When trying to understand men’s body issues it is important to understand how the performance of masculinity intersects in men’s perceptions of their bodies, particularly when it begins a search for a muscular ideal. Masculinities are the set of patterns that are attributed to men by a given culture. While masculinities are varied (there is no one way to be a man), some ways overly emphasize certain traits like physical strength, domination, and musculature, and correlate this with success, attractiveness, and other attributes to that they are not truly related. When masculinity emphasizes a warped ideal of the male body and relates it to these attributes, that’s what we call the muscular ideal, problematic in the sense that it is unattainable, and its search can have problematic consequences for the individual and society.
One of the most insidious aspects of men’s body issues is that it was hardly acknowledged until recently, the belief being that body issues were only a problem for women. In the last 20 or so years the knowledge of male unhealthy body aspirations has become much clearer through scientific study. A large body of literature indicates that when men desire changes in the body most desire to be more muscular. It is not difficult to understand why as we are particularly in an age where this message is being continually reflected and facilitated to young men by the media; think for example of the last 20 years of superhero culture.
The reader might ask, what can be so detrimental about seeking for more muscularity? By itself the search for greater fitness in the name of health is of little consequence, but this is different from seeking muscularity as an ideal because it has little to do with health and all to do with recreating an aspirational image that is ever more exaggerated. As such when men have muscularity concerns the search has the potential to create problematic consequences. Research has shown us that muscularity seeking behaviors can bring about the use of steroids from an early age, the development of unhealthy eating habits, exercise training that can lead to injury, issues regarded to self-esteem and muscle dysmorphia.
An important question would then be, Are the costs of the muscularity ideal worth it? The simple answer by the evidence that has been generated is a resounding “NO.” So, what to do then? The first part of the answer is in the acknowledgment that to be a man is more than a set of physical attributes, we are more than just how our body looks. Secondly, we must learn how to live healthy lives that also contribute to the acknowledgment of the plurality of human bodies. We are ever-changing, and if we just place our value on a static sense of the body, we place ourselves in a position where the costs are many and yet self-esteem never fully materializes.