6 surprising things you need to know about male body image

Is this becoming the new 'normal' expectation for the male body?

1 in 3 men would trade a year of their life if it meant they could achieve their ideal body weight and shape.  This is just one of the worrying outcomes of research just completed by the Centre for Appearance Research in the UK

Body image has traditionally been seen as a “female issue”. But, the fact is that men are now feeling the pressure. Beefcake male models on billboards, photoshopped images of six-pack abs and killer thighs, commando-style guns, glistening white teeth, full heads of hair.  And not to mention a whole lot of fat-talk from males in all walks of life. And you thought women were the only ones who did that?

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs , research health psychologist specialising in body image and eating disorder prevention writes.

In October 2011, my colleagues and I at the Centre for Appearance Research were commissioned by The Succeed Foundation and Central YMCA to ask 394 British men aged 18-70 about their body image in an anonymous online survey. Some of the results were surprising…

1)     1 in 3 men said they would trade one year of their life if it meant they could achieve their ideal body weight and shape.

2)     The top 4 aspects of appearance that men said they were most concerned about included their stomachs, waistlines, amount of head hair, and wrinkles.

3)     78% of men said that they wish they were more muscular.

4)     1 in 6 fear everyday that they might gain weight.

We also asked men about “body talk”. Body talk, sometimes referred to as “fat talk” among women, is any type of conversation that reinforces narrowly defined standards for attractiveness and beauty – currently for men this tends to be a tall, lean, muscular, toned body with clear skin and a full head of hair.

Examples of body talk include “Do I look fat in this?”, “He would look better if he bulked up a bit.”, “Nobody wants to date the bald guy”, “she shouldn’t be wearing those jeans.” Body talk can appear to be either critical (e.g., “He’s too fat to wear that”) or seemingly complimentary (e.g., “You look great, have you lost weight?”).

Previous research with women suggests that body talk and fat talk has a detrimental effect on body image and self-esteem. For example, one study conducted by psychologists in the US found that women only need to hear 3-5 minutes of fat talk before their body esteem starts to decrease.


But what about men, they don’t talk about their appearance right? Wrong.

5)     More than 80% of men said that they personally engage in body talk and often hear it from their male friends and family members, at the gym and in the media.

The terms “beer belly”, “six pack” and “moobs” (man boobs) were the top three terms that men had used to describe another man’s appearance.  Hearing another man refer to his appearance negatively, eating something unhealthy and feeling unhappy with the way they look were the most common reasons for men to engage in body talk.

6)     1 in 2 men said that body talk affects their body image and self-esteem negatively.

One man said:  “I think body talk has become so common today that most people are affected by it. We are now living in a society obsessed with image and aesthetic appeal … males want to be big and lean, and while it certainly isn’t a bad thing for people to want to look better .. it has become more like a competition, which has a bad effect on most people’s mental health. I myself have become quite obsessed with my body, wanting to be extremely ripped and athletic looking”

Dispelling the notion that a gentle ribbing about appearance can act as a motivator for some people to engage in exercise, another man said:

“It has historically affected how I see myself. It has reinforced negative self image. As a man who carries excess weight, the constant negative statements can have an effect on my self esteem and image. In the past it had stopped me from going to a gym in case I may experience negative comments.”

This research clearly demonstrates that body talk, fat talk, and body image are not just issues for women and teenagers. They affect everyone.

How often do you hear or engage in body talk? How does it affect you?

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs is a research health psychologist specialising in body image and eating disorder prevention. Originally from Australia, she is currently working at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England in the UK.