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Man in the mirror: The changing face of male body image


Societal ideals of what men should look like to be most attractive have always existed. It’s been true for millennia.

But as Professor Christian Strobel said in a recent podcast with Freeletics CEO Daniel Sobhani, right now “the typical image of men is undergoing extreme change.”

And if we aren’t careful, letting society define how we should look without balancing it with our own control can now come with bigger and bigger downsides.

While most of us wouldn’t mind looking like Ryan Gosling or having chiseled muscles like Arnold Schwarzenneger, it might not be terribly realistic. And even if we consciously know this, it can still have negative impacts on us – from dissatisfaction to depression to eating disorders and worse.

Negative self-image

In a recent study, 300 men aged 18 to 30 were all asked to view clothed men, shirtless men, or control images of scenery posted by the same influencers and asked how they made them feel. The study found that those exposed to images of bare chests or muscles felt less satisfied with their body.1

One study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that 11% of UK men have experienced suicidal thoughts in relation to body image.2

What’s important to remember here is that while developing an amazing physique may be attainable for some, for many of us, it’s a standard of attractiveness that may be smart to temper.

Eating disorders

While men are historically far less likely to report eating disorders or even exercise addiction in an effort to achieve their desired body type than women, the problems do exist on a larger and larger scale.

For example, in the UK alone, during the five years up to 2018, hospital admissions for men aged 10 to 24 rose from 151 to 190.3 Other studies have found that 10% of anorexia and bulimia patients were men.4 While a study published in 2007 stated that a quarter of anorexia and bulimia cases were male.5

These statistics are staggering, considering that historically, eating disorders were mostly attributed to women.

So does that mean we should all just give in and go for that “dad bod”? No. But it does call for a rethink about what “ideal” means for each of us, tuning into our bodies, understanding what is realistic, and defining goals and standards for ourselves in relation to this.

Listening to your body

These negative behaviors tell us that more and more men are overlooking or ignoring what their bodies are telling them. For example, we may ignore hunger signals or pain signals if we excessively exercise. But when we stop listening to our bodies, we risk putting ourselves in danger.

Similar to eating disorders, addictions, like sports or steroid addiction, can put men into a vicious cycle. Some will exercise excessively to compensate for their calorie intake, while others will be on a quest to lose weight or change their appearance.2

It’s these behaviors we must be aware of in ourselves and recognize when they may become problematic. It’s important to listen and respond to our bodies rather than striving for ideals that could be detrimental to our health.

No matter if you want to gain muscle or lose some weight, it’s important to understand all of the factors involved to help you achieve your goals. Healthy eating and exercising should not be fanatical. Instead, you should weigh up all the costs and consider what a balanced version of what a “fit” or “healthy” body image looks like for you.

Loving yourself fit

It’s normal to look to celebrities or sports figures as inspiration for your fitness goals. However, be wary of comparing yourself to others. The reality is that we are all unique, and instead of trying to be someone else’s "ideal" version, we should strive to become the best version of ourselves, while celebrating and loving who we are and how we look.

Ultimately, the path to well-being isn’t in pursuing someone else's reflection but in embracing your own journey to a healthier, happier you – a journey that is uniquely yours, however you define it.

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  1. Tiggemann, M., & Anderberg, I. (2020). Muscles and bare chests on Instagram: The effect of Influencers' fashion and fitspiration images on men's body image. Body image, 35, 237–244.
  2. Mental Health Foundation. (2019). Millions of men in the UK affected by body image issues – Mental Health Foundation survey. Available at:
  3. Thompson, D. (2012). Boys and men get eating disorders too. Trends in Urology and Men’s Health
  4. Weltzin, T, E., Weisensel, N., Franczyk, D., Burnett, K.,Klitx,, C & Bean, P. (2005). Eating disorders in men: Update. Journal of Men’s Health and Gender: 2, 186-193.
  5. Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., Jr, & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.