Male vs. Female Body Image

Researchers don’t make a distinction about what body image is to men and women. However, separate research is being done on the different ways each of the sexes handle body image. Most research has been conducted surrounding female body image, so male body image research, while becoming more popular, still lacks the depth and breadth of its counterpart. 

How They’re Similar

So far, research has shown that male and female body images share many of the same features. Women and men, boys and girls, may share body image risk factors and consequences of negative body image, though studies do point toward males being affected a little less severely than females (Hargreaves & Tiggemann 2006). Brennan, Lalonde, and Bain (2010) conducted a comparative study of how male and female body image dissatisfaction is experienced in each of the sexes in which participants rated body image reactions to a series of statements. When responding to the statements, “When I am with attractive persons of the other sex,” “when the topic of conversation pertains to physical appearance,” and “during certain recreational activities,” both men and women reported experiencing negative emotions between sometimes and moderately often, This shows that men and women are equally insecure in their bodies when the idea of ‘the body’ is directly or indirectly confronted in social situations. 

How They’re Different

However, male body image is distinguished from female body image in several ways:

  • Men seem to be more prone to ‘atypical’ eating disorders and substance abuse than women (Burlew & Shurts 2013).
  • Men tend to be quieter about their body negativity, seeking treatment less frequently or holding off on treatment longer than women due to shame (Brennan, Lalonde, & Bain 2010; Burlew & Shurts 2013). Women, however, internalize more, body shame more, and body surveillance more than men (Brennan, Lalonde, & Bain 2010).
  • Some researchers say men are typically more satisfied with their physical appearance and less likely than women to exhibit body-change behaviors (Muth & Cash 1997; see Doyle & Engeln 2014)
  • But other researchers insist that men still struggle with body image: They say men are caught “feeling either too thin or too heavy to meet the male ideal” (Doyle and Engeln 2014, 279).

Male body image also tends to be more misunderstood than female body image. Men are presumed to be mainly concerned with a “perceived lack of muscle,” when in fact male body image can be much more complex (See the first page of Male Body Image). On the other hand, the presumed concern for females is not as off the mark: weight.

It may seem unhealthy female body image is more prevalent than unhealthy male body image, but that may only be a perception: some researchers claim that women are simply exposed to more social situations that make them feel dissatisfied with their bodies, so the numbers reflect that women are more dissatisfied than men (Brennan, Lalonde, & Bain 2010). This clarifies why female body image is so prevalent whereas male body image is rarely recognized.

These differences of how the sexes relate to negative body image are important when it comes to recognizing it in males. It is critical we turn attention to male body image as much as we validate and seek to make it positive for women. For more information about how men develop unhealthy body image, check out Causes & Factors for Boys or Causes & Factors for Men. Or, head to Effects of Body Image to learn about the damaging outcomes of negative body image on males. 

Why should we care about male body image?

A massive “95% of college age men are dissatisfied with their bodies on some level” (Daniel & Bridges 2013). That’s a huge portion of each campus’s population! We need to pay more attention to male body image and the struggles men may face when coming to terms with their imperfect bodies. Just as today’s society expects women to become thinner with statuesque features, American men, and men all across Western cultures, feel pressure to pump up their bodies and slim down, creating a combination of lean, bulky muscle. However, unhealthy male body image extends beyond the average college man.

According to a study, over 90% of men struggle in some way with body dissatisfaction and negative affect (negative opinions of self), or negative emotions and thoughts towards one’s body (Castonguay et al. 2014). Research also shows that body image disorders may be more severe in both gay and heterosexual teenage-through-young-adult (post-college) males than men in other age categories (Burlew & Shurts 2013).

As a culture we know very little about the prevalence of this issue in men and boys since body image is traditionally considered a ‘female problem’. The fact is, men can suffer just as much body dissatisfaction as women, but we may pay less attention to male body image because men are quieter about these problems:  Men tend to seek treatment, counseling, or positive solutions less frequently, or they hold off on doing so out of shame and embarrassment (Burlew & Shurts 2013).

We need to encourage men to be more open with their views on body image and give more attention to promoting healthy, realistic male body image as much as we do for females.