Building Broken Bodies

By Tomer Sabo

Milling about the room, boys of every shape, build, and size seem simultaneously determined and uncomfortable. The clang of metal, the scratchy music blasting from an old stereo, the gentle breeze enabled by the considerate planning of the architect and the smell of stale sweat create a fitting atmosphere for male teens to come and work their insecurities away. The typical scene in Tam High School’s weight room is a glimpse into a growing topic of concern.

“I first got ahold of steroids through a shady looking Thai website,” said an anonymous Tam graduate. “As I began using steroids more often, I looked for more accessible places and found that it wasn’t very hard to get them.”

When pressed further, the source admitted the reason he used steroids was purely to “get buff.”

According to Steven Gregor, editor at InPsych, body image is traditionally seen as a female anxiety. Yet, recent research has shown that a sharply increasing number of boys are experiencing a similar anxiety. The distinguishing factors between the genders’ anxieties lie in their physical manifestations and psychological drives. Where the primary health concern for girls is anorexia and other distorted body image diseases, for boys it is the increasingly prevalent use of steroids.

Classes and workshops that work to address body image issues are commonplace throughout the school district. Between classes like Physical Education, Social Issues, and Peer Resource, a variety of insecurities are discussed. For girls, the consequences of poor body image (i.e. eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety) are often foreseeable. This education is not gender biased, as boys are also included and warned about the potential risks of eating disorders, and the mental health problems that accompany a low opinion of one’s self image. This education, however, is downplayed among boys themselves.

The heterogenous group shuffling between the equipment in the weight room ia a testament to the ubiquity of male body insecurity. No age group, race, or religion is above going to the gym.

“I lift because I want to be more muscular,” said junior Italo Robinson. “I wouldn’t say I’m insecure about how I look, but I would rather be bigger.”

When asked about steroids, Robinson said he knew of both current students and recent Tam graduates that used them. Sophomore Mike Ma also said he knew of at least one student who used steroids.

“But he plays sports,” said Ma. “I do too, which is why I go to the weight room. Obviously I also want to look good. I mean, who doesn’t?”

Attributing the motivation behind this trend to athletics may be an easy way out. Though certainly many athletes and coaches feel that strength training is essential or at least beneficial to an athlete’s performance, this would not account for the many non-athletes who frequent the weight room. And boys that spend more time watching themselves flex in the mirror than exercising suggests a much different reason for being at the gym.

“I think boys are very insecure about their bodies,” said sophomore Alexis Agoustari.

“And I think girls play a big part in that,” sophomore Claudia Shapiro chimed in. “Obviously if girls’ tastes dictate that having a good body is hot, then guys will want to have good bodies. And the greater effect their bodies have on their overall looks, the more pressure there is for guys to be muscular.”

According to mental health counselor Marc Silva, this cultural phenomenon—the need for males to be big and muscular—stems from the media output of the ideal male body. Our society’s notion of the ideal male body has helped advertise everything from underwear and cologne to barbeques and paper towels. The increasingly muscular standard the male body is held to can be traced through the development of the action figure G.I. Joe. Much like Barbie did for women, G.I. Joe set the standard of the ideal male body. Over the years, as Barbie became skinnier and bustier, GI Joe became bigger and more chiseled.

“If the modern day G.I. Joe were to be proportionally enlarged to be five foot ten, his biceps would be larger than any bodybuilder’s in history,” wrote Silva in a newsletter for mental health.

Although Physical Education, Social Issues, and Peer Resource classes routinely don precautions for these influences and pressures and offer solutions to the mental effects they may have, boys seem to disregard it.

“Guys don’t really talk about that kind of thing,” said junior Robert Scott. “When we get out of those classes [in which] we talked about body image, we usually just make jokes about it.”

“I see a lot of people working out, exercising muscles that don’t really need to be exercised but which look good when they’re muscular,” said senior Jack Hogan. “And a lot of guys have that insecurity even though it’s never really talked about like an insecurity or anxiety. Mostly people just say ‘I’m trying to lift today’ or something and they do it a lot.”

Several male students confirmed that this strong desire to increase one’s bulk is tied to poor body image.

“Young men with a poor body image and a high drive for muscularity often have corresponding feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. In addition, they may be more at risk for abusing anabolic steroids,” said Silva.

Beyond the prevalence of steroids at Tam, mental health issues provide a new dimension to the issue. Where women can often find support groups for eating disorders and self-esteem problems, no such groups appear approachable, let alone exist, for boys. This makes it more difficult to manage the increasingly significant issue of poor male self image.

Complicating matters further, as more males use steroids and increase the frequency with which they go to the gym, fewer males are able to hold out. It becomes an indirect peer pressure geared towards lifting weights.

“I’ll be in the gym, just doing my thing, and I’ll see someone really buff complaining that his back looks feminine,” said Scott. “And then I’ll look at my back and it’s not even half as muscular as this guy’s, and I’ll start coming to the gym more often to work on my back.”

Even in the gym, where boys come to lift their way to confidence, many are confronted by their anxiety as they meekly watch the more prolific lifters. The scene in the weight room, while a demonstration of human spirit and determination, also offers a less pompous view, one of adolescent male insecurity.

Written by Tomer Sabo. This article apppeared in the May 2010 edition of the Tam News.