Are you happy with what you see when you look in the mirror? Is your physical appearance and your body especially important to you? These are questions that have plagued women over the years and in some instances have been all consuming. While many see this as primarily an issue for women, the reality is that men struggle with these questions and struggle with body image. In some cases, this struggle manifests in obsessive behaviors and thinking as well as negative affect. Self-esteem can often be tied to body image. Poor body image can equate to self-esteem problems for men. This is often more evident among college men where the climate of attraction and sexualized behavior is magnified. Given limited research on the topic of body image and men, an original study was conducted to examine the extent of the problem among college men. The results, which will be discussed later, suggest that issues surrounding body image are more prevalent in men than previously reported.
Often, there is incongruence with perceived self and ideal self in general. This is also evident with body image. Men tend to see themselves differently than others see them. Body satisfaction, in turn, often is skewed to the negative end of the spectrum. Would others rate you differently on a scale of 1 – 10 than you would rate yourself? In most cases, the answer is yes. Research shows that on average men rate themselves one point lower compared to the ratings of others. This suggests we are our own worst critic. Many men under-evaluate their physique and see it as less than ideal. Some may see perceived flaws and weaknesses that are only evident in their eyes. Arguably, this may stem from a variety of factors – one in particular being the ideal of the perfect male body perpetuated in our society and the media.
“The Perfect Male Body”
The perfect body for a male is a body that you feel good about and increases your self-esteem. It also has the advantage of being healthy, has functional strength, attracts and impresses other, and has enhanced muscularity and low body fat. Men want to be lean and muscular, not thin. The ideal Western male body (as desired by most college men) is:
· V-Shaped torso and 6-pack
· Broad shoulders and narrow waist
· Well developed, visible muscularity, especially in the upper body (chest, arms, and shoulders)
· Big biceps are especially important
Men pursue a muscular ideal, not a thin ideal. All of which fall in line with a view of the perfect male body. However, perfection is an ideal. It is not realistic.
Research shows that men have become increasingly dissatisfied with their perceived body image. Typically, the focus of research has been on women. Recently, the literature suggests that body dissatisfaction among men is increasing, particularly with young and college age men. Ultimately, the goal most often is to gain muscle. A study found college men who identified with stereotyped gender roles had higher levels of body dissatisfaction (Borchert & Hienberg, 2005). As a result, body image concerns in men are increasingly common. Men typically aspire to the lean, muscular ideal with the ideal body type being a mesomorph. Men typically focus on upper body muscularity. The highest percentage of dissatisfaction is with abdominals and chest. Prior research has shown that 43% of men reported body dissatisfaction. Today, the number has increased to over 50%. This is often marked by discrepancies between perceived and ideal body shape and can be problematic in many ways. There can be negative consequences associated with dissatisfaction and can include: excessive exercise, eating pathology, steroid use, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Self-esteem is often associated with body appearance. Muscularity increases self-esteem where as a lack of muscularity can contribute to lower self-esteem.
Obviously, body image is not an issue for all college men. Many men have a healthy image and a well-shaped self-concept. When issues are evident, it often relates to self-concept. Self-concept is the image that we have of ourselves. It is a collection of beliefs about one's own nature, unique qualities, and typical behavior. Self-concept is one’s mental picture of yourself. It is a collection of self-perceptions (Weiten, Dunn, & Hammer, 2012). Bracken (1992) suggested that there are six specific domains related to self-concept:
- Social - the ability to interact with others
- Competence - ability to meet basic needs
- Affect - awareness of emotional states
- Physical - feelings about looks, health, physical condition, and overall appearance
- Academic - success or failure in school
- Family - how well one functions within the family unit
- What you believe about your own appearance (including your memories, assumptions, and generalizations).
· How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight.
· How you sense and control your body as you move. How you feel in your body, not just about your body.
When the most salient part of one’s self-concept is body image, it can become particularly maladaptive. These are the men who define themselves based on their body and physical appearance. It becomes the overriding aspect of self-concept and thus, self-worth. Self-esteem is directly linked to their physique and their goal of attaining the perfect body. Perfection is not possible. Hence, self-concept and subsequent self-esteem becomes problematic. Regardless of gains in muscularity, some level of body dissatisfaction always remains. There is always someone bigger and in better shape. While others may note exceptional physical qualities, they are not evident to the person – always seeing what is lacking and perceived imperfections. Hence, a distorted image emerges – one that is more negative than positive.
