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A Guy's Guide to Body Image

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Al's friend Rachel invited him to go to the lake for the day with her family. Rachel thought Al was fun to be around — plus he was cute. Rachel really hoped he'd say yes.

Al turned Rachel down. He liked Rachel, too, but was self-conscious about taking off his T-shirt. He worried that her family and others at the lake would see what he saw when he looked in the mirror — a scrawny excuse for a man. Al hadn't gone to the pool in more than a year because he was so self-conscious about his appearance.

The Truth About Guys

Many people think of guys as being carefree when it comes to their appearance. But the reality is that a lot of guys spend plenty of time in front of the mirror. It's a fact — some guys care just as much as girls do about their appearance.

You may hear a lot about being a tough guy, but how often do you hear that being a guy is tough? Guys might think that they shouldn't worry about how they look, but body image can be a real problem for them. Unlike girls, guys are less likely to talk to friends and relatives about their bodies and how they're developing. Without support from friends and family, they may develop a negative self-image.

The good news is that self-image and body image can be changed.

Why Is Body Image Important?

Body image is a person's opinions, thoughts, and feelings about his or her own body and physical appearance. Having a positive body image means feeling pretty satisfied with the way you look, appreciating your body for its capabilities and accepting its imperfections.

Body image is part of someone's total self-image. So how a guy feels about his body can affect how he feels about himself. If he gets too focused on not liking the way he looks, a guy's self-esteem can take a hit and his confidence can slide. (The same thing can happen to girls, too.)

How Puberty Affects Body Image

Although body image is just one part of our self-image, during the teen years, and especially during puberty, it can be easy for a guy's whole self-image to be based on how his body looks. That's because our bodies are changing so much during this time that they can become the main focus of our attention.

A change in your body can be tough to deal with emotionally — mainly because, well, your body is yours and you have become used to it.

Some guys don't feel comfortable in their changing bodies and can feel as if they don't know who they are anymore. Being the only guy whose voice is changing or who's growing body hair (or the only guy who isn't) can also make some guys feel self-conscious for a while.

Some guys go into puberty not feeling too satisfied with their body or appearance to begin with. They may have wrestled with body image even before puberty started (for example, battles with weight or dissatisfaction with height). For them, puberty may add to their insecurities.

It Could Be in Your Genes

It can be tough to balance what you expect to happen to your body with what actually does happen. Lots of guys can have high expectations for puberty, thinking they'll develop quickly or in a certain way.

The best way to approach your own growth and development is to not assume you'll be a certain way. Look at everyone in your family — uncles, grandfathers, and even female relatives — to get an idea of the kinds of options your genes may have in store for you.

When Everyone Else Seems Bigger

Not everyone's body changes at the same time or even at the same pace. It can be tough if all of your friends have already matured physically and are taller and more muscular. Most guys eventually catch up in terms of growth, although some will always be taller or more muscular than others — it's in their genes.

It's natural to observe friends and classmates and notice the different ways they're growing and developing. Guys often compare themselves with other guys in certain settings, and one of the most common is the locker room. Whether at a local gym or getting ready for a game at school, time in the locker room can be daunting for any guy.

Try to keep in mind in these situations that you aren't alone if you feel you don't "measure up." Many guys feel exactly the same way about their own bodies — even those whose physiques you envy. Just knowing that almost everyone else will go through the same thing can make all the difference.

You could try talking to a trusted male adult — maybe a coach, a doctor, a teacher, or your dad. Chances are they went through similar experiences and had some of the same feelings and apprehensions when their bodies were changing.

Picture Perfect?

Guys put enough pressure on themselves, but what about the pressure society puts on them to be perfect?

It used to be that only girls felt the pressure of picture-perfect images, but these days the media emphasis on men's looks creates a sense of pressure for guys, too. And sometimes (actually, many times) that "as-advertised" body is just not attainable. The men you see in those pictures may not even be real. Magazines and ad agencies often alter photographs of models, either by airbrushing the facial and muscular features, or by putting a good-looking face on someone else's buff body.

Building a Better Body Image

So in the face of all the pressure society places on guys — and guys place on themselves — what can you do to fuel a positive body image? Here are some ideas:

  • Recognize your strengths. Different physical attributes and body types are good for different things — and sometimes the things you did well as a kid can change during puberty. What does your body do well? Maybe your speed, flexibility, strength, or coordination leads you to excel at a certain sport. Or perhaps you have non-sports skills, like drawing, painting, singing, playing a musical instrument, writing, or acting. Just exploring talents that you feel good about can help your self-esteem and how you think of yourself.
  • A good body doesn't always translate into athletic success. Too often, the way guys see their body image is closely associated with their performance on a sports field or in the gym. The upside to this is that if you're good at a team sport, you might have a pretty good view of your body. But what if you don't like team sports or you got cut from a team you really wanted to make? In these cases, it helps to look at individual accomplishments.

    If you don't like team sports, that's OK. Find another form of physical activity that gets you going. Depending on your interests and where you live, that may be mountain biking, rock climbing, yoga, dancing, or jogging. This will help you stay in shape and help you to appreciate skills you may not have realized you had in a team environment.

    If you like team sports but didn't make a particular team, don't let it get you down. Use this as an opportunity to discover what you're good at, not to lament what you aren't best at. Maybe try out for another team — so soccer wasn't for you, but maybe cross-country running will be. Or, continue to practice the sport you were cut from and try again next year. The people around you probably won't remember that you didn't make the team — not being picked is a much bigger deal to you than it was to them.
  • Look into starting a strength training program. Exercise can help you look good and feel good about yourself. Good physiques don't just happen — they take hard work, regular workouts, and a healthy diet. There's no need to work out obsessively. A healthy routine can be as simple as exercising 20 minutes to an hour 3 days a week. Another benefit to working out properly is that it can boost your mood — lifting weights can lift your spirits.
  • Don't trash your body, respect it! To help improve your view of your body, take care of it. Smoking and other things you know to be harmful will take a toll after a while. Treating yourself well over time results in a healthier, stronger body — and that contributes to a better body image. Practicing good grooming habits — regular showering; taking care of your teeth, hair, and skin; wearing clean clothes, etc. — also can help you build a positive body image.
  • Be yourself. Your body is just one part of who you are — along with your talent for comedy, a quick wit, or all the other things that make you unique. Your talents, skills, and beliefs are just as much a part of you as the casing they come in. So try not to let minor imperfections take over.

While it's important to have a positive body image, getting too focused on body image and appearance can cause a guy to overlook the other positive parts of himself. If you're like most guys who take care of their bodies and wear clothes that look good, you probably look great to others. You just might not be aware of that if you're too busy being self-critical.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2012

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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