Australian researchers have found that men with bodybuilding and other body image issues are up to four times more likely than females to remain undiagnosed and suffer from mental health problems like depression.
Researchers from the University of Sydney conducted the first large-scale population study of its kind into male body image and found that, although women are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, men are four times more likely to go undiagnosed and suffer psychologically as a result. The study was published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
“No one’s looked at how body dissatisfaction relates to men’s quality of life,” Dr Scott Griffiths, male body image expert and lead researcher of the study, tells SBS.
“No one disputes that more women suffer from body dissatisfaction, or are unhappy with their appearance – the wisdom is that men shouldn’t worry as much if they are unhappy, but our results went against that.”
According to The Butterfly Foundation For Eating Disorders, over one million Australians are affected by eating disorders, however less than 30 per cent are in treatment.
The study, which had over 2,000 participants (966 men and 1,031 women), showed that despite women being disproportionately affected by body dissatisfaction, men are at a much higher risk of not only taking drastic action, such as extreme dieting, they’re also more likely to suffer from quality-of-life issues such as depression.
Researchers also found that the proportion of needle-exchange service users who reported the last substance they injected was steroids tripled from two per cent in 2007 to seven per cent in 2012.
For a male to be suffering from them implies that they’re somehow less masculine and more effeminate,
According to Dr Griffiths, this is due to a number of factors such as perceptions of masculinity and how male bodies should look, as well as the stigma associated with men suffering from what is largely seen as a female problem and seeking help for mental health in general.
“There’s the stigma of having body image or eating problem in and of itself and those are stereotypically considered to be problems that women and girls suffer from, so for a male to be suffering from them implies that they’re somehow less masculine and more effeminate,” he says.
Men are generally more reluctant to reach out for help for mental health issues because it’s seen as a sign of weakness and hence are discouraged from seeking treatment. This can mean GPs and mental health professionals are less exposed to the problem and miss the symptoms.
Dr Griffiths also reports that body dissatisfaction was more common both in young men compared to older generations and among gay men, however he says further research was needed before drawing definitive conclusions.
"Among men who are gay there are higher levels of body dissatisfaction, it seems like the climate is more conducive to worrying about how you look, and in terms of age it’s the younger generation coming through that worries [about body image]."
He says medical professionals need to be encouraged to ask the same questions of men as they would of women, as well as tailor campaigns that target women to also incorporate the concerns of men.
“For example, one thing we’re trying to do at the moment is to build a pathway to care for steroid users – we’re trying to train up mental health professionals who focus on eating disorders, such as anorexia, to deal with guys with muscle dysmorphia who use steroids,” he says.
Males are also being bombarded with these unrealistic and highly stylised appearance ideas, highlighting the ideal physical body shape as a muscular, lean physique.
Christine Morgan, CEO of The Butterfly Foundation, was not surprised by the findings and attributes it to portrayals of male bodies in the media and consumer culture.
“Our environment is filled with subconscious messages about idealised beauty, body shape and size that our young people absorb almost every minute of every day, via media, advertising, social media etc.,” she tells SBS.
“These messages are not just targeted at women. Males are also being bombarded with these unrealistic and highly stylised appearance ideas, highlighting the ideal physical body shape as a muscular, lean physique rather than a lower body weight.”
Both Ms Morgan and Dr Griffiths agree that more needs to be done to raise awareness about body image issues and associated impacts on mental health.
“Body dissatisfaction or not liking your own body is a public health problem in its own right… not liking your body is in and of itself enough to have a substantial quality of life impact, and that is the case for both men and women,” says Dr Griffiths.
Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact the Butterfly National Eating Disorders Helpline on 1800 33 4673.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @kemal_atlay