MEN’S HEALTH & WELLBEING

UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MALE BODY IMAGE AND MENTAL HEALTH

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CHAPTER 01

An introduction to male body image

How we view our bodies is often a hot topic of debate. With so much pressure to look and present ourselves in a certain way, it’s natural that a lot of men find themselves feeling insecure about their bodies.

In a world where image is becoming increasingly important, it can be tough to come to terms with a part of your body which you feel isn’t “attractive” by the regular standards of beauty. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely your mental health has suffered at least partially as a result.

If you can relate to this, you’re definitely not alone. Poor mental health as a result of bad body image affects millions of people every year. In this guide, we’re going to assess what you can do to combat that feeling, with a focus on accepting and mentally overcoming the low self-esteem which can be triggered by feeling bad about your body.

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Male body image statistics

It’s no secret that a lot of people feel bad about their body in one way or another. But just how does that translate into numbers? Unfortunately, research by the Mental Health Foundation found that as many as 28% of men aged over 18 have felt anxiety relating to body image issues.

The study went on to highlight that around one in five men experience some form of negative thought as a result of body image, with the stats showing:

21%

Had dressed in a way to hide body parts they were unhappy with in the past year

22%

Had negatively compared themselves to others because of body image in the last 12 months

11%

Of those surveyed had experienced suicidal thoughts because of how they viewed their bodies

4%

Had gone as far as to deliberately hurt themselves because of body image issues

But this is far from the only survey to highlight just how much of a factor poor body image is becoming for men. Charity the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) teamed up with Instagram to reveal a number of shocking figures about how men viewed themselves.

Their report found:

48%

Of men aged 16-40 struggled because of how they felt about their body

58%

said the COVID-19 pandemic had negatively affected how they see their body

26%

were totally happy with the way they look

21%

didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it

Source: CALM

Interestingly, 39% claimed that they felt there was a wider pressure from society to have the “perfect” body. This says a lot about the increasing pressure from outside forces to achieve potentially unrealistic standards of beauty.

The evolution of male body image

Beauty standards are constantly shifting and evolving. What’s considered conventionally attractive in the 2020s isn’t what people a hundred years ago would have seen as appealing. Here’s a brief evolution of how male body image has changed throughout the past decades and even centuries.


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Ancient Greece

Ironically, despite the height of Ancient Greece ending as long ago as the year 146 BC, their ideals of perfect body image appear to be relatively in keeping with the CGI superheroes of today. Their heroes were depicted as muscular, thin-waisted and with little-to-no body fat. This image was in keeping with gods like Zeus and Poseidon, who wore long hair which was tied back.

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1800s-1900s

Flash forward a couple of thousand years and this image would change drastically. During the Victorian and Georgian periods, a wide-waist, large stomach and broad frame was the peak of masculinity. This showed a high level of economic status, as it proved you were able to keep yourself well-fed at a time when not everyone could. Hair was cut to a short, sensible trim or side-part.

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1920s-1950s

(Golden age of Hollywood). With the sudden popularity of motion picture films, the ideal male body image changed once again. It was quickly discovered that the camera made people seem larger than they were, meaning the ideal leading man had to be athletic and lean, but not necessarily muscular. Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were the epitome of what every guy wanted to look like.

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1960s-1970s

With the rise of stars like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, the new normal was a slim, almost androgenous figure with little muscle or fat. Thin arms, chests and legs were what men were after, with radical hairstyles like mop-tops, long flowing hair and afros the most popular amongst young men. (This image is from the Beeld en Geluid Wiki)

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1980s-1990s

Things would radically shift again shortly thereafter, with popular characters like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo suddenly making it far more desirable to be bulked up and ready to practically rip out of any T-shirt you were wearing. Hairstyles varied drastically in this period, but it is notable for the debut of the infamous mullet.

