The Heavy Weight of Body Image
From a young age, boys are expected to bulk up at the expense of their emotional and mental health.
In 2008, actor Taylor Lautner, then 16, was growing anxious. After the success of Twilight, rumors swirled that he’d be replaced in the 2009 sequel, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. How could a 140-pound teen possibly transform into the bulked-up, muscle-packed man-wolf depicted in the second installment? Lautner had a plan: He began following a 3,200-calorie-a-day diet, hitting the gym five days a week, and eating every two hours. “I’m in the gym and I’m doing reps,” Lautner told GQ in 2010. “I’m just saying to myself, ‘I want this role. I love this role. I’m not gonna lose it. … I’m gonna do that extra rep, because I’m gonna be Jacob Black.’” By 2009, Lautner had gained 30 pounds of muscle.
His swift metamorphosis was shocking. On-screen body transformations were less ubiquitous then than they are today, as an ever-expanding Marvel machine recruits more and more henched heroes. But at only 17, Lautner was also observably rare in an industry notorious for casting adult actors to portray teen characters. Teen shows like The OC, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Teen Wolf often featured actors well into their 20s. These casting practices helped create substantive gaps between real teen bodies and those reflected back to them—and contributed to growing anxieties among teens, including boys, who literally couldn’t size up to their fictional counterparts.
A 2022 U.S. study published in Body Image found that between 30% and 40% of men surveyed have anxiety about their weight and up to 85% are dissatisfied with their muscularity, while a 2020 meta-analysis published in PLOS ONE found pooled correlations between body dissatisfaction and anxiety and depression in men. It’s difficult to determine whether these climbing figures are symptomatic of heightened anxiety or of waning stigma, but we know boys are continually being told how to express their masculinity.
“Boys and young men have, in recent decades, become exposed to messages that women have been getting for much longer,” says Katharine Phillips, an attending psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. In 2000, Phillips co-wrote a book called The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession that explored why boys are increasingly devoted to the pursuit of physical perfection. “The theory was that men started getting messages, starting in the ’70s, ’80s, certainly in the ’90s, that they had to bulk up and be more muscular,” Phillips says. From the late 1970s into the ’90s, G.I. Joe and other action figures became visibly more macho, male models and actors heaved more muscle, and the swelling success of Chippendales—a touring male-stripper dance troupe in the early ’80s—evidenced a market where men’s bodies could be prized, adored, and commodified.
During this time, attitudes toward fitness also evolved. “It’s important to realize that the gym, which in so many Western cultures is a prevalent fixture of people’s lives, is relatively recent,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School and author of the 2022 book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. Her book charts how, beginning in the late 1950s, the gym refurbished itself into an institution that was both legitimate and legitimizing. She cites people like gym developer Victor “Vic” Tanny, who rebranded fitness spaces into luxury commodities, fitted with flashy equipment and tropical fish tanks, to signal not only a focus on self-improvement, but affluence too.
“There’s something about the gym that is both about the body that it ultimately gives you—looking like you go to the gym, looking like you’re making good use of your leisure time—but then there’s also the activity of joining,” Petrzela says. In this world, a fit body not only speaks to your strength but also shouts your success. But the hunt for muscular growth is also inexorably tied to the social enforcement of masculinity, a perpetual anxiety to prove oneself, to respond to threat. The inclination is to dominate your body, and in doing so, carry a body perceived to dominate others.
It’s this need to dominate that has incidentally fueled America’s most notable fitness trends. Panic over reports that European children were perceivably fitter propelled Dwight D. Eisenhower to introduce the Presidential Fitness Test in the 1950s, ostensibly preparing American youth for military service in the aftermath of World War II. The events of 9/11 were followed by a boom in militarized CrossFit-style training. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program came two years after the release of a report that found 27% of people between the ages of 17 and 24 were too overweight to serve in the armed forces. “Our military leaders know that this is not just a diet issue; it’s not just a health issue,” Obama said in 2012. “This is truly a national security issue.”
