Why is it that men will look in the mirror, ignore all their unflattering parts of themselves and focus on something positive, whilst women will focus solely on their negative qualities?
This is partly because men are more likely than women to be pleased or indifferent with their appearance, whereas eighty per cent of women are dissatisfied with theirs. Men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies is on the rise however, with a desire for them to be muscular, whereas women strive for thinness.
Body image is therefore a real issue for both men and women with approximately 50 per cent of women in the healthy weight range thinking that they are overweight, and body dissatisfaction experienced by men having tripled in size over the last 25 years.
How did we get to here?
We live in a society that values perfection. This creates pressure for many of us who compare ourselves to some impossible standard set by the media. For men, this ideal looks like an athletic hair free physique and flawless skin all packaged with a classic “V” shaped 190 cm frame.
For women, this is the ‘ideal’ face and figure. She is tall and willowy, weighing at least 20% less than what her height requires. She rarely looks older than 25 years, has no visible flaws on her skin, and her hair and clothes are always immaculate.
We receive these constant messages from the media and society that we need to aspire to look like these images. We then feel like there is something wrong with us if we fall short of these unrealistic and impossible standards. By turning this onto ourselves and projecting it onto our bodies, we never question that it’s the media who’s got it wrong, not us. This sets up the cycle of body dissatisfaction.
Whilst it might be quite normal for many of us to feel a degree of self-consciousness, anxiety or embarrassment around some parts of our physical appearance, it can become a much more serious issue for many when it starts to significantly affect a person’s quality of life.
What is body image?
Body image is made up of what we see in the mirror; what we say to ourselves and how we feel. We then project this view of ourselves onto our external world and our appearance which reinforces how we feel and how we behave. Poor body image is often linked to rigid dieting which is a strong predictor for eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia and other mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is an extreme level of body-image disturbance, body-dissatisfaction, self-consciousness and preoccupation with appearance. People who suffer from BDD will experience the most negative reactions to the mirror. BDD is present when someone who has a slight physical difference is excessively concerned that aspects of their appearance are unattractive, deformed or ugly when in reality their perceived flaws are minimal or non-existent. This concern then causes substantial distress and negatively effects many areas of their lives. BDD is often associated with low self-esteem, shame, embarrassment and fear of rejection.
A form of BDD that is more common in males is Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) (or Bigorexia as it has been dubbed). With Bigorexia, there is a preoccupation with the idea that your body is insufficiently muscular or lean, or is “too small” despite being normal looking and muscular. Men with MD are significantly more likely to lift weights and exercise excessively more so than those men who experience BDD. Whilst going to the gym and exercising excessively can be seen as culturally acceptable in males, their body dissatisfaction can often go unnoticed or is even encouraged by family and friends. Those men who experience MD also have a significantly poorer quality of life and substance-use disorders.
How can I improve my body image?
A healthy, positive body image is achievable and there are many ways to improve it. For the most part, exercise helps to enhance your body image. Researchers have shown that both men and women who participate regularly in sport or exercise have a more positive body image than those who do not. Benefits can be maximised by exercising more frequently and intensely.
The more you can enjoy exercising with the intention of feeling healthy, energetic and full of vitality, rather than compensatory for perceived wrong doings (e.g. doing a spin class to burn off a chocolate biscuit you ate that day), the more you will contribute to positive feelings about you and your body.
The key is to change the inside. If we try to change our bodies without transforming our body image, the change will be temporary in most instances because sustainable change needs to come from within. Next time you are at the gym and catch yourself in the mirror, remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect. Rather than focusing on your image and appearance, change your focus to a well-being goal that makes you feel good about yourself. This will position you one step closer to achieving a positive body image.
- Gregor, S. The Man behind the mask: Male Body Dissatisfaction. Retrieved on 26th March 2012 from http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/body_image/
- Cash, T. (2008). The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks, New Harbinger Publications, CA: Oakland.
- Better Health Victoria. Body Image and Diets. Retrieved on 25th March 2012 from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Body_image_and_diets?open
- Kausman, R. (1998). If not dieting, then what?, Allen & Unwin, NSW: Cross Nest.