What the Pablo Sandoval Story Says About Male Body Image

McLean psychologist Roberto Olivardia on how male weight loss is discussed in the public sphere.

By now, you probably know that Pablo Sandoval likely did not lose much weight during the offseason, even though Red Sox manager John Farrell says he did. You’ve seen that unflattering spring training photo of the third baseman. You’ve read the headlines that followed: “Pablo Sandoval could be a really big problem,” “Pablo Sandoval’s defense a weighty issue,” and more.

Sandoval, for the record, says he’s doing fine and does not weigh himself. Still, Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital, says it’s striking to see how differently male and female weight loss are discussed in the public sphere.

“People see males as immune to those kinds of negative body image feelings and thoughts that a lot of women and girls struggle with, and that’s not true at all,” Olivardia says. “If this were a female celebrity, there would be lots of blog posts and outrage. Meanwhile, his picture is blasted everywhere with comic titles attached to it.”

Of course, Sandoval is in the unique position of being paid to stay in shape. He left the San Francisco Giants in part because of the club’s required weight maintenance regimen, but the fact remains that Sandoval is a professional athlete: To no small extent, his body is his job.

Olivardia acknowledges that Sandoval, and other athletes, are naturally and appropriately going to be subject to more body scrutiny than the average person, but says it’s important to keep coverage tactful and focused on health and physical ability.

“He is an athlete, and part of his job is to be facile with his body,” he says. “But it’s interesting that, at least in what I’ve read, that’s not how the dialogue is going; the dialogue is just really ripping into his character.”

The danger, Olivardia says, goes beyond Sandoval and the Red Sox. Male body image issues and eating disorders are far more common than much of the public realizes. As many as 15 percent of anorexia patients, 20 to 30 percent of bulimia patients, and 40 to 50 percent of binge eaters are men. Even those numbers, he says, are “vastly underrated,” and do not even account for things like body or muscle dysmorphia, steroid use, and compulsive exercise.

“We’re socialized, appropriately, that we have to be careful in choosing our words in terms of how we’re talking about body image and appearance issues, because it can be a very sensitive topic for women or young girls,” Olivardia says. “What we still have to work on, culturally, is having that same appropriateness when it comes to males.”