within seconds. And so a lot of these young men are seeing these super masculine bodies. They’re seeing these super well endowed men and they’re comparing themselves to that. And there’s still a lot of research to be needed on this group of young men about how porn is shaping their ideals. Um, there’s of course a huge debate as you know, in our, um, in the field of, you know, is there a porn addiction? Is there a porn problem for young people? And then I didn’t believe in porn addiction, but I do definitely think that porn sinks the way in which we look at our bodies, how we feel about ourselves and expectations we have about sex.

Speaker 1:        Yup. And I’m also, let’s not forget that men only see flacid penises in the shower, so then they’re comparing themselves to flacid. So you can’t do that. I always say that you can’t, and people are showers and growers, you know, like there’s a whole host of ways of, of knowing this, you know, size of penis and being comfortable with your own. Um,

Speaker 4:        yeah, that’s a great point. And the reality is that some people would argue, well, you know, if he was showing her and he’s showing, you know, at four, then he’s gotta be at least nine. No. If you’re showing it forward, he might only be 4.5.

Speaker 1:        Right, exactly. Yes.

Speaker 4:        I don’t actually get much harder than what they’re showing. Vice versa. You might have someone who’s showing it like two and he goes to [inaudible].

Speaker 1:        Yes. What would you say are, um, you’ve already kind of said a few, but, uh, the main different experiences women have about their bodies than men do.

Speaker 4:        Yeah. Women in general, the research shows that the biggest push is really to be thin and it’s really to focus on that thin ideal, so to speak. Having a very small waist, having slightly larger boobs, um, having, uh, you know, possibly slightly, um, more hourglass figure if a little bit more involved with people like the Kardashians, putting that out there. Jennifer Lopes a Jericho and with a Jennifer level, a actually, no, Jennifer Lopez

Speaker 1:        [inaudible]

Speaker 4:        uh, [inaudible]. Yep. But even those women, they’re not big women. They just happen to have really large breast and or buts, but they’re not big women and so they’re still eating with them. That idea that you’re supposed to be small. You know, Chloe Kardashian has gone on famously and talk about how she struggled with her body image quite a bit, but even with her, when she was heavier, she was still a gorgeous woman. And yet the media like picked on her relentlessly. And if you can imagine that women who are in the spotlight are experiencing that, I think about the women at home who have bodies that don’t even come close to that ideal.

Speaker 1:        Yeah. And you know what? I started noticing in the 90s and then Mike and I, my husband and I was starting to go on cruises in the two thousands that, you know, I felt like the guy in the gay male community, the guys were getting bigger and bigger, they started to look like the bullies that used to bully me on the playground or bully me in the in middle school and high school. And it was such a hyper-masculinity. Can you speak to that? What’s that about for gay men? Is it different?

Speaker 4:        Yeah, there’s a huge pendulum swing that keeps happening back and forth regarding kind of femininity and masculinity. So we saw it in the 70s more around feminine ideal body. When you look at say porn stars that were performing and gay male porn in the 70s, they weren’t big guys. They really spent lean, not like they weren’t muscular and were just spending lean guys. We start to see as the 80, the nineties go about with those things such as the common client ad with gave a big advertising being where, you know, there’s subtle hints that they’re the gay buyer with muscular civics we start to see a push more towards larger bodies. Part of this also comes about through the eighties in a way of connected to the HIV epidemic whereby people who were trying to not FIFA the peanut having HIV positive would be focused on their gym body to kind of counteract the idea of that spend this that was being synonymous with being HIV positive.

Speaker 4:        So in order to curve that, they would go to the gym to seek out, to gain as much muscle as possible. And in this start to kickstart a new paradigm of we must be big, muscular, beautiful guys. Even today we’re seeing, um, and recently, um, I would read an article somewhere in the last 10 years where the uh, writer talks about the fact the line of the article was between his dead. And for those who don’t know, a tweak is typically a young hairless male, very thin and so typically associated with femininity but not always. And the argument of the author was making with the fact that even now, even though people are trying to be more socially aware, they’re trying to be more accepting, there’s still this idea that this muscular body needs to be shown more often. And we can see it in celebrities even though, um, men like Justin Bieber and Zach Efron aren’t necessarily, they’re not gay, but both of them have very, or physique naturally they have crammed on as much muscle as possible to fit higher Hollywood ideal.

Speaker 4:        And gay men oftentimes feel this as well. And of course, because we have people like backup rod and Justin Bieber who are straight men who are doing this, we’re also seeing this in straight men as well. So oftentimes for better or worse, gay people kind of set the tone for what straight people eventually end up doing. In many respects, the gay men of the 80s and 93rd focusing heavily on the muscular bodies and then starting to swing and production. Now we see that even if you’re a young man, straight or gay and you’re thin, we need a crown on as much as much muscle as possible or you’re not going to be something of value.

