Talking About The Impact Of Negative Body Image In Men
Negative body image in men can be just as challenging as it is for women, but it generally doesn’t get talked about as much.
Make no mistake – women have very obviously and very prominently been judged on their bodies for… well, probably eternity. But that it doesn’t mean men can’t be affected by it.
How Widespread Is Negative Body Image In Men?
In the UK, we have a charity called CALM – Campaign Against Living Miserably.
They conducted a study and found that:
- 48% of men between the ages of 16 and 40 struggle with how they felt about their bodies.
- 58% said the Covid pandemic negatively affected their body image.
- 21% said they don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about body image.
- And only around one in four – 26% to be exact – said they were happy with how they look.
With studies like this, I always add a disclaimer that when something is so heavily stigmatised or you’re in a demographic where an issue isn’t really seen to exist, like men and body image, there is always a good chance that these may still underestimate the scale of the issue.
Body Image Issues And Body Positivity
As far as body image issues go for men, the most common ones tend to be around:
- body fat percentage
- muscle size
As I said before, women have had it bad and so frequently with being judged based on their bodies for such a long time.
Whereas with men, if it has been the case, I guess it’s just been brushed under the carpet because we don’t talk about it or we’re not supposed to talk about it.
The thing is that with women because it’s been so prevalent for so long, we reached a point where there’s enough, collective anger and frustration that the body positivity movement was able to take off and gain some momentum.
If you’re not familiar with body positivity, it’s a movement focused on embracing and appreciating bodies of all types, shapes and sizes. It is still predominantly female, and if my understanding of its history is correct, the first focus of the movement was specifically on feminine beauty.
But at its core, it is about showing appreciation for all bodies, regardless of sex and gender. So men do come under that too.
That is a bit of a tangent and we will talk about body positivity in future in more detail.
But for now, I just wanted to emphasize that there is a growing voice against idealising weight and body image. It’s just that at the moment, it still feels female skewed.
And while I still think that’s a fair reflection of how much more prominently women as a whole have had to deal with this topic, it can be easy for when men look at that to think it’s not there for them as well, but it is.
Causes Of Body Image Issues In Men
There isn’t any single cause or trigger for issues around negative body image in men and it is often deeply personal and unique.
However, I think some of the more common causes of body image issues and why it’s becoming increasingly prevalent are:
- social media and its algorithms
- movies, TV
- ads and marketing
It’s probably largely the same for women.
And there may also occasionally be comments or teasing from your peers or your colleagues or your friends, or if you’re online, maybe some trolls – which definitely don’t help.
Let’s look at a few of these.
Social Media And Body Image
We’re going to start with social media.
The main thing I want to point out is that social media runs on algorithms.
The algorithm isn’t, what’s deciding what an ideal body shape is, and it’s not judging people’s body shapes.
It is us collectively, as social media users. We’re doing that. And we’re putting ourselves through that cycle.
We engage with content with idealised bodies and thirst traps and the body types that we end up hating ourselves for not having. So that algorithm amplifies that content and it is what shows up more in our feeds.
The more we compare ourselves to those body shapes and those body types, the worse we feel.
I feel like if I say it’s self-inflicted I’m victim blaming. And I don’t mean to do that.
But understand that the algorithms just boost what people engage with. And if we stop engaging with that kind of content, it will not get the same lift that we seem to collectively let it have.
And it’s also worth bearing in mind that what you see on social media is a very, very small snippet of someone’s reality.
A lot of social media posts will involve a combination of filters, airbrushing, Photoshop, manipulating lighting and manipulating angles. And that might be the 5th, 10th, 15th, or 20th take (who knows how many) of that photo or selfie, before deciding which one to post.
So we can end up comparing ourselves to a very curated and very heavily filtered and very carefully selected version of the body that we are comparing ourselves to, and already feel embarrassed for not having.
Unsurprisingly reality is very unlikely to meet that same standard.
Movies And TV
I really want to emphasise this one because I have been guilty of this, especially in the last few years
I’m a huge Marvel fan and we’re living in a period where superhero movies and TV shows are probably more popular than they ever have been before. And as a movie fan, I am definitely grateful for it.
But on the flip side, it can also lead to some self-comparisons – yes, even with these fictional characters in a completely fictional universe.
We tend to associate that sort of typical superhero physique with strength and masculinity and even though these are superheroes and are fictional, we can often still put that physique on a pedestal.
It is extremely important to remember that these are movies.
Actors go through unsustainable and focused periods of training and nutrition to achieve a certain look. Plus they get paid a lot to do that!
