Why men’s muscles don’t matter

The subject of body image usually focuses on women, but men can also have similar dissatisfaction and negative feelings, it’s just not talked about.

An obsession to be big, buff and muscular is becoming increasingly prevalent among men, with many turning to strict diets, supplements and workout routines to obtain an ‘ideal’ male physique.

This line of thinking can even proliferate into muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia,’ – a disorder where men see themselves differently to how other people perceive them and become preoccupied with being more lean and muscular.

Many men become fixated on building muscle. Photo: Isabella Clarke.

PhD candidate Beth O’Gorman from the University of Queensland led a recent study on male body image and the factors that influence how men see themselves and each other.

One of her key findings was the taboo nature of body dissatisfaction and lack of discussion by men on the topic.

“Body dissatisfaction and the expression of emotional distress were both seen as socially undesirable for men because they’re contrary to their socially defined masculine norms,” she said.

“So men felt like if they were to disclose their body dissatisfaction they were almost in a double jeopardy – they were expressing vulnerability which is contrary to masculine norms and they were also admitting to have what was seen as a stereotypically female problem.”

One participant in the study stated: “Guys don’t talk about their bodies… [There is a] societal perception that girls are the ones who speak about the problems and guys just soldier on [and] just forget about it.”

The research also pointed to a common tendency for men and boys to compare themselves to their peers.

“The moment these guys entered the room, I’d already compared my body to all of them. I’ll be dead honest with you,” another participant said.

Find out why Curtin students go to the gym. Video: Isabella Clarke.

According to the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, muscle dysmorphia is often characterised by behaviours such as compulsively comparing and checking physique, disordered eating and disruption of social and work life due to a workout schedule.

The condition can have serious consequences, with the suicide rate for those with body dysmorphic disorder (of which muscle dysmorphia is a sub-category) up to 45 times higher than the general population.

And this affects around 1 in 50 Australians.

An excessive or disruptive workout schedule can be a sign things have gone too far. Photos: Isabella Clarke.

Personal trainer Ben Donaldson agrees there are many men who may have issues or obsessions with their body that they don’t discuss.

“You see guys come in here twice a day,” he said.

“Some are training for a specific purpose but some are just wanting to come in and train twice a day for whatever reason, myself included, and that’s not necessarily healthy. You’ve got to think about the reasons as to why you’re doing it.”

He said he has had his own issues with body image and didn’t find great difficulty in expressing this, though others are not the same.

“It always seems to be sort of done lighthearted, or it doesn’t feel like it’s said with much seriousness,” he said.

“People sort of joke about not having big calves, or this part of their body or that part of their body, but it’s never really sort of someone sitting down saying look I’ve got an issue here.”

Ms O’Gorman said the taboo nature of men talking seriously about body image was a problem.

“The most important takeaway message from this study is that it’s really important to normalise the experience and the disclosure of body dissatisfaction among men,” she said.

Support services:

The Butterfly Foundation 1800 334 673

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636