Body image concerns and the negative impact on both women’s and men’s mental health make for concerning reading and its effects are both deadly and extremely dangerous. I looked at this topic before in Body Negativity In Boys And Why This Is A Silent Crisis, but in today’s episode we need to look at what’s wrong with having the perfect body? And more importantly, what’s driving this obsession with the perfect body and more. This is a great psychology podcast episode for anyone interested in clinical psychology, eating disorders and male mental health.
Today’s episode has been sponsored by Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuroscience, Neuropsychology and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What’s Wrong With Having The Perfect Body?
The idea of the perfect body is something that really does influence society and you could even argue that it plagues us because it is everywhere. It is on social media, in movies and TV programmes. Since if you think about the last major film or television programme you watched that was a blockbuster then you probably imagine scarily thin and sexy women with perfect beautiful bodies with long perfect hair. Or men with stunning muscles, the perfect body and the perfectly strong jawline and more.
Of course, none of these definitions are healthy, natural or positive in the slightest and there have been changes in recent years.
Since in recent years, the bodies of these actors and actresses are becoming more and more extreme and further away from the average body of the average man or woman. For example, if you look at Hugh Jackman in the early 2000s his body was described as being perfect in those days but now he has become more increasingly lean and massive over these two decades, with Jackman saying that the next wolverine is going to be even bigger and the biggest ever wolverine.
This is also supported by a recent accountability post that actor Jake Stormeon posted on his personal Instagram account saying that in his 20s when he was filming The Outpost his job required him to be shirtless most of, if not all the time, and that required him to do a hell of a lot of things for his body. And as a fan I can confirm there is a difference but as an average man, I think it is a healthy difference.
Now I am not singling with him out but his honesty makes a good point. He didn’t say he wanted to do these extreme things to his body, he said his job required it.
Again this basically harks back to the idea of the perfect body image and what film companies require.
Body Image and Social Media
In addition, social media reflects this increase in impossible standards for the so-called perfect body and as an Instagram user I know that Instagram is literally clogged with tons of “thirst trap” selfies featuring muscular men with minimal body fat percentage. As well as Longergan et al. (2021) found that posts like these receive a disproportionately positive response from other social media users, so this reinforces the men who post this way.
In other words, this positive response reinforces these impossible standards and the so-called need for these standards in the people who look like this.
Moreover, in 2020 a quantitative study by Gultzow et al. analysed photos posted by men on Instagram and found the exact same thing. Most photos posted in the sample that depicted a lot of muscles and lean body mass. Then to measure this perceived need for males to be muscular, McCreary created a psychometric scale measuring “drive for muscularity” in 2017, and the researcher noted that the no-body-fat physique, packed with muscles is often “considered the male ideal”.
Also McCreary (2017) found that men felt worse about their physical appearance after looking at and absorbing the idealised and hyper-muscular images and other content found on Instagram. As well as Carfi et al. (2002) showed these body image concerns reduce a man’s confidence, self-esteem and overall life satisfaction just like they do for women.
Why Am I Not “Picking” On Instagram Here?
I just wanted to make it clear to people here on the website and on the podcast that I am not picking on Instagram here but I do want to highlight it. This is where the research is done, Instagram is an image-based platform so it is perfect for sharing idealised body images and their recommendation algorithms are scary. I will admit on this podcast because I believe in honesty and telling you the truth and on Instagram I clicked on an image of these idealised bodies once or twice and the next time I went onto Instagram my recommendation feed was filled with them.
And I mean filled.
Therefore, these social platforms of course play a major role in pushing this harmful content which is understandable considering the positive reaction they get.
Male Body Image and Wider Society
If we step back from social media for a moment then we can see that this is also reflected in general, wider society since Luicano (2007) found that American men grow up believing that muscles signal masculinity. In other words, having muscles makes you a man and all that absolute rubbish.
Therefore, these distorted expectations do more than just contribute to the constant creation and sharing of shirtless photos on social media. These beliefs and attitudes can warp into the body image disorder known as muscle dysmorphia. This is a dangerous condition when a sufferer becomes convinced that their body is too skinny, weak and small.
And this problem is only getting worse.
As a result of a 2019 study of 700 American men between the ages of 18 and 24 showed that more than 20% of men had a disordered relationship to food because of their desire to get bigger and more muscle-bound. These young men were eating too much due to “bulking up” requires a high-calorie intake, they put their own health at risk by using anabolic steroids or they took dietary supplements like extra protein.
International Body Image Concerns
Sadly these body image concerns are not contained to only the USA because this is an international crisis since whilst up to 40% of American men do feel anxious about their weight according to Frederick et al. (2022). In the UK according to the Mental Health Foundation, more than 20% of English men admit they try to dress in a way that conceals parts of their body in 2019.
In addition, 11% of English men reported suicidal thoughts because of their negative body image concerns as well as 4% said they had already tried to hurt themselves for this exact reason.
Then in France, the Journal of Men’s Health (2014), up to 85% of French men reported they weren’t happy with their bodies because they thought they didn’t have enough muscles.
Finally for this section, this was all only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic because the health-related anxieties that were swimming around in society could have made these body image issues worse. A 2021 study supported by this by finding social distancing was linked with higher male dissatisfaction with their muscles and weight.
Overall, before we move on, I will just say this. These body image concerns, they kill people, they harm people and they can twist someone’s mind in horrific ways. I already mentioned in the last podcast episode on this topic that eating disorders (that these concerns can lead to) kill people and are some of the deadliest mental health conditions in the world.
