Aug. 10, 2000 -- Men, as well as women, can suffer from poor body image. But while many women are convinced they need to be rail-skinny, men tend to want to be bigger and more muscular -- often because they think it will impress women. But guess what, guys? Women aren't terribly interested in the muscle-bound look.
"Men in the U.S. and Europe seem to think that women want them to be much more muscular than women actually want them to be," says Harrison Pope, MD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who was part of a team that researched male body image and female preferences.
Worse, says Pope, if the quest for bigger muscles becomes obsessive, it can become muscle dysmorphia, known in body-building circles as "bigorexia" or "reverse anorexia." In fact, Pope and other experts believe the syndrome is related to anorexia nervosa. "They are both disorders of body image," he says. "Their preoccupations simply go in opposite directions."
For their study, published in the American Journal of Psychology, the researchers from Harvard and Europe recruited a total of 200 college-age men, from the U.S., Austria, and France. From a stack of pictures portraying various male body types, each man was asked to choose the image that most closely resembled his own body, the image that matched the body he would like to have, the one that looked most like the body of an average man of his age, and the one he thought was preferred by women.
While the men came close to choosing images that matched their own bodies and those of an average man their age, in all three countries they chose an ideal body that was, on average, about 28 pounds more muscular than their own bodies. They also guessed that women would prefer a male body that was about 30 pounds more muscular than these men's own bodies.
The researchers then presented the images to 43 college-aged women from Austria and asked them to choose the male body they liked the most. The women's choices overwhelmingly showed that they preferred a man who looked very much like an actual average man in their country. Specifically, the body that Austrian men thought women would like best was about 21 pounds more muscular than the body that Austrian women actually preferred.
Could it be that the Austrian women chose the less muscular build so as not to look shallow? Pope doesn't believe so. "They answered in privacy with complete anonymity," he says. "If anything, they could have answered with their fantasy wishes for a big, strong hulk. They didn't."
So why do men keep striving for bigger and bigger muscles, sometimes to the point of obsession? As with anorexia, Pope says, the media and advertising are to blame for muscle dysmorphia. He notes that over the last 30 years there has been steadily increasing pressure on men to be leaner and more muscular.
"The most masculine movie stars from 30 years ago, such as Gregory Peck or John Wayne, looked like wimps compared to modern action superheroes," Pope says. "Even [the toy] G.I. Joe has bulked up." While muscle dysmorphia may not be as life-threatening as starving, Pope says, its victims are likely to take other risks with their health, such as using steroids or other body-building drugs.
According to Pope, a man with muscle dysmorphia can be identified by the following features:
- He is preoccupied with the idea that his body is not lean and muscular.
- He spends long hours lifting weights and pays excessive attention to diet.
- This preoccupation causes major distress or impairs his social or professional life. The man may forgo important social, work-related, or recreational activities. He may avoid situations where his body will be exposed.
- He continues to work out or diet even when he knows it could hurt his well-being.
- He is most concerned about being too small or not muscular enough, as opposed to being fat.
Pope, who has written a book about male body-image disorders called the Adonis Complex, says there's nothing abnormal about the great majority of men who work out in the gym. "The problem is, some men go over the edge and it becomes a compulsion which undermines their occupation and social lives," he says.
Charles I. Staley, MSS, vice president of program development for the International Sports Sciences Association and a formal Olympic weightlifting coach, says he's noticed the disorder not just in weightlifters but also among track and field athletes. "Body-building can be a way for people with low self-esteem to call attention to themselves," says Staley. "Their whole self-image gets caught up in their body."