Speaker 1:        One of the things I’ve always struggled with as a man, I’m super hairy. I was joking that if I had stayed in my mother’s womb, another half hour, I’d be a true bear, a true carb. And you know we have in our then the gay male community, there are people who is daddy bears. Like I’d be considered a daddy bear today, but I hated it. And so I would always like I’ve, I’ve done waxing like my back is, so here I look like I have shoulder pads, I have so much hair on my shoulders and it hurts. Like fuck it, get somebody so you have wax in your back. I mean, and finally I just said, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good. Um, and so I, I mean I do, I, I shaved myself, but the, the point is, uh, in the 70s being Harry was, was okay and, and Harry was in porn, but then it went away. And that’s what shamed me and I, and even on the cruises, I wouldn’t hang around the regular parts of the boat. I’d go to where the bears hung out. Right. Cause the bears were all hairy and I felt like more comfortable. Only in the last few years have I accepted the body hair. And I’ve seen when I take my shirt off, gay guys are like, that hairy body is hot as hell. Uh, we’re where, why do you hide it? So do you feel like that’s changed too?

Speaker 4:        Oh, definitely. I would say that when I was a teen, so in the 90s when I was 20 and then the 2000, so I would say through the 90 then into mid to early two thousands when you were waxing everything, look, Sarah is possible. And then there slowly becomes this kind of change. As we go into that first decade of 2000 and into our current decade, we start seeing a little bit more of like, Ooh, hair can be attractive. And I would argue that it started maybe with like the beard and we start seeing much more bearded people. Well now I’m not going to be, you’re currently, um, and it doesn’t rock the beard. And the reality is that’s become a much bigger trend. And then of course with that then becomes, Ooh, there’s something sexy about a man with a hairy body. That masculine aspect of hairiness have now become an [inaudible]. Even if you don’t have that super muscular body, but it’s your hairy, you can get some masculine points and beauty points just for being hairy.

Speaker 1:        That’s exactly, I never thought about it. That’s exactly what it’s connected to. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had women say to me, Oh, I don’t like hairy man and I wouldn’t be into your body. You’re too hairy. And I’d say to them, I’m just glad I’m gay then because there’s so many men that are into that. My body. You don’t have to be into my body. What can men do to have a healthier body image?

Speaker 4:        That’s a loaded question, but I think the biggest thing start to talk about it. I think, you know, just being able to converse with others who are feeling that same pressure is a huge relief. I think one of the biggest things I offer to men in therapy is just a chance to talk to another male. I think that piece of it and just being able to have, for lack of better term, a cathartic release of, I’m holding all this in helps so much. Helping them to understand emotions is another big piece of, you know, someone who works with a lot of men, like men typically hold their emotion that the anger, frustration zone and trying to get them to go deeper can be a big challenge. One guy that was working with the other day, he started to cry. He was like, can I get up?

Speaker 4:        It started like pasting my office a little bit because he was so fearful of like crying in front of me and I normalized it. But he still got up into the thing. And the reality is that I think just getting into this spaces is a huge part of it. I also think one article I read when doing my dissertation research talks about the power of truth presentations whereby if we can show people how these photos, how images are manipulated, if we can show yeah, how the actors go and get ready for these roles, this high degree of perfection, then start feeling better about our bodies. I can almost guarantee you if you were to get people like Chris Hemsworth or um, Chris Evans or Chris Pines, any of the Chris’s, uh, you know, to talk about how like their bodies are typically on a given day versus how they are, they go into these roles.

Speaker 4:        They would tell you that their bodies are not the, this big effect, I think. I think it what a pretend birth. Who talked about the fact that, you know, his arm gained a couple extra inches every time you place. Otherwise I’d go down in, uh, Hugh Jackman. It’s great. All of you guys have been great. So, uh, decided to work on, I think it was most recent, more Marine movie. He talked about the fact that he once again had to get his body bulked up even more and he had some previous roles and he had the big dude. So there’s this constant pressure and I think if more of these celebrities could go out and talk about, Hey, this is all the things that we do to manipulate our body to actively work and get to that place that is so helpful. And I’m going to plug how many you’re in particular who the affiliate boy, Rob McElhinney, who does if always spending in Philadelphia plays Mack on the show.