Negative Body Image is a distorted perception of one’s shape – individuals perceive parts of their body unlike they really are. As a result, they are convinced that only other people are attractive and that their body size or shape is a sign of personal failure. They may feel ashamed, self-conscious, and an anxious about their body. Inevitably, they feel uncomfortable and awkward in their body.
Research indicates that men experience pressure from a range of factors to achieve a muscular ideal. Exposure to these influences may be linked to negative body image (self-perception and low self-esteem). Over the years, there has been a significant increase in the visibility of male bodies in the media. Appearance ideals have become increasingly more muscular and lean as reflected in both mainstream and male oriented media – magazines, fitness magazines, athletes, television, and film. For example, there is a marked difference in muscularity between the batman character on television years ago and today’s overly muscular depiction of batman in films. This is just one of many examples. Men are more often than not represented in the media in a muscular ideal. It is not just the media; this is also evident in action figures. G.I. Joe has seen a dramatic growth in muscularity over the years (exceeding the muscularity of bodybuilders). In 1973, G.I. Joe had a 32 inch waist, 44 inch chest and 12 inch biceps. Today, G.I. Joe has a 36 inch waist, 55 inch chest, 27 inch biceps, and excessive muscle definition. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger can complete with that. Collectively, these influences are evident at the macro level.
While the media and action figures might be the most visible factors, there are other micro influences that are just as powerful and more intimate – family and peers. Parental expectations and pressures to excel in physical pursuits may be evident as well as peer acceptance and peer pressure to achieve a physical ideal. The models in one’s life can shape one’s sense of self and an idealistic physical image. The message can be overt or subtle. However, there is nothing subtle about hearing messages like, “you are skinny, you need to eat more, you need to bulk up and add some muscle”. Saying you are skinny to a boy or young man can be as hurtful to the psyche as saying you are overweight to a girl. The belief that one is skinny, small, weak or puny can be internalized and ingrained in one’s mindset. Consequently, no matter what the end result, he always sees himself as the skinny kid and less than masculine. This notion contradicts the socialization that accompanies gender roles. Men are often socialized to appear masculine and attractive. The drive for muscularity is embedded in masculine social norms. Physical bulk, particularly muscle, implies strength and dominance, both of which are consistent with male gender roles. When men think they do not live up to this standard, their self-esteem correlates with perceived body dissatisfaction.
While body image concerns may have an impact on one’s life, it is only when the pursuit of perfection becomes an obsessive and overriding aspect of one’s life that it constitutes a psychological disorder. In these instances, it may meet the diagnostic criteria of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-V). BDD is a psychological disorder, which involves a disturbed body image. It is generally associated with those who are extremely critical of their physique or self-image, despite the fact there may be no noticeable disfigurement or defect. It involves repetitive behaviors or mental acts in response to preoccupations with perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance. Furthermore, it can include a muscle dysmorphia ”specifier”. Muscle dysmorphia (also known as "bigorexia" or "reverse anorexia nervosa") is a disorder that is characterized by a fear of being too small, and perceiving oneself as small and weak even when one is actually large and muscular. Muscle dysmorphia is a very specific type of body dysmorphic disorder. In this disorder, a person is preoccupied with thoughts concerning appearance, especially musculature.
Muscle Dysmorphia is characterized by an obsession with attaining an unrealistic cultural standard of muscularity. Men become obsessed with the size of their muscles and have excessive concerns about appearing physically weak or underdeveloped. These men have an excessive preoccupation with their muscle size and experience great distress over these concerns (including depression and anxiety). Consequently, these men go to great lengths to avoid situations in which there body is exposed. These multiple characteristics were assessed in our study – the Wysocki – Goldblum Assessment of Male Body Image.
From a sample of 215 college men responding to a questionnaire designed for the study, 5 percent met the criteria for Muscle Dysmorphia. Another 15% of the sample appeared to demonstrate significant concern with body image to the point where it can be deemed as maladaptive. While this cohort did not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Muscle Dysmorphia, there is evidence to suggest the need for inclusion of a new category in the DSM which identifies obsessive behavior, thinking, and affect concerning body image – “Obsessive Body/Muscle Syndrome”. This category may better represent this population who has a less severe form of Muscle Dysmorphia yet one that is consuming and maladaptive.
