Skip to main content

Visions Journal

Todd G, Morrison, PhD

Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 9-10

Research suggests that women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies appears to be the norm in Western culture. Women’s desire to ‘improve’ their physical appearance and their efforts to accomplish this goal through diet and exercise, as well as through more invasive means such as plastic surgery, are so commonplace that those having the temerity to express contentment with how they look appear abnormal or, at best, egotistical.

Despite awareness of the prevalence of women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies—which manifests itself primarily, though not exclusively, in terms of the desire to be thin—for many years, social scientists blithely assumed that the topic of body image was of little pertinence to men. It was believed they didn’t really care about whether their arms were muscular or their stomachs flat. A spare tire around the midriff, a double chin and sagging buttocks were irrelevant in terms of how they saw themselves physically. They were men, damn it! They had important issues to focus on—dare one say weighty issues?—and aesthetic considerations vis-à-vis the body were definitely not one of them.

In hindsight, it would appear that the notion men are disinterested in how they look physically was more a product of researcher bias than a case of genuine detachment from matters of their own flesh. Many social scientists appeared to use, as a framework for their research, the assumption that concerns about the body were the dominion of women but not of men. Consequently, they were more likely to use female participants in their studies on body image. They also were more likely to create and utilize measures of body satisfaction/dissatisfaction that targeted women, and were more likely to develop theories that possessed dubious applicability to men. One should not be surprised that such research efforts merely bolstered the view that male body image was a topic worthy of little consideration.

Over the past decade, however, as researchers began moving away from the narrow view that dissatisfaction with one’s appearance was tantamount to perceiving oneself as overweight, and as they began to use measures that were appropriate for both men and women, a new picture emerged. Large proportions of men were unhappy with their appearance; however, the locus of their concern typically differed from women’s. While females expressed a near uniform desire to become thinner, men’s concerns were split between wanting to gain and wanting to lose weight.

The obvious conclusion was that neither sex had a monopoly on body contentment or lack thereof; dissatisfaction was rampant among both sexes. While this conclusion isn’t good news—the desire to achieve a better body is not something to derive satisfaction from—it is important news. Why? Because it suggests men’s attitudes toward their bodies, and the behaviours that may be a consequence of those attitudes, warrant research attention.

The ‘drive for muscularity’

When looking specifically at the topic of male body image, current findings indicate that, irrespective of whether they want to gain or lose weight, most men express a desire to increase the muscularity of their bodies. For example, in one of my research studies, my colleagues and I found that almost 75% of male participants agreed with the question, “I intend to become more muscular in the future,” and 70% felt that they “should work out more to increase muscle mass.” As well, approximately 75% of these individuals reported doing weight training at least once a week. While it is important to note that these findings cannot be generalized to Canadian males as a group, they do reveal that, among the men surveyed, a strong desire for enhanced musculature was evident. With this pattern of results, it is little wonder that we concluded:

The fixation on musculature and the ceaseless determination to be ‘buff’ are no longer restricted to the world of body building but, rather, appear to be widespread. Indeed, men who are satisfied with their appearance and do not subscribe to the cult of bigness have become atypical.

This desire to ‘bulk up’ and achieve an idealized muscular body shape—well-developed pectoral (i.e., chest) muscles, arms and shoulders, and a narrow waist—has been labelled the drive for muscularity.

Over the past five years, this construct has generated considerable interest among researchers, many of whom are attempting to answer one or more of the following questions. Why do men appear to be concerned about, and driven to enhance, the muscularity of their bodies? What sorts of attitudes and behaviours are associated with the drive for muscularity? And, finally, is this drive associated with body disturbance.

Why do men want to be more muscular?

A number of explanations have been forwarded; however, they remain speculative rather than conclusive.

Some researchers contend that, as men and women have become more equal in Western society, the indicants traditionally used by men to define themselves as masculine have vanished. For example, in the past men and women could be differentiated on the basis of whether they worked outside or inside the home. In contemporary society, however, this distinction has largely disappeared. In the absence of traditional indicants of maleness, men are now required to use their bodies as literal representations of masculinity. Of course, the most obvious way in which the body can be used to connote maleness is through enhanced musculature.