So I don’t say this to scare you at all. I say this because enough is enough and we need to help fix this international mental health crisis.
Why Don’t Men Talk About Their Body Image Concerns?
As Rasisanen and Hunt pointed out in a 2014 article for the BMJ Open Journal, a lot of men just don’t want to talk about these issues with their friends and family members. They feel insufficient enough already in their own heads without adding to the concerns about their family and friends judging them or even agreeing with them (I highly doubt they would but these are the sort of things people with body image issues tell themselves). Therefore, these men stay silent out of fear of expressing these feelings and risking them being seen as even less manly.
This is why I personally hate the idea of “manliness” because it is pathetic. I am sorry but I have no time for people who parade around the idea of manliness because they are doing so much damage to society, the mental health of innocent people and more that I just don’t want to hear from them.
I do have time for the victims of the “manliness” culture and people that want to help people, and this is why I do these podcast episodes. I want to help people and I want people to realise that the traditional ideas of “manliness” aren’t only damaging but very outdated.
Furthermore, as the 2014 article pointed out, even if these amazing men who are perfect in their own way get enough courage to ask for help. Some are dismissed because people believe body image issues are only for women and men don’t have them.
This is why knowing how to identify what to look for in men with body image issues is critical.
How To Know If A Man Has Body Image Issues?
Very quickly for the last section of the episode, if you think that a friend or family member is having body image issues then maybe look out for these signs. This isn’t official advice but this could be a starting point if you’re worried.
Maybe your family member or friend has gained a lot of weight all of a sudden, maybe they’ve been talking about their body a lot lately or they could be bulking up excessively. Or maybe they have been spending a lot more time in the gym or in front of a mirror lately.
This could show that a body-image issue is present.
If this is the case then maybe they should check out a therapist specialising in eating disorders. Then they will help the client (if they want the help) to change their obsessive thoughts about their physical appearance and reorient them to focus less on their exterior benefit and more on the effects of their long-term well-being.
Clinical Psychology and Eating Disorders Conclusion
I know in the last podcast episode I spoke about my own eating and body image issues in the past and that is why I love talking about this topic. I will not pretend that I have had these issues so dire that it has destroyed me but it honestly could have. I could have had an eating disorder and hospitalised a few years ago because I hated my body that much.
That is why I make sure I make three meals a day even if I am NOT hungry.
So to end this episode, I want to remind you that body image issues will be seriously harmful to people in the end and they are no joke. If you’re a man or woman with a body image issue then please talk to someone, get their opinion on it and if you need it then please seek professional help.
Please don’t suffer in silence because you are perfect just the way you are and there is a massive difference between wanting to be healthy. And wanting to have the perfect body.
Having the perfect body never ends well.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s psychotherapy podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuroscience, Neuropsychology and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Clinical Psychology References
Barlett, C. P., Vowels, C. L. & Saucier, D. A. (2008). Meta-analyses of the effects of media images on men's body-image concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 27(3).
Cafri, G., Strauss J. & Thompson, J. K. (2002). Male body image: Satisfaction and its relationship to well-being using the somatomorphic matrix. International Journal of Men's Health; 1 (2)
Frederick, D. A., Crerand, C. E., Brown, T. A., Perez, M., Best, C. R., Cook-Cottone, C. P., Compte, E. J., Convertino, L., Gordon, A. R., Malcarne, V. L., Nagata, J. M., Parent, M. C., Pennesi, J., Pila, E., Rodgers, R. F., Schaefer, L. M., Thompson, J. K., Tylka, T. L., & Murray, S. B. (2022). Demographic predictors of body image satisfaction: The U.S. Body Project I, Body Image, Volume 41, 17-31.
Gültzow, T., Guidry, J. P. D., Schneider, F. & Hoving, C. (2020). Male body image portrayals on Instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 23(5), 281-289.
Lonergan, A.R., Mitchison, D., Bussey, K. & Fardouly, J. (2021). Social Media and Eating and Body Image Concerns Among Men and Boys. In J. M. Nagata, T. A. Brown, S. B. Murray & J. M. Lavender (Ed.), Eating disorders in boys and men, pp/ 307-316. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Luciano, L. (2007). Muscularity and Masculinity in the United States: A Historical Overview. In J.
K. Thompson & G. Cafri (Eds.), The muscular ideal: Psychological, social, and medical perspectives (pp. 41–65). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11581-002
McCreary, D. R. (2007). The Drive for Muscularity Scale: Description, Psychometrics, and Research Findings. In J. K. Thompson & G. Cafri (Eds.), The muscular ideal: Psychological, social, and medical perspectives (pp. 87–106). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11581-004
The Mental Health Foundation. (2019, Nov 12). Millions of men in the UK affected by body image issues – Mental Health Foundation survey. Retrieved from
Räisänen, U. & Hunt, K. (2014). The role of gendered constructions of eating disorders in delayed help-seeking in men: a qualitative interview study. Retrieved from https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/4/4/e004342.full.pdf
Swami, V., Horne, G. & Furnham, A. (2021, Feb 15). COVID-19-related stress and anxiety are associated with negative body image in adults from the United Kingdom. Personality and Individual Differences, 170.
Valls, M., Bonvin, P., & Chabrol, H. (2014). Association between muscularity dissatisfaction and body dissatisfaction among normal-weight French men. Journal of Men's Health, 10(4), 139-145.
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