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Why are male body image issues on the rise?

Women have been fighting the good fight against body image issues for decades – yet men have often been excluded from these conversations.

It’s common to jump to thinking of women and girls when talking about body shaming on social media, idealistic notions of beauty or struggles with eating disorders. But body image issues among men are very real, and actually on the rise, says Associate Professor Alexander Mussap from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

So what is causing this increase in body image issues among men? Is social media to blame, or is there more to it?

Why the increasing concerns?

Emerging evidence suggests men are almost as dissatisfied or distressed with their appearance as women, Assoc. Prof. Mussap explains. Today more than ever, men and women are both suffering from the depiction and promotion of narrow and unrealistic body ideals. ‘An over-evaluation of appearance promoting the idea that physical appearance is reflective of a person’s value… this message is hard to miss in popular media,’ he says.

The narrow view of what constitutes attractiveness has also placed greater stress on males. Assoc. Prof Mussap explains that although we generally accept diversity, when it comes to physical appearance, the rules seem to be strict. ‘There is little acceptance of appearance diversity, certainly not in popular media.’

Other factors are said to have contributed to the increase of this problem. Factors such as promotion of unrealistic body ideals, comparing appearances and body dissatisfaction leading to potentially hazardous body change behaviours in men. Finally, Assoc. Prof. Mussap also attributes the growth of body change resources (both legal and illegal) such as gyms, steroids, supplements and fad diets to this growing problem in our society.

How are men responding to health advice?

Over the years we have seen an increase in knowledge around nutrition and health, but Assoc. Prof. Mussap warns there can often be mixed messages. ‘We tend to be more receptive to ideas that we already agree with, so public health messages encouraging us to be more active can be inadvertently taken as encouragement to overexercise by some men with body image concerns,’ he explains.

While being fit and active has proven mental and physical benefits, there is such thing as too much of a good thing, particularly when motivated by unrealistic appearance goals.

Do these issues equally affect men and women? 

There is ample evidence to suggest that, when it comes to body image issues, men are affected differently to women. Men may seek various body image ideals, while women  generally focus on being thin or athletic. But whether they seek a lean look, an intimidating, bulky body or a ripped appearance with very little body fat, both men and women’s body ideals are subject to rapid change.

Assoc. Prof. Mussap suggests it is not only the body ideals that change, but the way in which they are delivered. ‘With traditional media the viewer was very a passive consumer. Now with social media, the viewer is far more involved in the process; a person who is preoccupied with a particular look can saturate themselves with repeated exposure,’ he explains.

Common to both men and women is the underlying psychology – body dissatisfaction resulting from comparisons to unrealistic body ideals. ‘This can create anxiety and lead to desperate measures and unhealthy attempts at rapid body change including dietary restraint or overeating and overuse of supplements,’ he says. Assoc. Prof. Mussap also points out the ample evidence of the increasing steroid use among men.

'We tend to be more receptive to ideas that we already agree with, so public health messages encouraging us to be more active can be inadvertently taken as encouragement to overexercise by some men with body image concerns.'

Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Why the trend towards excess?

Recent years have seen a rise of fad diets, steroids, excessive exercise and diuretics. But why is this the case? Assoc. Prof Mussap believes it is the unrealistic desire for quick change. ‘There is evidence to suggest that unrealistic expectations lead to desperate and potentially unhealthy attempts at body change,’ he says.

Male role models who also sometimes represent unrealistic expectations also play a role. ‘These men set impossible standards for others of their age, creating the expectation that you too can look this good in a matter of weeks,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says. These men rarely acknowledge the chemicals they ingest to achieve this body change, and often leave others their age overstrained and injured, or resorting to more desperate measures.

How can we support the men in our lives?  

Assoc. Prof. Mussap suggests these methods of support:

Avoid:

  • placing pressure to conform to ideals and avoid reinforcing media messages about the importance of appearance
  • making offhanded remarks about somebody’s appearance.

Try to:

  • notice changes in behaviour of the young men in your life e.g. adding layers of clothing to look ‘bulky’, becoming preoccupied with supplements and exercise, sudden loss of weight or muscle gain
  • encourage them to see a GP.

Although many men are reluctant to talk about appearance issues, seeing a GP is a great place to start. Many resources that focus on body image now cater equally for men and women.

If you are interested in participating in a study on how exposure to certain male ideals can affect men’s psychological and physiological states, please contact Assoc. Prof. Mussap on mussap@deakin.edu.au

To read more about the psychology behind body image, you might like to read our article on  rethinking treatment for eating disorders.

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Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap
Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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