It should be noted that this explanation also has been used to understand women’s pervasive desire to lose weight. Stated simply, men expand and women contract; men get big and women get small; men become more muscular (i.e., stronger) and women become thinner (i.e., weaker)—therefore, these variations in body shape are used to maintain the traditional distinction between maleness and femaleness.

A far less abstract explanation for why men appear to be more preoccupied with muscularity focuses on mass media (primarily television and print) and the way they depict the male body. According to this explanation (which is formally called Sociocultural Theory), mass media present idealistic representations of the male physique: representations that feature sculpted biceps, well-developed pectoral muscles, and the all-important “six-pack” abdomen (which also connotes an absence of body fat). Men compare themselves to these images (a process known as social comparison) and, of course, perceive a discrepancy between their own bodies and those of the images they see. The drive for muscularity could be perceived as a motivational strategy that attempts to bridge this gap between reality and fantasy.

While intuitively appealing, Sociocultural Theory, when applied to men, has received mixed support. Certainly idealistic representations of the male body have become more commonplace since the 1980s and are now a ubiquitous element of mass media. However, it is unclear whether men actually compare themselves to these images and, if so, whether these sorts of comparisions necessarily produce decreases in body satisfaction and/or increases in the drive for muscularity.

What variables are associated with this drive?

A number of attitudinal and behavioural variables have been correlated with the desire to become more muscular. Not surprisingly, those higher in the drive for muscularity are more likely to weight train and to consume protein bars and other supplements designed to increase muscle mass.

As well, the stronger one’s drive for muscularity is, the lower one’s level of appearance self-esteem (i.e., satisfaction with how one looks) and global self-esteem (i.e., overall satisfaction with oneself). Individuals evidencing a stronger drive for muscularity also report higher levels of vanity and depression, and are more likely to contemplate using steroids.

While this sort of research does not permit one to identify cause and effect (i.e., one cannot assume that higher levels of the drive for muscularity necessarily cause, for example, lower levels of self-esteem or higher levels of vanity), such findings suggest that further investigating the drive for muscularity will be helpful in better understanding men’s psychological and physical well-being.

Is this drive associated with body disturbance?

We don’t know. The drive for muscularity has emerged only recently in the scientific literature. As more studies are conducted, we should be able to specify if, and in what ways, this drive is associated with body disturbance.

Of particular relevance to this question is muscle dysmorphia, a psychiatric condition characterized by a distressing preoccupation with the size and/or definition of one’s musculature. Individuals suffering from muscle dysmorphia are preoccupied with their physical appearance and engage in self-injurious behaviour (e.g., steroid use and excessive weight training). Due to perceptions of inadequate muscle size, they may avoid mirrors and attempt to camouflage their bodies by wearing bulky clothing and avoiding situations that necessitate display of one’s physique (e.g., swimming). Given the serious nature of muscle dysmorphia, it is essential that researchers explore the possible linkages between this condition and the drive for muscularity.

In conclusion

Researchers have abandoned the false view that men place little importance on their physical appearance, are content with whatever shape they possess, and impassively witness the “ravages of time” as they unfold. With the advent of constructs such as the drive for muscularity, we now realize that, sadly, men and women appear to be quite comparable in the discontent they experience regarding their bodies. The direction of the dissatisfaction may differ—thinness for women and muscularity for men—but the end result is the same: a desire to escape from one’s own skin and become something else, something better; to achieve an ever-illusive state of corporeal ‘perfection.’

The argument that individuals engage in various body modification practices in an effort to “feel good about themselves” underscores the need to discover means of reducing both men’s and women’s dislike of their bodies.

Footnotes
  1. Morrison, T.G., Morrison, M.A., Hopkins, C. et al. (2004). Muscle mania: Development of a new scale examining the drive for muscularity in Canadian males. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 5, 30-39.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.