The pursuit of the physical ideal hasn’t slowed over the past decade, and Phillips and Petrzela both point to two overlapping phenomena that help explain its continued choke hold. First, there’s the growing accessibility of fitness supplements and performance-enhancing drugs. “Once anabolic steroids became more available, a lot of the images boys and young men were seeing weren’t real. They’re a product of drugs,” says Phillips.
This culture of hypermuscularity has also been flamed by social media. “Whereas before you looked at magazines, or television, or went to the movies, there are now influencers, bodybuilders, and ‘productivity bros’ who are online 24 hours a day not only showing off their bodies, but also instructing, ‘Hey, you can get this by doing my workout, or taking this supplement,’” Petrzela says. Shuffling through a sea of shirtless, sculpted bodies in the underwear section of a department store was one thing, but hourly exposure to algorithms primed to prey on your innermost anxieties is another wildfire altogether.
Among boys and men, psychiatrists have even diagnosed a condition called “muscle dysmorphia” or “bigorexia,” which Phillips says is “actually a form of body dysmorphic disorder, which a lot of people don’t realize, defined as a preoccupation with a nonexistent or slight defect in one’s appearance that causes significant emotional distress or significant interference in daily functioning.” These behaviors might include excessively working out and weight lifting as well as developing abnormal eating habits.
There’s also a troubling propensity for steroid use, which carries cardiovascular risk and increases the risk of suicidal ideation. “It’s worrisome because it’s easy to trivialize, but for some people who have very severe body dysmorphic disorder, the suicide rate is quite high,” Phillips says. Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective treatments, but cultural issues also necessitate cultural responses.
In 2017, France introduced a law requiring disclaimers to be added to retouched photographs of models. French Senators introduced a bill in 2023 that would require social media influencers to disclose when content or images have been edited, and prohibit them from posting paid content promoting cosmetic surgeries. Both pieces of legislation aim to regulate a lucrative, and largely feminized, image economy. Hollywood has yet to meet a similar reckoning. If anything, it’s increasingly routine for male actors, including Marvel stars Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, and Dave Bautista, to promote their fitness journeys alongside their franchises, a profitable ploy to spotlight the methods that make them appear superhuman.
A renewed focus on young men’s pain is imminent. “Boys and men are really struggling now,” said writer Richard Reeves in a March 2023 interview with Ezra Klein, pointing to widening gender gaps in school and academic performance, workforce retention, and health outcomes where men are observably floundering. “Poverty, school quality, family instability … dramatically affects boys more than girls,” said Reeves. He further asserted that in our reluctance to consider men’s pain, we’ve created a vacuum too easily filled by the contours of retrograde masculinists such as Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, and Andrew Tate.
Now in his 30s, Lautner has spoken candidly about his post-Twilight experience. “When I was 16 through 20 years old, starring in this franchise where my character is known for taking his shirt off every other second, no, I did not know that it was affecting me or going to affect me in the future with body image,” Lautner said on a February 2023 episode of his podcast, The Squeeze. “But now looking back at it, of course it did, and of course it is going to.”
Lautner isn’t the only young man in Hollywood opening up about the emotional and mental weight of chasing physical perfection. “Any shoot where you’re basically ‘sexy’ in any type of way can really mess with your psyche, because you’re struggling every day to live up to that guy,” singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes told Wonderland Magazine in 2021. In March 2023, Kit Connor, star of Netflix’s coming-of-age romance Heartstopper, shared his own body transformation story. When asked by his training partner what motivated him into the gym, the 19-year-old replied, “There was some people on the internet going: ‘He’s a bit too skinny.’” Connor’s plan included eating more and training harder.
Immortalized on gym walls worldwide are four words: “no pain, no gain,” a rallying cry of persistence, or a warning call for all the emotional sacrifices and mental demands. Perhaps it’s time to forge new mantras, fresh scripts for masculinity that free us from anxieties that prey on our minds and our bodies.