Speaker 4:        And he recently posted a picture, if you probably few months back now at that point. And it was him in a really muscular body. Well, he said, I can’t, don’t, and he had this funny caption and it said something to the fact, uh, I don’t see why everyone can’t, you know, get a body like this. I mean, it’s totally reasonable to have 12 hours of sleep. Has one constantly monitoring your food, not eating with carbs. Really dictated like in a joking way. Like, yeah, this, the week that he has right now is not realistic for 95% of the world. It’s why only the arguments that around somewhere between like five and 10% of people have these ideal physique because it’s just not reasonable. I can tell you if someone who would want the personal trainer many years ago, I am in nowhere the shape that I was, whatever that like 12, 14 years ago, I’m nowhere near that shape. The, that’s because I was working out with my clients at the time while working out between session and that was part of my, like my job. But I had my body as lean as possible. Um, I don’t have that lifestyle now though. It’s not realistic to expect that kind of thing. Body, as you know, I had 10 plus years ago.

Speaker 1:        I appreciate what you’re saying and I do appreciate when the celebrities, uh, take pictures or, uh, say and admit, Hey, this isn’t how I look in between like Ben Stiller. You know, he’s more great, he’s great. But when you see him in movies, his hair is dark. When you see Ben Affleck in between films, he’s got a little gun on him. And when you see him in another, the next film, he doesn’t. And it’s true. And that’s one very good way to learn that and understand that body about your body image. But I like what you said, finding other safe men to talk to and be able to say, Hey, do you feel this way too? Because most men don’t do that. Women do that. Women share their, uh, their anxieties by each other’s bodies, but men don’t.

Speaker 4:        Yeah. And I would also say for the gun to talk about their bodies, do it in a healthy, constructive way. And the article I wrote, my dissertation talked about how gay men oftentimes talk about their bodies, but they do it so often to then a negative way. They start beating up on themselves and the facts and then that keeps this pro [inaudible] or elicitation of, uh, the body ideals. It’s like, Oh, I’m fat. And meanwhile they have like no body. That what forever. Um, I actually received a small clip from a TV show, uh, like the a list New York and there was a guy on there, um, Austin Amsler is a way that even on him like celebrity big brother. Anyway, he was, had a moment where he takes off his shirt and there the guy who’s next to him and he saying before, uh, he takes off his shirt like, Oh, he’s gonna have a great body where I leave. I thought he was gonna have a great body, but he’s fat. And then we see him, it’s like not even close to that. Like he might have like maybe a little tiny bit of skin that you could have punched. Like that kind of thing needs to stop and we need to start to really say, no buddy, you look good. Hey, great work.

Speaker 1:        Yeah,

Speaker 4:        on your body.

Speaker 1:        Yes,

Speaker 4:        Dave bad. They’d happen, you know,

Speaker 1:        do you think, uh, and I don’t know if you’d have the answer to this. I women will always say how mean they are to each other, um, around different things. Do you think gay men are as mean or meaner or,

Speaker 4:        yes. Yeah, I think, I think they share that in common. Um, I think women can be very, very vicious to each other, um, behind each other’s backs or even like belittle each other, um, or really pick nitpick on each other, partly because they’re not feeling good about themselves. And gay men definitely do that as well. They will call each other stat, but call each other derogatory term. And a lot of him has done in a loving way. We both know the concept of shade. You know, you’re given something bad to somebody, but in some ways it’s about love and affection. And then what sometimes if it’s intended to be that and then it ended up actually being hurtful. Um, and so that is a huge factor in all of that as well.

Speaker 1:        I love it. What would you say beef we’re going to come to a stop in a little bit is like your main message to men.

Speaker 4:        I think my main message to men would be, feel free to talk about what is going on for you internally. Whether that is about body image concerns, whether it’s about penis concern, uh, whether it’s about erectile difficulty, concerns, whatever that might be. Talk to someone, go to a therapist, feel like you can do this, not just for females. Um, that talking to your other friends is really important. Start working to break down this idea of a code of silence that is among men where we can’t talk about what’s going on. For us, we have, the more we can talk, the better we’re all going to feel the more society will change in a positive direction and it doesn’t have to be all sunshine lolipops in Rosie’s, you know, super like everywhere ends in a crisis circle situation. It can just be like, Hey dude, I’m having a really hard time. You mind listening to me for a few minutes.

Speaker 1:        I really liked the idea of breaking the male code of silence cause that’s true. We are taught as little boys that code and then we commit to that code and stay loyal to it throughout our lives and hopefully this podcast will and your work, uh, will help open up men even more. I really appreciate you being here. Where can people find you online

Speaker 4:        so people can find me on my website at Chris Wilson, They can also find me on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Wilson PhD.

Speaker 1:        All right. Thank you so much Chris for being on the show. I really, I knew it’d be great and it was better than great and I appreciate you being here.

Speaker 4:        Thanks so much for the opportunity. And appreciate being on the show.

Speaker 1:        All right. I’ll talk to you soon. Take care. Alright, bye. Bye.

Speaker 3:        Thanks for listening to this episode of smart sex, smart love. I’m dr Joel court and you can find me on Joe that’s J O E K O R See you next time.

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