Where Do Men Fit Into the Body Positivity Movement?

Men with different bodies posing positively

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • Many men have expressed concerns over body image, with around one in every thousand living with anorexia nervosa at some point in their life.
  • Men may have body image concerns because of media portrayals of the "ideal man" or because of the pressure put on men to meet societal expectations.
  • In particular, the condition muscle dysmorphia, or "bigorexia," disproportionately affects men.

While the body positivity movement tends to center on women, men can also struggle with body image. However, for men, it’s something that’s more likely to go under the radar, whether that be because men are more reluctant to reach out or because they’re less likely to get an accurate diagnosis. 

It’s understandable that the focus is largely on women—women are disproportionately affected by body image disorders and eating disorders—but they affect men too, and it begs the question as to where men fit into the body positivity movement. 

Matt Boyles, a personal trainer and founder of Fitter Confident You, says that the male body positivity movement "lags behind" because male body image issues haven't been considered a problem.

"For a man to say he wasn't feeling comfortable with his body, or with how society was making him feel about his body, that just wasn't done. There were also fewer resources: female-focused magazines have talked about body image and its relation to our mental well-being for much longer, while male-focused magazines just avoided it—again, playing into the stereotypes that men don't want to think about or talk about that, they just want articles on workouts and football," he explains.

How Many Men Are Affected?

Body image issues in men are something that can start early. Studies have shown that around 25% of male adolescents were worried about their bodies, wanting more toned and defined muscles while approximately 30% of high school-aged males expressed a desire to gain weight to appear more muscular.

We get into adulthood, and the statistics don’t become any less bleak. A survey of 2,102 adult males by the Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom found that 28% of respondents experienced some anxiety over their body image. Thoughts of suicide were reported by 11%, while 4% intentionally hurt themselves as a result of body image concerns.

In the UK, a 2021 study by the Campaign Against Living Miserably found that almost half (48%) of men had struggled with body image while 58% said that the pandemic had negatively affected how they felt about their bodies.

21% of men said they wouldn’t feel able to reach out about how they feel, while just 26% said they were happy with their appearance. 

Victoria Mountford, PhD

For young men, there can be pressure to appear muscular or lean. These pressures start young with male action figures or toys and cartoon characters with exaggerated six-packs and muscles.

— Victoria Mountford, PhD

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), around 0.1% of men will be living with anorexia nervosa at any given point, while men are actually at a higher risk of dying from the condition.

This may be because men are often diagnosed later, either because it’s assumed that men don’t have eating disorders or because they’re less likely to reach out for help than women. 

Victoria Mountford, PhD, clinical psychologist, says, “Less is known about eating disorders in men and young boys in general due to lack of research and stigma about having a disorder that is perceived to be 'female.'” 

“However, a quarter of those with anorexia will be male and they face worse outcomes, often because a diagnosis is delayed. Young men will experience the full range of eating disorders. In adolescents with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), sufferers are more likely to be male than female.” 

Male Body Image and the Media

It’s no secret that certain body types are promoted in the media and our day-to-day lives—and it’s even something that social media users have poked fun at with the "yet another unrealistic beauty standard for women" meme.

Even if it’s not outright body shaming, the promotion of some body types and features over others can have a negative effect on all of us.

“For young men, there can be pressure to appear muscular or lean,” says Mountford.

“These pressures start young with male action figures or toys and cartoon characters with exaggerated six-packs and muscles…Such a physique is also idealized in films and video games.” 

She describes these norms as being synonymous with stereotypically "male" traits like strength and toughness, and highlights the ways in which men can be expected to be strong and not cry—often policing each other

One condition that primarily affects men is muscle dysmorphia, sometimes colloquially called "bigorexia." It’s a type of body dysmorphia but is often bracketed together with eating disorders due to their similarities.

Somebody with the condition may believe that their body is too small or skinny, or not muscular enough, even though they’ll often have a muscular build already. It’s linked to lower self-esteem, as well as past trauma or bullying.

Matt Boyles

[M]ale-focused magazines just avoided [talking about body image issues]—again, playing into the stereotypes that men don't want to think about or talk about that, they just want articles on workouts and football.

— Matt Boyles

Another question to consider is, has the rise of dating apps had a negative effect on male body image? As people swipe on profiles, they’re making split-second judgments about others, and appearances play a big role in this.

The pandemic will have had an influence too—opportunities to meet potential love interests in the real world were limited. While this might be something we can't help, does that mean perhaps we’re now less inclined to get to know people in person, or over a longer period of time?

A 2019 study suggested that dating apps like Tinder have "commodified" relationships, while we can look at issues like heightism in dating—height is usually displayed prominently on an individual’s dating profile—as something that predominantly affects men and can damage their self-esteem, self-confidence, and perception of body image.

Social media also plays a part, and Mountford explains that it promotes content relating to fitness that portrays a certain physique as the goal. From Instagram and TikTok to even Facebook or Twitter, we compare ourselves to others and open ourselves up to negative comments from other people.

One study focusing on gay and bisexual men in particular found that social media has an increasingly large effect on male body image, with men who might already be vulnerable more likely to seek validation and affirmation from social media.

Boyles describes social media as the accelerant, rather than the cause, "enabling and promoting ever more unrealistic versions of men...You can see why people buy into that, as it all gets equated with happiness, but at the same time they feel trapped on a hamster wheel of never feeling good enough, that promised land of success never quite in reach."

Addressing the Issues

Many of us will struggle with body image at one point or another—it’s not something that will go away entirely. However, there are things we can do, and it starts at an early age.

First and foremost, we should remember that boys and men can experience body image issues too. Parents and caregivers shouldn’t assume that, just because their child is a boy, they won’t have any worries or concerns, and should educate them on the changes they’ll experience as they grow up. 

“Encourage your child to take time away from social media and emphasize positive qualities that are not related to appearance,” says Mountford.

“Find a sport or activity that your child enjoys—focusing on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like, fosters good body image.”

Likewise, don’t assume that your adult male friends won’t be experiencing body image issues or something more serious. Male body image issues might be under-reported right now, but that’s something that we can all help to change. 

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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