The locker room at my gym is an anthropological world of wonders. Inside, you’ll find every type of body imaginable on display in its full glory. There are older sagging bodies, young and toned ones, and everything in between.
In the adult world, men’s bodies go largely unremarked upon, age and maturity having given most of us a certain comfort level with the skin we inhabit and an understanding of the boundaries of personal space. But in high school and college locker rooms, there’s no flaw or irregularity that can’t be exaggerated into a joke or a put-down. The weak bodies are called out, the less-developed muscles are laughed at, and for the most part, boys and young men all go along with it. It’s just how things are. It was the case when I was young, and based on my interviews with several young men, it’s no less true now.
Colin Ashby, 24, from Texas, remembers his earliest experiences with body shaming, around age 15, when a growth spurt made him look even skinnier than he already was. “People called me an ‘anorexic giraffe’ and constantly told me I looked weird, odd, and ‘just not right’” while changing in the locker room for the swim or cross-country teams, he says.
It’s something he hasn’t gotten over. “I don’t like to go to public swimming pools,” Ashby says. “I don’t like taking pictures that show my full body. I constantly wear baggy clothes to hide it. I hate it.”
It’s been just over two years since the phrase “locker room talk” exploded into the discourse, used as a casual dismissal of the way men, like the president, talk about women when they don’t think there are any around. But the other locker room talk is the way boys and young men talk about each other. For some of us, like me, the nitpicking never goes away. Although it’s been more than 20 years and I don’t remember what my school locker room looked like, I still remember the bodies inside. The ones I wanted desperately to have for my own, and the ones I worried I actually did.
The fact that this sort of locker room commentary starts around the onset of puberty makes it particularly impactful, says Andrew Walen, a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders and founder of the Body Image Therapy Center.
“Boys who are heavier are often bullied, and a good number of them will develop anxiety, shame, and depression related to this,” Walen says, adding that such taunting can lead to food restriction, compulsive exercise, substance abuse, self-harm, and becoming a bully in return. “Behaviors done to change their body to meet the standard they think is ideal — typically one that is more lean and muscular — can become a full-blown eating disorder, which is the deadliest mental illness there is.”
Research suggests that being teased about weight predicts issues like weight gain, binge eating, and extreme weight-control measures. About 29 percent of teenage boys report that they’re trying to lose weight, 28 percent are on diets, and 51 percent say they exercise to prevent weight gain, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Walen argues that over the past several decades, the concept of size and strength has also changed. Athletes have become larger and more powerful than in the past. A quick scan of NFL or NBA team rosters today compared to a few decades ago will confirm this, not to mention a glance at the bodies of our cinema superheroes: Christopher Reeve looks somewhat less imposing than Henry Cavill’s Superman.
“After years of being shamed for the way I look, it becomes deeply ingrained in your mind that fat is bad, and that takes so much effort to erase.”
Though there’s a lack of research on the rates of body shaming among boys, Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, says adolescent boys are reporting it to health professionals. “There is still a stigma for boys to even be affected by body shaming,” he says. “This can make it difficult for boys to process, since they often deny yet experience its negative impact.”
For many men I spoke to, the impact of body-size bullying trickles into adulthood. When he was younger, Gianluca Russo, 21, a recent graduate of SUNY in New York, says he was on the receiving end of judgmental comments because of his size and that he struggled in sports and theater because of it. He remembers trying out for the school play against a popular classmate and the student telling Russo he wouldn’t be able to cut it because he was fat.
“Those moments have influenced every day of my life,” Russo says. “As someone who works in fashion, it’s been such a tough roadblock to feel comfortable at events and runway shows. After years of being shamed for the way I look, it becomes deeply ingrained in your mind that fat is bad, and that takes so much effort to erase.”
Men are also suffering under a culture that prevents us from talking about it openly, lest we be further embarrassed for being weak. “There’s a lot of pressure put on boys as they’re growing up to be tough, to be a man,” says Sam Mudge, 24, a student working on a masters in nutrition at Boston University who was mocked in middle school for being skinny. “And usually by that they mean the only emotions you can show are anger and sometimes contempt for those below you. Don’t be too nice.”
I wish I could tell young men that it gets better. For many, it will. People settle into the body type that they’re meant to have. Later in life, it honestly doesn’t matter what you look like with your shirt off.
But as someone who still suffers from eating disorder–related issues to the point of compulsive exercise and self-harm, I can also say that it won’t get any better until you start talking about it, something that never even occurred to me until about two years ago, when I wrote about suffering from exercise bulimia. In my estimation, most young men don’t want to hurt one another and might not even understand that they’re doing it. As with all bullying, putting others down is often just an attempt to make oneself feel better. And a lack of healthy modeled behaviors about how to support one another is preventing many young men from fully grasping the implications of what they might otherwise see as harmless locker room talk or friendly ball-busting.
At the very least, people are starting to recognize how stressful the constant pressure to conform can be. Even men’s magazines, arguably a major source of the body image–related anxiety young men have experienced over the past few decades, are starting to take stock of their role.
“Men haven’t had it nearly as hard as women when it comes to body image, but I think we’ve only recently started getting to a place where the masculine ‘ideal’ of what a healthy body looks like is broader and more inclusive than it was just a few years ago,” says Christopher Gayomali, a senior editor at GQ. “Now it’s less about having 4 percent body fat and the Brad Pitt ‘V’ from Fight Club and more about feeling healthy and comfortable with what you’re looking at in the mirror.”
Ryan Sheldon is one adult hoping to present a healthier example for boys. Sheldon, a National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) ambassador and a “brawn” (plus-size) model, spends much of his time speaking at schools around the country about body image issues. He still remembers being teased mercilessly as a kid, being called “fatty” and having glue poured in his hair by bullies; the abuse was so severe that Sheldon eventually left school entirely.
“I constantly used to think that if you weren’t the cultural ideal body image, then you weren’t desired,” he says. Sheldon would put sheets over his mirrors, avoid the beach, or swim with a shirt on. Now he’s in front of a camera all the time.
Young men may be looking for outlets to feel safe talking about insecurities like these. Sheldon says he’s always heartened when he gives a speech at a school, and the boys, typically the ones cracking jokes, find him on Instagram later to tell him how much it meant to hear about others dealing with these issues. “I’m not joking when I tell you this happens after every talk I give at a high school,” he says.
Sadly, as many of the experts I talked to point out, the support systems for men who suffer from body image stress are still woefully lacking, particularly compared to those for women. Women frequently engage in conversations about their bodies, says C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist and author of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change. “For young men, this sort of talk involves expressing more vulnerability than is usually considered acceptable,” she says. “We often don’t recognize disordered eating or body image issues in young men, because they don’t talk about it, because we train men not to talk about vulnerability and fear.”
Pascoe suggests that school coaches should be primed to look for eating disorders and body issues among their players. Most are not asked to do so or trained in how to respond when they identify insecurities.
I’ve had my own trouble finding a therapist who specializes in it in the Boston area, a place not exactly lacking in health care options. But that won’t change until more of us start talking. “The best way to push back against body shaming is to be an advocate for body positivity and size acceptance,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA. “Being an advocate involves maintaining an environment for yourself and others that embraces all body types and views all sizes as acceptable, valuable, and attractive.”
Most of the young men I spoke to agree.
“We can fix this issue by showing boys and young men that the traditional image of how a guy is supposed to look doesn’t have to be that way,” Ashby says. “We don’t all have to have Superman’s build and have strength be our most defining trait.”