Social media stereotypes and taunts about physique can spark a problematic male obsession with appearance. Here’s why body image is also an issue for men.
Ask men to describe their ideal physique and many will use words like “built”, “jacked” and “ripped”.
Think Hugh Jackman’s toned but muscular Wolverine character with slim hips, a well-defined six pack and bulging biceps.
While girls and women may desire a slim look, for men the ideal body is usually tall, broad-shouldered and muscular.
“In both cases – males and females – you have people who put undue importance on the way they look and, to a significant extent, their self-esteem is contingent on how they think other people receive their physical appearance,” University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Scott Griffiths says.
“So they over-invest and put more effort into counting calories and going to the gym.
Dr Griffiths, who investigates body image and eating disorders, says some people will miss a social event rather than miss a training session, or experience the stress and anxiety of having to go out to dinner and eat food that is not part of their strict diet.
“To be thinner, people may start using laxatives, diuretics and fat burners,” he says.
“If men want to pack on more muscle, they may turn to anabolic steroids.”
How body image pressures impact men
According to the Butterfly Foundation, evidence suggests eating disorders in people identifying as male are increasing.
The foundation notes more than one third of Australians who experience an eating disorder are men.
About 40 per cent of people with binge-eating disorder are men and about 40 per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds with disordered eating behaviours are male.
An unrelenting desire to be lean but muscular may lead some men to develop muscle dysmorphia, a psychological disorder characterised by following a strict and restricted diet, intense exercise, anxiety about exposing your body, and perhaps using steroids to build more muscle.
“With muscle dysmorphia, about half of people turn to anabolic steroids and so this can have an impact on their cardiovascular health and effects on their endocrine system,” Dr Griffiths says.
“Men may end up on testosterone replacement therapy for life because when you flood the body with synthetic testosterone from elsewhere, your body stops making it naturally.”
What fuels body image problems in men?
Unrealistic body ideals promoted through social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok can contribute.
Being teased about appearance and involvement in sports or occupations with an emphasis on body shape and weight, such as athletics and bodybuilding, can also place men at risk.
Butterfly Foundation clinical psychologist Dr Tania Nichols says “psychological risk factors such as anxiety and perfectionistic personality traits, genetic risk factors and a family history of eating disorders or other mental health concerns” can also increase the risk of developing disordered eating.
“Men are less likely to see their GP or to talk to their mates about this and because of the misconception that body image disorders mostly affect women, people see a guy training and dieting and think he’s just staying fit and healthy,” Dr Nichols says.
“They won’t notice that his behaviour may have become compulsive, obsessive and restrictive.
In her research at the University of Queensland, clinical psychologist Dr Beth O’Gorman found men don’t want to talk about their body image because of shame and stigma.
“If you notice a difference in mood and a change in body shape and weight, have a conversation,” Dr O’Gorman says.
Richard’s battle with body image issues
Dr Richard Knight is a social worker and eating disorder practitioner at Eating Disorders Victoria.
He was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in his late 30s but first developed disordered eating behaviours at the age of 13.
“I was teased a lot so I thought there was something wrong with my body and that I wasn’t normal, so I exercised excessively,” Dr Knight says.
“I swam every morning before school and ate very little during the day.
“I lost a lot of weight and was praised by my friends and family who told me how good I looked.”
But, Dr Knight says, he relapsed, put on more weight and then developed anorexia.
“For a good proportion of my 20s, 30s and 40s, I was in and out of hospital and was fed through a nasal gastric tube because I was fearful of food,” he says.
Dr Knight says he required medication and psychiatric support to help him through his battle.
“With a desire to live and a wonderful therapist, I survived and now have a great life,” he says.
Signs body image might be a problem for men
Body dissatisfaction, making negative comments about appearance
Obsession with fitness and body image
Fear of gaining weight
Becoming angry when asked about their exercise and eating behaviours
Using supplements and muscle-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids
Weight fluctuations, such as sudden weight loss in a short period of time
Where to get help for body image issues
Butterfly National Helpline
Eating Disorders Victoria
More on body image:
Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw: How to unlearn hating your body
How makeup-free celebs are inspiring better body image
How to talk to your kids about body image