Let's Talk: Male Body Image

Let's Talk: Male Body Image

Unrealistic body standards… A never ending debate.

Only 21% of adults felt satisfied with their body image, according to a 2019 Mental Health Foundation report.

If four out of five of us don’t like the way we look, the debate needs to continue for all of our sakes.

Today, we focus our lens on the male body image struggle.

From The Cradle

What did you do as a kid? Play with toys and computer games, kick balls, bash instruments, climb trees… maybe play Scrabble if there was a power cut.

A 1999 study looked at the changing shapes of male action figures over the years, and concluded that “many contemporary figures far exceed the muscularity of even the largest human bodybuilders.”

Much has been said about Barbie and its impact on the way young girls perceive women.

Action Man, and his myriad imitators, project equally unrealistic body types to aspire to: stacked with muscles and leaner than the finest turkey breast money can buy.

So that’s the toybox. What about the screen?

Of the top 8 grossing films in 2022, four of them were superhero franchises and two more were action titles with ripped lead characters (Tom Cruise). Kids want to emulate the heroes they see on the screen, it’s just that all of them, in real life at least, have a team of nutritionists, personal trainers and assistants that don’t tend to make the final cut.

And computer games?

Three of the top five grossing games of 2022 (God of War, Elden Ring & Call of Duty) all prominently feature CGI-enhanced men in lead roles.

In fact, when was the last time you saw a character creator screen that didn’t implicitly assume you wanted your character to have pecs and a six pack?

Input & Synthesis

We mention the above to outline how boys are primed with an expectation of what it means to “look like a man.”

It’s reckoned that we begin our understanding of our own body-image around the age of five. When the environments we develop within are near-exclusively littered with aspirational characters of inhuman proportions, it’s going to have an impact on how we view ourselves.

There’s plenty of evidence to back this up.

Growing Up

One 2005 study showed 30 minutes of television to two groups of male students - one group was shown ads with muscle-bound men, the other were shown “neutral ads.”

The researchers found that the group who viewed the muscle ads became “significantly more depressed and had higher levels of muscle dissatisfaction” than the neutral group.

A separate but similar finding came in 2008 from a meta-analysis of 25 studies, which demonstrated a link between media exposure and body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and depression. They concluded that the “pressure from the mass media was significantly related to men feeling worse about their bodies.”

American research from 2021 found that, from a sample size of 4500 males aged 11-18, one quarter of them were “worried about not having enough muscles.” A separate but smaller study (148 participants) found that almost a third of males in the same age group were dissatisfied with their body shape.

The facts are clear: young men are struggling with the projected image of what a man should look like. Their wellbeing is taking a hit as a result.

Missing Something

How the hell did we make it this far without talking about social media? No doubt you’ve heard, or considered, the impact of this already. So we won’t dwell, we’ll just highlight one stat for this section:

40% of UK teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.

It’s a fair assumption to make that this number is somewhat similar for the adult population, too.

Bearded & Bothered

So, the adolescent male weathers the storm and reaches adulthood. Does the picture look better? What do you think…

57% of UK adults reported “rarely” or “never” seeing people who look like them in media or advertising, as per a 2020 UK Government survey.

Sit with that for a second. Over half of us rarely or never see people who look like us in the media. How that underexposure warps our sense of self, of what’s ‘normal’, of what’s achievable and desirable – well, that’s a yarn for another day.

Society views chronically under, and over, weight people as if there’s an issue present. When it comes to overly muscular people, they’re considered disciplined, accomplished or… healthy.

As Dr Stuart Murray says, muscular people “tend to get a pass publicly, since goal-oriented habits around the gym are socially accepted, glamorised even.”

Exercise is a crucial component of wellbeing. However, most of the individuals lauded for their physical shape are not developing their physique for the goal of health.

Chicken and Rice

Perhaps the least commonly discussed part of all of this is the health implications of the perceived body image ideal. The “stick thin” female models are perennially harangued for “starving themselves.”

More often than not, the massive guy with the rippling 8-pack is “starving himself,” too. But he looks strong, so we gloss over it.

Today is not the day to discuss performance enhancing drugs and their impact on performance – but please don’t misconstrue omission for neglect.

As Channing Tatum said himself, after his Magic Mike pictures were plastered everywhere, “to be that kind of shape is not natural. That’s not even healthy. You have to starve yourself… when you’re that lean.”

This is the line that’s missing from so many of these debates – irrespective of age. The figures valorised in our culture are either unsustainable, unrealistic, enhanced or entirely CGI. Pick your poison.

Glance away from the screen for long enough and notice the world, and the people in it, aren’t as “one size fits all” as our algorithms would have us believe.

There’s a corporate benefit to incessantly making us feel less than. Because when we feel bad, we’ll pay to feel better.

We’re told, and shown, repeatedly, that our body shape, hairline, wrinkles and teeth should all look a certain way. They shouldn’t.

Indeed, we’re too deep in the rabbit hole to stop it entirely. But now’s as good a time as ever to start discussing the impact it’s having on how we feel.

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