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1990s-2000s

At the turn of the century the idea of muscles as attractive certainly didn’t fade – although it was drastically toned down. A leaner silhouette was preferred, with Brad Pitt perhaps exemplifying this best in the movie Fight Club. Hairstyles that were popular in this time included buzz cuts, frosted tips and quiffs. (Image © 20TH CENTURY FOX)

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2015 and beyond

While muscles are still coveted in the modern day, there’s been a definite shift in recent years in favour of dad-bods. This sturdy look sees some bulk across the shoulders, with an ample (although not overly-large) belly. Some would argue the men of today have a lot to thank the likes of Seth Rogen, Chris Pratt and Jason Segel for.

Male body image and mental health

It’s hard to quantifiably measure how much of an impact body image can have on a person. And, in truth, it will vary greatly between individuals. Sadly, there are quite a few ways in which having a poor outlook on your own body can damage how you see yourself as a whole. Some of the best examples are:

Feelings of inadequacy

It’s only natural if you’re comparing yourself with unrealistic standards of beauty that you’re going to feel second rate. Very few men have the “perfect body”, but when you see them plastered all over billboards, on TV adverts and all across social media, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s the norm. This can leave you feeling like you’re not good enough.

Lack of confidence across other aspects of life

The lack of confidence which comes from these feelings of inadequacy is bound to impact other areas of your life. Whether it’s trouble with dating, not feeling confident enough in yourself to excel at work, or even just feeling insecure when you go out to a social event, it can have a huge impact.

Embarrassment and anxiety

If there’s a particular part of your body which you feel bad about, you may experience some form of anxiety when you leave the house. It could even be the case that you try to hide this perceived flaw from the wider world. This is bound to leave you feeling down, as well as not quite at home in your own body.

Wider mental and physical health issues

Severe feelings of depression about your body can lead to extreme mental and physical issues. Suicidal thoughts are not totally uncommon, while issues pertaining to weight might result in you developing unhealthy eating habits. Both will have a detrimental impact on you.

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CHAPTER 02

Male body image issues

We’ve discussed how having a low opinion of your own body might impact your mental health. But what are the main pain points for those suffering? Let’s now explore in more detail just what kinds of issues men of the 21st century are facing.

Man looking in the mirror

Common male insecurities

Men are a lot more conscious of their bodies and overall appearance than at most points in the past. This manifests into a number of insecurities, all of which can impact people differently. Some of the most common problems men have to face is:

A lack of muscles

While they’ve risen and fallen in regards to appeal over the decades, having muscles has always been seen as a largely positive thing in the eyes of the aesthetic world. A lot of men worry whether their body is bulky enough, or that they’ll be perceived as weak in the eyes of prospective sexual partners.

Too much (or too little) fat or flab

The dad-bod has made having some flab acceptable – but where is the line? Even though it’s perhaps less of a pressing issue than at some points in the past, a lot of men still worry they are over or even underweight. Manxiety found that this was actually the biggest insecurity for men, with as many as 46% worried about some form of weight gain.

Hair loss

Men also tend to feel insecure about losing their hair. It’s not uncommon for men to feel less than themselves when losing their locks, potentially even robbing them of a part of what helps define them. While there are now procedures in place to help combat male pattern baldness, they tend to be incredibly expensive – and often need regular maintenance.

Height

How tall you are is another pain point for a lot of men. And while there is very little to be done to control this, it doesn’t stop a lot of guys from worrying that they aren’t tall enough to be seen as desirable.

Feeling effeminate or unmasculine

For some men, insecurity might stem from a feeling of not ticking all the boxes for what it “means to be a man”. While this is an outdated and backwards mentality, it’s still something a lot of men struggle with. This could mean a lack of general bulk, the inability to grow facial hair or even having physical traits which are more closely associated with women.

Gynaecomastia

Another area of concern for men is Gynaecomastia – colloquially known as “man boobs”. This condition is often caused by higher levels of oestrogen in the body (often during puberty), resulting in the development of excess breast tissue. The condition is most common in teenage boys and older men, and in extreme cases may need to be removed by surgery.

