Lead guitarist of The Vamps, James Brittain-McVey, recently spoke out about the pressures he experienced with his body image. These pressures, which began when he was a teenager, led him to undergo liposuction at age 20. Speaking to a parliamentary committee on body image and mental health, he told MPs that he had struggled with anorexia since he was a teenager and that he still feels pressure to “look a certain way”.
Brittain-McVey is not alone in his struggles with body image. It’s estimated that between 30 percent and 40 percent of men are anxious about their weight and that up to 85 percent are dissatisfied with their muscularity. Many men desire a lean and muscular physique — which is often seen as synonymous with masculinity.
But without proper support, body image issues can have a major impact on both physical and mental health. Yet many men are hesitant to speak up about their body image issues — largely because of the stigma attached to it. Brittain-McVey also highlighted in his discussion with MPs the lack of support available for young men experiencing body image issues — which could further worsen poor mental health for those already struggling.
Mental health problems
Negative body image is more than just disliking the way your body looks. Its outcomes can often be debilitating. Research shows that, in men, body image issues are linked with lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, and a lack of confidence.
Body image issues can also lead to a host of mental health problems, such as severe anxiety and depression. It’s estimated that around one in 10 men have experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings and 4 percent have deliberately hurt themselves because of their body image issues.
Body image issues can also lead to disordered eating and muscle dysmorphia – an extreme preoccupation with having muscles. Exercise addiction — an insatiable craving for physical activity — has also been reported as a consequence of negative body image.
Not only can this lead to burnout and injury, but it can also in turn cause poorer psychological wellbeing and increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. It can also have a severe impact on a person’s social and work life and may lead to other unhealthy behaviors, such as abusing anabolic steroids to build muscle.
These concerns have likely only become worse over the course of the pandemic. In a recent study, my colleagues and I showed pandemic-related stress and anxiety were linked with men’s dissatisfaction with their weight and muscles.
Many experts think the increase in men struggling with negative body image is due to the influence of mass media. Men often compare themselves to the hyper-muscular or lean models they see in action movies and health and fitness magazines. Because these comparisons are usually unrealistic, it increases the likelihood of experiencing weight and muscularity concerns.
Social media only worsens these problems. Apps like Instagram are full of posts featuring hyper-muscular and lean men, and these posts often receive very high numbers of likes and comments. Unsurprisingly, reviews of the evidence have found that men who frequently engage with these kinds of social media posts tend to have a more negative body image.
But it can sometimes be easy to over-emphasize the importance of social media — or any mass media, for that matter — on men’s body image. Some research has suggested that the link between media exposure and negative body image may be very weak in men. Instead, it is likely that a range of sources — mass media, parents, peers — all contribute to negative body image in men.
Body image issues are often viewed as a problem that disproportionately affects women — leaving many men reluctant to talk about their problems with friends and family or seek professional help. While men are increasingly encouraged to talk about their mental health, being open about body image concerns can still feel tricky — especially if men worry about appearing “unmasculine” or being stigmatized and dismissed by others.
Health services can play an important role in helping men receive the help they need, but healthcare professionals are often hesitant to address body image issues in men because of a lack of knowledge, limited time and resources, and inadequate training and guidelines on how to assist men.
Even when men seek help, they are sometimes dismissed or not taken seriously because negative body image is viewed as a “woman’s illness”. But when men are able to access preferred healthcare pathways for body image concerns, they often respond well to treatment.
Raising awareness more widely in society about negative body image in men is also crucial. An increasing number of men have opened up about their body image struggles — including other celebrities such as talk show host James Corden and actor Sebastian Stan. Bringing greater awareness to the fact that many men struggle with body image is one way of normalizing the experience and helping men to recognize symptoms and seek help before their experiences become debilitating.