Photo of a man's back, as he leans against a patterned glass window.

Male body image a growing public health issue: research

4 July 2016

It’s referred to as the opposite of anorexia – muscle dysmorphia – but men with body-building and other body image issues are up to four times more likely than females to be undiagnosed and it is a growing public health problem.

In the first large-scale population study into male body image, researchers at the University of Sydney found that, although proportionately many more females than males are dissatisfied with their bodies, men suffer more psychologically.

To date, research into body-image problems has focused on adolescent girls, young women and anorexia. The new research shows males may be at high risk not only of extreme dieting and purging but are also disproportionately likely to suffer identified quality of life issues such as depression – partly as a result of perceptions of how men should look in terms of muscle tone and height.

The problems are exacerbated by stigma associated with males suffering from what tends to be seen as a female problem. The research found that the perception of a problem, regardless of any physical issues, was in itself a significant mental health issue, and also led to risky behaviour and serious health problems resulting from corrective action to rectify perceived issues, such as injecting steroids.

The research is published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Lead researcher Dr Scott Griffiths from the School of Psychology said the findings supported calls for interventions targeted at males addressing body-image issues extending beyond eating disorders.

“Although our data suggests that, overall, the burden of body dissatisfaction is borne disproportionately by females, males with body dissatisfaction may be a particularly high-risk group,” Dr Griffiths said.

The additional stigma towards men is that they are less masculine by virtue of suffering from a stereotypically female problem.
Dr Scott Griffiths
Photo of Dr Scott Griffiths.

Dr Scott Griffiths speaking at a young men’s mental health forum recently. Credit: Conviction Group.

“In addition, men report feeling less worthy if they need to ask for help, and this has been associated, in our research, with an increased likelihood of men with eating disorders remaining undiagnosed (4 times more likely in our study),” Dr Griffiths said.

“Because males are more stigmatising of eating and body image issues than females, if a guy has mostly male close friends, these friends are likely, on average, to be less supportive, than a female's close friends, who are likely to be females themselves.”

The research paper referred to trends that suggest body image- and eating-related problems among males living in Australia are likely to increase.

“The fact that dissatisfaction with weight or shape is ‘normative’ in industrialised nations should not be taken to infer that it is benign,” the paper states.

“Our results support this assertion and extend the findings to include males, for whom body dissatisfaction appears to be a growing public health problem.”

Key statistics

  • Extreme dieting and purging increased more rapidly among males than females (1998 – 2008).
  • Binge eating is more strongly associated with impairments in mental health-related quality of life in males than in females (2008).
  • The proportion of needle-exchange service users who reported the last substance they injected was steroids more than tripled from 2% to 7% (Australia from 2007 to 2012).

The paper, “Sex differences in the relationships between body dissatisfaction, quality of life and psychological distress,” is published in the Public Health Association of Australia’s Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health at 12.01am on 4 July 2016.

The University of Sydney offers low-cost counselling through its Psychology Clinic:
02 9114 4343

People needing support with eating disorders or body image issues can contact:
Butterfly’s National Eating Disorders HelpLine on 1800 33 4673.