The influence of social media

While the prevalence of social media has done a lot of good for the world, it can’t be denied that it sometimes has a negative impact. Comparing ourselves to people we don’t know on a personal level is a slippery slope, especially when even their lives may be exaggerated or not as they appear.

This can be a real problem for a number of reasons:

Phone with icons

It’s too easy to compare

With so many posts and images readily available to view, it’s easier than ever for a man to compare himself with someone he sees online. This is a far cry from the pre-social media age, when the occasional movie star and your close circle of friends was the only regular comparison to be made.

We get an inaccurate depiction of what “normal” is

People only tend to post images on social channels that make them (and their lifestyles) look attractive and appealing. This isn’t an accurate portrayal of their, or anyone else’s, reality. As such, it’s all too easy to forget the snapshot we’re being given isn’t actually what a normal person looks like.

It’s hard to escape

We tend to use social channels as the primary means of communication with our friends and family. That makes them particularly hard to avoid, even if they are having a negative impact on us. It’s only natural we’ll check out our news feed while we’re doing that – in the process exposing ourselves to these unrealistic beauty standards.

The inability to cut social media out of your life is a particular problem if you find yourself struggling. If that’s the case for you, some of the best advice is to:

Be selective with your feed

Thankfully you should be able to pick and choose who and what you want to follow. That means you can actively choose to avoid looking at “influencers” and celebrities, who are more likely to post the kind of content which might trigger feelings of inadequacy.

Remind yourself what you are good at

If you do happen to see someone or something which you can’t compete with, just remind yourself you’re good at plenty of other things. Your second cousin might have just won a football tournament, but can he compete with you at tennis? Probably not.

Remember it’s the internet

At the end of the day the best advice is to always remember how strange a place the internet actually is. Reality and what you’ll find on the net are often very different, so try not to invest too much thought into it.

Male body image as a teen or young adult

Puberty is a rough time for anyone. Your body goes through a myriad of changes, leaving you feeling exhausted, irritable and potentially insecure in your own skin. Understandably, this has the potential to result in poor body image.

Teens will often find parts about themselves they don’t like, and can develop dangerous thinking patterns, such as: :

  • My body is not perfect and that means I am not good enough
  • If I had a perfect body all my problems would go away
  • I would be loved by everyone if my body was better
  • My size and weight are not acceptable unless they are a specific number

The natural by-product of this is a heightened sense of insecurity and low self-esteem. If you’re the parent, guardian or family member of a teen who’s struggling, there are steps you can take to make their own body image issues a little bit easier to manage:

Bag of shopping

Encourage different-sized role models

With so many young people growing up to idolise influencers with unrealistic body shapes, it’s perhaps no surprise that teens are finding themselves unhappy with how they look. Make sure to point them towards icons who are larger, smaller and less conventionally attractive than what they see on social channels.

Focus on health over image

A great way to encourage a better body image is to teach them that their health is a priority over whatever the latest aesthetic trend is. Teach them how to eat right, exercise properly and what to avoid. The natural by-product will be a happier, fitter and self-confident teen.

Be open about your past experiences

A lot of people at one time or another have felt insecure about the way they look. Open up to your teen about any negative experiences you might have had with your own body image. They’ll appreciate the frankness of the chat, while also learning that their concerns are both valid and able to be overcome in time.

Don’t shame your own body

Children are very impressionable. They’ll pick up on the criticism you levy at yourself, and inherit these potentially unhealthy views on what it means to look good. It’s your job to promote a healthy body image, not pull yourself apart in front of them over one tiny blemish or perceived fault.

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CHAPTER 03

Improving your body image

With a stronger understanding of the root causes of poor self body image, it’s time to address ways in which you can go about improving your self-esteem. While it certainly won’t be an overnight fix, there are a number of steps anyone conscious about how they look or feel can use to overcome a poor self image.

Man on a treadmill

Ways to improve your body image

Despite being related to what you perceive as a physical “problem”, countering poor body image is largely a mental battle. Let’s take a closer look at some of the techniques you can employ to fight back and get on top of your issues.