Even while often in lean, athletic shape most of the time, they might still look dramatically different in size and shape for a specific role.
Let’s look at Chris Hemsworth for example.
If you compare how Chris Hemsworth looks in Thor: Love And Thunder:
To how he looks normally:
There is a dramatic difference.
Just as a heads up, I don’t know enough about image usage rights so I’m going to suggest Googling the terms “Chris Hemsworth Thor Love And Thunder Behind The Scenes” and “Chris Hemsworth Candid 2022” for comparison.
Make no mistake – Chris Hemsworth is strong, has a hell of a lot of muscle, and is lean – even in candid mode but if you compare how he looks day to day with how he looks in the movie, you can see the difference easily.
The same happens with TV – particularly limited series, one-offs, and reality TV shows.
But then if you look at actors in something like soap operas where they are playing the same character for months or years at a time, they very very rarely have that sort of superhero build unless it is a specific part of their character.
And remember again that even with TV, these are people that are being paid to look a certain way to fill a certain role.
Ads And Marketing
And lastly in this trilogy, we can look at ads and marketing. And honestly, the same thing as both social media and entertainment happens here.
The faces and bodies you see in ads or marketing in general – especially around fitness or body shape – are paid to look a certain way, or they have a certain financial interest in doing so.
Marketing for fitness products – gym wear and supplements especially – is especially skewed because most of it involves bodybuilders.
And what you need to bear in mind is that bodybuilding is a specific sport, with a specific aesthetic goal. So unless you’re a bodybuilder or into bodybuilding, there’s no absolutely real comparison.
And again you need to remember that most bodybuilders will do a photo shoot or do a show after an intense period of training and dieting. After that, they will then “rebound” back to a more sustainable body fat percentage or weight afterwards. There’s going to be tanning, lighting, filters, and editing at play here.
So there’s a lot going on. And with all these examples you end up comparing yourself to a very, very skewed version of someone rather than comparing yourself to their reality.
The Impact Of Negative Body Image
I know pretty well what the impact poor body image and poor self-esteem can have on someone – I’ve been living that for quite a while.
I was obese as a kid just from a very, very young age. And if I’m honest, it didn’t really affect me much until the age of 12 or 13.
There were occasional snide comments in school, but I was never really consistently bullied.
Body Image As A Kid
When I hit puberty and I became more aware of my body, two things ended up happening ar the same time.
First of all, I went all-in on studying. I was always very book-smart and got high grades. And because I didn’t really know how to address my weight or the issues I was having with my own body image, I went inwards to hyper-focus on studying. I figured the point in school is to get high grades. And if I was doing that, then I had something to lean on. So it was kind of like my safety net.
And then outside of that, I was still getting more and more conscious of my body. I started wearing bigger and bigger clothes or multiple layers to hide my body shape. I became less and less social. Because I was more aware of myself. And while I could keep the friends that I had, I found it so much harder to try and speak to new people or make new friends.
Long Term Impact As An Adult
And I stayed in that introverted shell right through the rest of school and university. My friend group in university kind of adopted me after we ended up getting lost together, trying to find the lecturer’s office. That was how I made friends at university.
And the thing is that hasn’t actually changed all that much. I’m in my thirties now. I still find it very hard to talk to new people and I still find it very hard to make new friends.
I don’t think it’s directly because of body image now, because I’m actually pretty happy with my body shape. But I guess somewhere along the road, it had a lasting impact, and I just lost the ability to have conversations and connect with people like that.
So, yes I’m still trying to deal with that.
I did eventually start to lose weight and I’ve lost all the way I wanted to. And it has made me fitter and healthier physically.
But I did also become more obsessed with weight and more obsessed with size.
I started to demonise body fat, and fat in any way, shape or form became uncomfortable.
I would still wear baggy clothes to try and hide my body shape. And even now, when I can comfortably fit into size, smaller size, extra small in some places, I will still sometimes try and wear baggy clothes to hide my body shape.
When I eventually tried to build muscle – and I’ve had a couple of failed attempts at “bulking” – I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of trying to eat to gain weight. And honestly, that is still something I struggle with.
So while I’m lean and have some muscle definition, I’m not exactly what someone would call muscular. I’m okay with that, but it’s just that impact of dieting and sensitivity about size, that’s put a bit of a block on me being able to actually try the whole muscle-building process properly.
Loose Skin And Surgery
And then having been through all that I think the one thing I struggled with most was the loose skin I had after losing weight, which is something I will be writing about in later posts (if you are reading this before I have written those that).
