Concerns about the pressures faced by women and girls are frequently documented in the media, and surveys do seem to indicate that women have more negative feelings about their body than men. However, male body image is a pertinent issue as well.
Magazines such as Men’s Health carry regular features on how to “build big arms fast” and get “cut with keto”. Research has found a link between media pressure and men having negative feelings about their bodies. It’s not just adult men either: a report published this year by the Children’s Society suggested boys’ happiness with their appearance is decreasing.
Naturally, these feelings are bad enough in themselves, but studies have also identified links between low body appreciation and lower reported well-being more generally. Muscle dysmorphia – a condition recognised only relatively recently – is an anxiety disorder; sufferers see themselves as being less muscular than they are, and tend to feel a compulsion to look or become physically stronger. This can lead to disordered eating habits, such as consuming excessive amounts of protein, obsessive and dangerous amounts of time spent exercising, and taking anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass.
These steroids can lead to damage to various internal organs, as well as psychological reactions including mood swings and paranoia. Additionally, they can lead to another problem which is less discussed in relation to men – infertility.
When James Mossman was working on his doctorate at the University of Sheffield, he noticed something a lot of men coming in for fertility tests had in common – they were large and muscular. Dr Mossman, now of Brown University, and Professor Allan Pacey at Sheffield, noted in a recent letter to the Journal of Internal Medicine that “many men set themselves an unachievable goal of being both physically and evolutionary fit”, – that is, likely to pass on their genes – thereby putting their “masculinity and muscularity in direct conflict”.
This contradiction has been coined the ‘Mossman-Pacey paradox’ and is a potential cause of anguish in couples who are trying to conceive. When interviewed by The Student Pacey offers a view on why male fertility issues are less talked about, explaining that “since the advent of Intra-Ctyoplasmic Sperm Injection” – the most common treatment for male infertility – “there is a view that male fertility issues have been solved…with less research actually being focussed on the male, there is less to report in the media”.
Mossman agrees with Pacey that the study of male fertility is poor compared with female fertility, but is optimistic, saying, “I think the tide is perhaps turning on the discussion of fertility and this will be facilitated by media exposure. Fertility management is big in the tech world right now and companies are sprouting up offering home monitoring of reproductive cycles, home testing of some sperm functions, among many other services”.
On male body image issues, Mossman highlights the role of the advertising industry, pointing out that “it is basically the advertiser’s goal to construct a feeling of deficiency or inadequacy” and suggesting that male body image is being targeted increasingly by companies promoting cosmetic products.
It is clear that the pressure is getting to men as well as women. So, what can be done? Well, wider knowledge of the risks of anabolic steroids would help; but to address the underlying issues, more research may be needed. Studies have suggested that engaging in physical activity for enjoyment can encourage people to appreciate their body for what it can do, rather than for what it looks like. A greater push for male body positivity in today’s social media culture may help in preventing infertility for couples.
Going against the traditional ‘masculine’ stereotype may not be easy, but one thing can be guaranteed – you won’t be the only one feeling the way that you do.
Image: Joss0177 via Flickr