26 Mar 2024

Our boys and men are not all right: addressing poor male body image


In the past 25 years, the rate of body dissatisfaction among men has tripled. In this blog, UWA Associate Professor Marilyn Bromberg and Curtin University Lecturer Tomas Fitzgerald explore why and how we can better support men and boys with their body image.

Many people are still talking about the Barbie movie and so they should be. Did you see Ryan Gosling’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired all-in-pink “I’m Just Ken” Oscars performance? Or more importantly, how many places in the world – whether real or fictional – can you think of where women have nearly all the power, like in the Barbie movie?

One of the film’s many aspects that’s been widely discussed is Ryan Gosling’s physical appearance. Brooke Steinberg, from the New York Post, wrote: “Ryan Gosling had to make sure his abs were perfectly buff for his role as Ken, whose job is simply ‘beach’”.

Ryan Gosling is not the only “buff” male celebrity. The Marvel movie men also look “marvellous” to millions but it’s important to remember they do not represent today’s average Australian man.

Countless boys and men aspire to look like the Marvel movie men — v-shaped, with muscles, six-packs and narrow hips — despite the fact that such a look is impossible to achieve or maintain without personal trainers, chefs, supplements, etc.

This is not realistic for the majority of people, and trying to make themselves look like this can take an enormous physical and mental toll on males; over a third of people with eating disorders in Australia are male and men are more likely to experience muscle dysmorphia.

But the “ideal” male body is artificial and its goalposts constantly shift and demand more muscle and definition year after year. It is designed to make certain industries profit financially, even though the gap between the ideal and reality hurts the minds, bodies and hearts of millions.

The Australian Psychological Society found the number of men with body image dissatisfaction had tripled from 15 to 45 per cent in the past 25 years. Men are usually more reluctant than women to discuss their poor body image and seek help.

In 2024, men and boys are not alright.

Poor body image, among other things, can lead to men developing eating disorders, abusing synthetic anabolic steroids or other performance and image enhancing drugs, developing exercise addiction, and eating excessive amounts of protein which can also have health repercussions.

Countless male influencers appear to have the “ideal” male body – even if only for the moment of a photo or video — and their posts usually receive many comments and likes.

Australian research, by Marika Tiggemann and Isabella Anderberg, which studied 300 men aged 18 to 30 years, found those who saw bare-chested images of male influencers on Instagram had significantly lower body satisfaction than men who saw other images.

Influencers may obtain this “ideal” body through taking performance and image-enhancing drugs and some may have an eating disorder or engage in disordered eating behaviours such as dieting, fasting or removal of certain food groups, that are not disclosed on their social media. This can mislead those who follow them into thinking they obtained their body naturally, healthily or through a product they’re selling.

In fact, some men lie about how they achieved their “ideal” body. One such example is Brian Johnson, better known as “Liver King”, who claimed he had created his “ideal” body by eating significant amounts of raw liver.

He posted many photos of himself posing with and consuming raw liver and initially denied he took performance and image-enhancing drugs. In 2022, leaked private emails showed his physique relied on a steroid regime costing many thousands every month.

The public was outraged and he subsequently apologised. But did things change? Johnson has doubled his number of TikTok followers since the apology and significantly increased the reach and influence of his impossible, steroid-fuelled physique.

What can we do to address poor male body image?

One possibility is to create legislation that requires influencers who use performance and image-enhancing drugs to declare them. Since 2013, nearly all Australian jurisdictions have increased penalties for possessing these drugs, but their prevalence does not appear to have changed. The higher sentences for possessing these substances may actually have increased the likelihood that people will not admit that they are using them.

Australian Consumer Law could apply when influencers make misleading or deceptive statements in trade or commerce. The ACCC is more likely to pursue a matter for misleading and deceptive conduct if “there is potential for widespread public detriment”.

The ACCC reviewed the accounts of 118 social media influencers — including 18 in “health, fitness and wellbeing” — and found that 81 per cent of the posts made were potentially misleading under Australian Consumer Law. How many influencers’ misleading or deceptive statements regarding their bodies negatively affect males’ mental health? We guess a number higher than we could possibly count.

We must also look to non-legal solutions to address this problem, such as media literacy which teaches people to critically analyse social media images. For example, they might learn how images are manipulated. Butterfly also offers prevention programs like RESET, that focus on supporting schools and other youth, community and sporting organisations in raising awareness of male body image issues, reducing stigma and encouraging help seeking for men and boys.

Whatever the possible solutions, a few things are for sure: this problem is serious, we need to talk about it more, and we must do more to make sure our boys and men are all right.

Written by Associate Professor Marilyn Bromberg, who is from The University of Western Australia’s Law School, a practising lawyer and an Advisor at the Butterfly Foundation; and Tomas Fitzgerald who is a Lecturer at Curtin University. 

For support with body image or eating disorders, call Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email support@butterfly.org.au

Related tags: Body Image eating disorders male body image men and body image men and eating disorders muscle dysmorphia RESET