We talk about body positivity and appreciating all body shapes and sizes. But even in those images and those conversations around “all body shapes and sizes” I could not see anything even remotely similar to what my body shape was. And while I was in good shape, and I was (and still am) pretty lean, the excess skewed my own perception of my body shape and caused a lot of distress and discomfort.
I can fit into a size extra small in some places and size small everywhere else (even if sometimes it’s a bit baggy). But while I had that skin, I still always felt like I need to lose weight. I did eventually get the skin removed from my chest and my abdomen in March 2022.
As I write this, I am mostly recovered now. And the change in my confidence since then has been almost immediate.
I remember I got a couple of sports massages a few years ago, so before COVID, I still had the skin and I was more or less at the weight I wanted to be. And I was insistent on keeping my t-shirt on.
As part of my recovery, I’m getting something that’s called a lymphatic drainage massage, which is just to help with the swelling post-surgery. And with that, as soon as the massage therapist arrives, my t-shirt is off and we’re good to go. There’s like no hangups or issues around showing my torso anymore.
So, yes, it’s been a huge dramatic boost to my confidence.
Cosmetic Surgery And Hypocrisy
I’m sure it does come across as hypocritical to be talking about, or promoting body positivity and healthier views on body image when I have literally just gone under the knife on my own body.
But it is still something that I’m coming to terms with, and I also don’t think it invalidates the past experiences I’ve had or other issues that I might have going forwards.
I am in a better place with body image now, and I do feel more comfortable in my skin. And I will probably happily show off my scars once they are fully healed and the swelling has gone down, but it’s been a long road. And to be honest, there is still a lasting impact.
Ongoing Issues With Negative Body Image
If I think about how it’s still impacting me or the sort of knock on from how it affected me before there’s still quite a lot of work for me to do.
I’ve already talked about my inability to make friends or meet new people. Up until I started to get sensitive about my body in school I was quite an extrovert. And then that gradually went away and I went into a shell.
Long-term relationships have always been out of the question.
When I was younger, I was too conscious of my weight. When I started losing weight, I said, I’ll be ready once I’ve lost the weight. Once I lost the weight I had loose skin. And I was even more conscious of that because it was even less common than being of a certain weight or of a certain body fat percentage.
I’ve been on dating apps and I’ve been able to match with some wonderful people and have great conversations, but I would never let it get too far because I was so conscious of my skin.
And I figured, if we took it further, I’d have to explain it. And I probably didn’t know how to explain it. I would’ve felt weird talking about it.
And I also didn’t know when it would be appropriate to bring it up or how they’d react or if it would kill the relationship. And I also didn’t want to waste people’s time. And I guess I just assumed it would be a deal breaker for everyone I ever spoke to.
But if I think about the people that I’ve matched with, the experiences I might’ve missed out on the connections and maybe friends I could’ve made. It stings. Quite a lot.
That is still something I’m working on, but I feel more comfortable talking about surgery and scars and my body shape post-surgery. And I feel much happier in my skin now as well.
Negative Body Image Impact On Personality
Again, I know it does sound hypocritical to try and encourage someone to be comfortable in their own skin after I’ve just gone through something that drastic. But it’s what my experience has been. And I know the emotional difficulties it’s closed.
And that snowballs. You can feel isolated or depressed or have anxiety or other mental health issues.
And what I found is that it can also lead to compulsive or obsessive behaviour.
Before I had surgery when I went for walks. I would usually keep one hand on my chest just to kind of cover where the loose skin I felt like it was visible. And also just to stop it from moving around.
It can lead to low self-esteem loss of confidence, hiding away from people and maybe even just, you know, forgetting part of yourself.
As I said, I was an extrovert until I got to becoming sensitive about my body shape. And then I kind of went into my shell.
I feel like part of my personality kind of went missing there.
And even there’s this constant feeling like you’re not good enough for people or you’re a burden or a liability. And that can start to creep into your own self-talk as well, which can be toxic and challenging to deal with.
Even if someone just wants to be nice to you or do you a favour, you feel like you’re putting a burden on them and you’re just in their way.
So you put distance between yourself and other people, so they don’t have to deal with that burden or hassle of you kind of being around them. Or you cut back on communication and messaging because you don’t want to annoy them with your messages.
And maybe you try to avoid meeting people because you don’t want to take up or waste their time. I’ve done all of the above and I am still prone to doing that.
And none of these might be specifically because of your own body image. But they can still stem from the impact that a negative view of body image can have.
Dealing With Negative Body Image In Men
Dealing with body image issues is a complicated and challenging and difficult road. And I’m still on that road, but I am moving forward.
