Dr Christian Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching Science in the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Worcester. Christian is a member of the Men and Boys Coalition and the Male Psychology Network who are committed to taking action on gender specific issues which affect men and boys. In this blog, written to highlight issues for International Men's Day, he investigates the quest that some men face for the perfect body and how perceptions of masculinity can affect individuals' health and well-being.
International Men’s Day celebrates men and boys, their diversity and any key issues they may face. One set of issues receiving increased research and media attention, are those connected to male body image. If you have recently watched reality TV, scrolled through social media or browsed through a Men's magazine, you might have noticed an increasing amount of muscle on show. Over the last 40 years, the 'perfect' male body has become progressively leaner and more muscular (Pope, Phillipa, & Olivardia, 2000).
My work focuses on the causes and consequences of extreme levels of drive (or desire) for muscle in men. This research area is important because, despite exercise and a muscular body commonly being associated with health benefits (such as improved posture), a high drive to be muscular has often been linked to negative consequences, including depression, exercise dependence, and anabolic steroid (ab)use (Edwards, Tod, & Molnar, 2014). Considering these potentially negative consequences, my recent work focused on the personal experiences that may lead men to develop these extreme desires for muscle.
In this study (published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity) I explored the life histories of 20 men with extremely high levels of drive for muscularity. During interviews, the men revealed stories of dysfunctional interactions between themselves and significant others in their childhood and adolescence (e.g. with their fathers, being bullied and abused by significant others). This participant, for example, identifies his experiences of bullying:
"The [bullying] was both physical and verbal, crikey, I think it varied, on one occasion I ended up bruising my spine because I got thrown onto solid concrete. Obviously when you are that short or kind of weight-wise, you are not that heavy, so you tend to find that you can be launched."
In these interactions, men were exposed to dominant messages of what it means to be a man (such as a man should be able to deal with adversity, a man should be able to defend themselves, etc.), and, through comparisons and reinforcement, these experiences made participants believe that they did not conform.
In early adulthood, these men experienced a range of events that made them reflect on who they were as a man (such as relationship breakdowns or physical violence, etc). Driven by these events, they developed strong desires to become muscular and participated in activities that would allow this to happen (like weight training.) They believed that a muscular body would ‘buy’ them a kind of masculine credit (or man points).
Many men identified how they initially ‘played around with weights’ which led them to gain some benefits (like attention from women or enhanced sporting performance). One participant identified some of the benefits from his new muscular physique:
"[In the gym] my body was changing and getting bigger and more muscular. I was confident and people changed around me.
When I was sitting in Maths [class] I would have girls, like really good looking, pretty girls in school sitting next to me . . . [whereas] before [I started training] I was like a nerd kind of thing, skinny and kind of getting bullied. So it went from being bullied to like the best looking girl sitting next to me: amazing!"
In the gym, however, men were exposed to a new perfect body. The larger the muscle in the gym the more masculine credit these men believed they had attained. However, for some men, the amount of muscle just never seemed enough. Men reflected on their desires to become more and more muscular:
“I think once you get into training and striving for perfection you have never got anything that you like, you always want more. The day you start lifting is the day you will forever be small (!).”
The men’s stories highlight that they were willing to engage in riskier behaviours to enhance muscularity (like increasing supplement use, excessive dieting and using steroids). The men also noted that as their drive for muscularity increased, they began to avoid social relationships because those interactions interfered with the maintenance of their training and muscle development.
Overall, my research discloses the experiences that resulted in extreme levels of drive for muscularity for the participants. It reveals that high levels of drive for muscularity is not just influenced by mass media but may be rooted in men’s need to demonstrate their masculine status. Further, it reveals that the drive for muscularity may become an all-consuming activity and result in increased social isolation.
These findings do not mean that all men who engage in gym training will become consumed by a quest for muscle. Men who engage in gym training, however, may wish to consider:
- Their motives for training
- The standards that they evaluate themselves against (such as other men in the gym, media representations of men)
- The amount of time they devote to their training.
Reflecting on these areas may help men realise the ways their desire for a muscular physique could be influencing their general health and well-being.
Many men in my work revealed that they wished to seek help for their extreme drive for muscularity. For health professionals, working with men with an extreme drive for muscle, interventions may be targeted at challenging the masculine ideals through which men may evaluate themselves. Supportive significant others are also in a position to promote healthy messages and may be a source of informal help for men experiencing distress (By listening, and potentially signposting to appropriately qualified practitioners).
The recent BBC Documentary by Reggie Yates, Dying For a Six Pack, covers similar subject matter to that expressed in this article and can be accessed on iPlayer.
Dr Edwards’ current work focuses on the life histories of men with muscle dysmorphia – a muscle-orientated form of body dysmorphic disorder. He is a member of the Gender, Identity and the Body research group and has recently established a University special interest group on Body Image Disorders and Well-being. If you would like to discuss his work in more detail, please contact Christian by email on C.Edwards@worc.ac.uk or @ChrisJEdw on Twitter. You can also read Dr Edwards’ published papers.