The study also found that approximately 70% of participants engaged in regularly exercise with 35% indicating physical appearance and 30% indicating gaining muscle as the primary reason for exercise. With respect to self-reported body type, 20% identified an average body type while 40% identified their body type as somewhat muscular or muscular. Perceived self versus ideal self is often incongruent. In terms of ideal body type, an athletic/symmetrical build was desired by 48% of the sample with 28% choosing a built/muscular physique. Consistent with past research, there is recognition that we are often are own worst critic. When asked to rate one’s body on a scale of 1-10 versus how others would rate you, the average self-rating (6) was one point lower than perception of others rating (7).
The findings, listed in the following table, are based on responses to a questionnaire designed for the study. The assessment included a 7 point Likert scale with respondents indicating level of agreement with statements.
Ø The male body displayed in the media has had an influence on my body image.
Ø Peers and family have had an influence on my body image
Ø My physical appearance is a very important part of my overall self-concept
Ø Overall, I am pleased with my body when I look in the mirror
Ø There are parts of my body I would like to change
Ø I am currently working to change my body
Ø Comfortable in situations when body is exposed (i.e., shirtless)
Ø I frequently think about my body throughout the day
Ø Exercise and nutrition interferes with social activities, school or work
Ø I am obsessed and preoccupied with improving my body
Ø My physique is a very important part of my self-image
As shown above, a significant percentage of men see their physique as an important part of their self-concept and self-image. More than half indicated some level of body dissatisfaction and 86% identified a desire to change parts of their body. Given this, over 75% of the subjects were working to change their body. It is suggested that body image becomes problematic when it becomes obsessive and maladaptive. Such an obsession and preoccupation was evident in 40% of the sample while 36% agreed that exercise and nutrition interferes with their life on a daily basis. This suggests that body image concerns are evident in over one-third of the sample.
The findings of this study are consistent with other research, although limited, that body image concerns are evident and problematic among men. This study suggest that it is even more salient among college men with over 50% reporting some level of body dissatisfaction – a higher rate than reported in prior research. Given the prevalence of the problem, what can be done to address this issue on colleges and universities? It begins with an understanding and recognition of the problem by men and women alike as well as professionals in higher education. With such awareness, programming can be implemented to promote body positivity and wellness. My colleagues and I espouse the motto, “Feel good, look good, do good”. First and foremost, exercise and healthy living is a good thing. The desire to look good and be healthy is positive. We all should aspire to look and feel our best and embrace and showcase our assets – including our physical strengths. Positive body image negates an obsession for an unrealistic ideal and subsequent maladaptive, irrational behavior and cognition. College campuses need to implement programming that promotes a Positive Body Image.
Positive body image is a clear, true perception of your shape--you see the various parts of your body as they really are. You celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape and you understand that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person. You feel proud and accepting of your unique body and refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight, and calories. You feel comfortable and confident in your body. You engage in physical fitness and healthy eating to maximize health, wellness and your physique.
It begins with educating students and staff on a healthy approach to exercise and nutrition. Student organizations, campus offices, residence life can develop and implement educational programming and practical activities geared to promoting wellness and body positivity. Ultimately, emphasizing and ideally facilitating the link between healthy activities and mental health. Body positivity correlates with higher levels of self-esteem.
Programming options are numerous and should be tailored to your constituency and campus. While activities can appeal to both genders, some programming may need to be targeted to men. On a macro level, broad awareness campaigns can be implemented and include: guest speakers, workshops and wellness campaigns – “health and wellness month/week” with rewards and incentives. Community service project promoting wellness on campus and/or off campus with young males may be a viable option. However, real change may be more evident on the micro level – focusing on individuals. Change at the micro level has the potential to affect change at the macro level. Identify and obtain “buy in” from specific individuals in your organization (models). These individuals become an agent for change and can potentially impact and influence peers. This can occur on a formal level (peer education model) or informally through daily interactions. When appropriate, target individuals identified as demonstrating maladaptive behavior and thinking and include them in an activity. The activity could include a presentation and subsequent discussion by a student leader in a small group format or simply through a one on one conversation. While there is no absolute answer to dealing with the issue of body image, intervention on both the macro and micro level is needed.
It begins with recognizing and understanding the context and extent of the issue. It is only then that campuses can take a proactive stance in addressing body image concerns among college men. It is not just a woman’s issue. Men have body image problems too. Be healthy, be happy. Promoting body positivity may accomplish this. Then, the mirror no longer becomes a detriment but is simply a reflection of who you are. Bottom line; make the most of that person in the mirror in all aspects of life.