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How has gym culture affected men’s body image?

by Georgina 10 minutes read

Last updated: 17 Aug, 2023

For some, gyms offer an encouraging safe space to set new boundaries, challenge themselves and focus their minds. But for some, stepping into gym culture, whether real-life or online, can be a dangerous path to body dysmorphia, a mental health condition involving excessive concerns over your appearance.

What is gym culture and where did it come from?

Despite how essential gyms are made to seem for us to live healthy, fulfilling lives, they are a relatively recent phenomenon. If we go back far enough, as far back as 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt, we can find evidence of gyms and training facilities. Formally, they came to life in Ancient Greece, as citizens participated in structured exercise for athletic competitions like the Olympics. But for a long time, they, along with the competitions that accompanied them, faded from society, and slipped from our collective memories.

Instead, a new style of exercising arose. Often people were kept active and sufficiently exhausted by their labour-intensive work lives. But those, often wealthier classes, who had more free time and whose work wasn’t grounded in physical activity, pursued exercise very differently. Other than some team sports, like football, that people enjoyed, most exercise was undertaken alone and was attached to no particular goal other than maintaining their health and stamina.

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Evidence of gyms from the past

About 2,000 years after the decline of the Greeks, in 1569, an Italian by the name of Hieronymous Mercuialis published the book “De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes”, which described the use of exercise equipment like dumbbells and bodyweight movements. With this publication, society saw a resurgence in interest towards formalized fitness training and acted as the first step in its reemergence after 2 millennia.

Four hundred years later, you can find a gym every few blocks and, as society has transitioned towards desk jobs, they are now our prime source of activity. Alongside this, from the rise of bodybuilders, muscular television figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stylone, and the start of Mr Universe, we have seen a tsunami of muscle-heavy imagery churned out by both traditional and new media that have fuelled a new age of competitive gym culture and the birth of the Fitness Influencer.

What is body image?

Body image is the way in which you perceive, think, and feel about your body's appearance, shape, weight, and even specific body parts. Your body image is not necessarily tied to your objective appearance, you can see yourself as smaller or larger than you actually are. If positive, it can generate positive thoughts and feelings, but for people with body image issues, they can manifest themselves in their daily lives and behaviors and start to affect their physical and mental health.

Behaviours associated with negative body image:

  • Frequently weighing yourself.
  • Excessive and frequent dieting (such as fasting, counting calories or eliminating whole food groups).
  • Binge eating.
  • Excessive weight training.
  • Constant comparison of yourself to others.
  • Compulsive exercising.
  • Misuse of steroids to alter your body.
  • Fixating on your body in the mirror.
  • Frequently measuring parts of your body.

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Increase of negative body image amongst men

Often associated with ultra-skinny women and anorexia nervosa, men’s body image issues and eating disorders have slipped under the radar. Whilst eating disorders in both men and women have catapulted in recent years, the signs in men can be harder to spot, especially when they are often tied to bulking up rather than slimming down.

Compared to the skinnier, almost androgynous, bodies of male stars in the 70’s like Mick Jagger and David Bowie, the ideal male body has become bulkier, brawnier, and more unattainable. Muscle dysmorphia (sometimes referred to as “bigorexia”) has steadily risen alongside this trend and typically impacts men. A study conducted in 2001 found that body image concerns among men had nearly tripled compared to 25 years before, reaching 43%. A more recent study undertaken in 2021 by Better, suggests this figure has since jumped to 54% (the majority of men) and has now overtaken the percentage of women dissatisfied with their appearance at 49%.

It’s ok to want to bulk up or slim down, but the problem arises when these desires turn into obsession and the obsession begins to take over your life. Amongst those with muscle dysmorphia, around 30% will also have a medically diagnosable eating disorder, as it is common for those with this condition to adhere to intensely restrictive diets. As explained by Dr Jason Nagata, the lead researcher on this study, “The pursuit of this muscular ideal takes over people’s lives”.