The above was all a bit grim – because I am sure you were hoping for a happy fairy tale ending where I have left any issues behind and have a step by step, easy to follow plan for you to do the same. Sadly, no.
But let’s look at some things you can do to help, deal with, cope with, or recover from issues around negative body image.
Yes, I know it’s easier said than done. Don’t @ me about it.
And I know it is the same as if I was to tell someone with depression to cheer up or tell someone who’s having a panic attack to calm down.
It’s also worth bearing in mind some insecurity is natural and there will always be things about us that we’ll feel like we want to change or improve.
But there is a line between where it is something you’re aware of which doesn’t affect you on a day-to-day basis, and where it really starts to take over and becomes a bit more of a focus or even to extend them and obsession.
For all the therapy or behaviour changes or workouts or diets or surgery in the world, you can’t truly overcome body image issues until you get to the point where you feel comfortable with appreciating the body that you have.
If you went on an extreme diet and training plan and got really built and lean and muscular, you might either end up getting obsessive about maintaining it, or you might fixate on something else instead, like your height or your hair or a particular part of your body that isn’t quite how you want it to look.
Muscle dysmorphia or bigorexia is also a thing which I will also cover at some point in future.
Manage Your Social Media
Try and manage your social media. Try to control your time on it and aim to stop mindlessly scrolling (or doom scrolling).
Stop engaging with the content that you end up comparing yourself to, or hide it or mute it or unfollow or block those accounts.
Also start engaging with content that shows appreciation for different types of buddies and puts diversity in a positive light. For a virtual ego boost, imagine seeing a ton of positive comments on a picture of someone whose body looks more like yours, and that can help you understand and appreciate different body types, even more yourself.
Try looking at your own behaviour. We spend so much time comparing ourselves to idealised versions of male bodies. But how often do we judge someone like that in real life, based on their body?
When you’re walking down the street, are you looking at people and judging them because they’re skinny or heavier or tall or short or have long hair or are bald?
Do you even care? How much thought do you put into that on a day to day basis?
Perfect Bodies Don’t Exist
It’s also worth remembering that there’s no such thing as a perfect body. Everyone has different goals.
Since I lost weight, I have always had skinny or lean arms. And while I do have some muscle definition now they’ve never looked particularly big.
And my biceps have never been what one would call “bulging” as my forever-baggy t-shirt sleeves can testify.
I’ve never been insecure about them as such, but I’ve always wished they were a bit bigger.
When I was an in-person personal trainer, one of my clients that started working with me said he wanted arms like mine. He wasn’t after size. He just wanted to be lean with a little bit of definition.
And that really put into context for me that while I was comparing myself to guys with much bigger biceps and thinking that that was the ideal or perfect way to look, there was someone here in front of me that was giving me that same kind of regard.
And it was a simple comment, but it really planted a seed that fundamentally changed my approach to fitness and weight loss. And what kind of trainer or coach I wanted to be.
When you’re looking at media – movies, TV, social media, anything else – remember that it’s all through filters, angles, lighting, and editing. And maybe unsustainable and extreme diets and training plans. And it’s not the real world.
Getting Help For Men’s Body Image Issues
If you are struggling, do reach out for help.
If you feel comfortable, speak to friends or family. If it’s having a major impact on your life, don’t hesitate to speak to a professional. So doctor, therapist, or counsellor would be good choices. A
nd if you want the listening ear, you can also get in touch with me on here or on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok.
Wrapping Up On Negative Body Image In Men
I said before that it’s a bit hypocritical for me to be talking about body image, having just undergone surgery not that long ago to drastically change my body shape.
But a big part of that for me was being able to finally draw a line under a lifelong battle with weight loss. And it was something to bring that journey to a close. And while I am still recovering, my confidence has shot up dramatically because I feel like I’ve ended that chapter of my life.
I was happy with my body overall aside from the skin that wanted to remove. And I was – it’s hard to put a number on it – maybe about 90% sure that once it was done, I’d be in a much better position to overcome my body image issues.
There wasn’t anything else on my body that was making me feel anywhere near as insecure or vulnerable.
I couldn’t say 100% sure because I don’t think that level of certainty would be possible really. But I think so far, my hunch has proved right.
I already said it may seem a little bit hypocritical. But it closed what was a very long and often painful chapter in my life. And I feel like it was the right move.
If you are struggling and it is having an impact on you, please do speak to someone, even if it’s just a one-line DM to me, because you want someone to listen.
That’s still a starting point. Once you feel comfortable talking to someone, the rest can feel a bit easier.