Practise positive mental thinking

Did you know it’s actually possible to teach your brain how to think more positively? While it won’t be an overnight fix, you can get into healthier mental habits by doing any of the following:

  • Writing down things you like about yourself in a weekly diary
  • Repeating positive affirmations on a daily basis
  • Sitting and thinking about why you’re grateful for your body
  • Eating right and keeping yourself in good physical condition

The more you practice these handy tricks, the more easily you’ll find your thought patterns shifting down positive rather than negative paths.

Find non-physical traits you’re proud of

Looks really aren’t everything. If you’re seriously struggling to find anything positive to say about yourself, consider all the amazing other traits which make you a fantastic individual. That means stuff like your intelligence, practical skills, caring nature, sense of humour, creativity, work ethic or ingenuity.

Try to avoid comparisons

It’s easier said than done, but it’s best to try avoiding comparing yourself to anyone – including your friends and family. You are your own man, and how anyone else acts or behaves should not define that. This is a good attitude to have not just for your looks, but in every aspect of life.

Recognise and identify the root of negative thoughts

Where are the critical thoughts you’re having about yourself coming from? Once you’re able to work out what the trigger for thinking poorly of yourself is, there’s a good opportunity to work towards cutting it out of your life altogether. If it’s something you can’t fully remove, you’ll still be able to work on resolving it.

Taking care of your body

While it’s good to accept the skin you’re in, it would be wrong to suggest getting healthier or fitter is ever a bad thing. It can make you feel better about yourself mentally, while also having a hugely positive impact on your physical health. Some of the best advice for taking better care of yourself includes:

Lifting weights

A healthy diet

While it’s understandable to want to snack on things you find tasty, good body image starts with managing and maintaining a decent base-level of health. Find out what’s good for you, then consider creating a diet plan which sees you balance all the right kinds of nutrients. You don’t have to be robotically strict, but it’s handy to have a rough guide to stick to. You’ll find a lot of healthy food can be just as delicious.

Regular exercise

Try to exercise at least once every other day. Even something as little as 15 minutes of exercise a day can boost your overall life expectancy by three years and reduce your risk of death by 14%. What’s more, regular movement will mean your metabolism keeps working for longer, helping to reduce any excess flab.

Get enough sleep

Our bodies need sleep. It’s how we naturally recharge and find the energy to go about our day. Setting yourself a specific bedtime can help to ensure you’re getting enough to stay balanced. How much sleep you need at night will depend on your age, so make sure to find this out first before creating any kind of sleeping plan.

Talk to a doctor for guidance

Everyone has different requirements. If you’re really unsure what’s best for your body, a wise move is to speak to a medical professional. They’ll be able to guide you through what you should and shouldn’t be doing to achieve optimal health. This is a good place to start if you’ve struggled with taking care of yourself in the past.

Getting help for body image issues

If you’re really struggling to process and come to terms with your body image problems, there are organisations you can turn to for additional support. These communities are there to help guide you through any trouble you’re having, and are often run by people who have been affected by the same problems you’re facing in the past.

Man looking at his phone

Fumble

This organisation are dedicated to providing young people with a full guide and support network for all challenges relating to sex, relationships and their bodies. You can make the most of their informative range of blogs, directly reach out to a member of their team for support, and even volunteer and fundraise alongside them.

The Mental Health Foundation

This group exists to provide people from all walks of life with support for any mental health problems they may be facing. They have a variety of resources to browse, as well as some tailored specifically to people suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Be Real Campaign

This campaign has been created with the express intent of reminding people that it’s okay to love the skin they’re in – even if it doesn’t comply with what we see on social media and television. Their ultimate aim is to change how we perceive the perfect body type, transforming from the idealistic image to one that is actually healthy for the human frame.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

While not an organisation, turning to a trained professional for CBT is a great way to battle any demons you may be facing. This kind of therapy helps to retrain how your mind thinks, framing things in a more positive and palatable light. This is far from a quick fix though, with a lot of training required to master it.