However, it is the nature of muscle dysmorphia that often allows it to be overlooked. The fact that it is grounded in exercise and consuming large portions of foods that are good for you, means it can often be viewed by outsiders as a healthy lifestyle. Especially when the male body image is centered around strength and muscularity, it can often be fetishised and seen as a good thing.

Oftentimes the dysmorphic aspects of these body image concerns go unrecognized but even if they do, rather than seek help, many men try to solve this on their own by hitting the gym and simply eradicating the root of the issue. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. As opposed to solving the issue, gym and fitness culture may actually be exacerbating it.

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The impact of gym culture and the rise of the fitness influencer

In the last 30 years gym culture has really taken off. With easy access to exercise equipment and facilities, and even easier access to information on how to get fit, the perceived ’excuses’ people feel they need for not having the ideal body have gotten fewer and fewer. People post their gym progress online, and what was already somewhat of a competitive environment, has become even more so. However, nowadays, people are not only engaging in light-hearted competition with their gym buddies, but competition fuelled by insecurity against even strangers online.

From the rise of gym culture and social media, we have seen the birth of the ‘Fitness Influencer’. Now if you're not one to spend much time on Instagram or TikTok, you may be wondering what exactly a fitness influencer is. Simply put, they are social media figures, documenting their fitness plans, diets, and lifestyles. Beyond just documenting, despite a general lack of qualifications or nutrition expertise, they often sell workout plans and promote nutritional tips in an effort to build their brands. These brands generally center around their physical appearance and can promote a dangerous culture of body obsession.

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A fitness influencer, whose job is often just that, has all the time in the world to hit up the gym, train multiple times a day and sculpt their body however they please. But beyond this, these bodies are not only unrealistic for most people, sometimes they are fake. Fitness influencer’s content tends to be heavily edited. Pictures are altered, highlighted, airbrushed, and angled to erase even the smallest of imperfections. Muscle mass can be increased, and waists slimmed down, and us viewing it from behind a screen is none the wiser.

Beyond changing their bodies digitally, some influencers go to the extreme and force their body to change chemically as well. Popular fitness icon ‘Liver King’ is one such example. A man who built his $100 million empire on selling a primal lifestyle and raw meat as the fuel for his bulging muscles, then came out and admitted it was really steroids powering them. This confession came after years of denying it. I wonder how much time and effort was spent by his viewers, desperately trying to build a body that was never attainable in the first place.

When scrolling through a feed littered with seemingly perfect bodies, created, edited, and altered by gym culture, it can be hard to feel good about our own bodies. One such study by the Allegheny College Study confirms this. Male students participating were split into two groups, one group was shown a regular, neutral Instagram feed while the other was shown one containing muscular photos. The results found that those who were shown the muscular pictures reported a significant decrease in their appearance satisfaction compared to the other group.

Now not all of us have feeds full of muscular men and gym influencers, but social media algorithm’s work so that once you start expressing any interest in a topic, for example exercise and diet, it will show you more and more. Social media has helped to corrupt gym culture. What can be a communal experience of working together towards a healthy goal, can instead be twisted into an endless and competitive cycle, rarely letting us feel comfortable or at home in our own bodies. Considering this trend, the explosion in body dysmorphic disorders we have also seen hardly seems surprising.

Can it improve?

The body positivity movement has made great strides in recent years, but its impact has been largely concentrated among only one half of the population. A social media analysis of Instagram posts that used the hashtag #bodypositivity, found that only 10% of those posts were made by or featuring men versus 83% by or featuring women. There is still a long way to go before the movement begins to be felt by men, but in the meantime, I believe there are steps we can take to minimise our risk of BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder).

I am not looking to disparage gyms. For many, gyms have provided a positive and supportive environment. But they can also be breeding grounds for body dysmorphia and excessive comparison of yourself to others. Online gym culture especially has fuelled a rise of appearance dissatisfaction and increasing dependence on performance-enhancing drugs when reality fails to meet expectations.

The answer to this is not to cut out exercise, but rather to return to its roots. Instead of being something you feel you need to do, it should be something you enjoy. If you are someone highly conscious of your body image and know you a prone to comparing yourself to others, it might be best to stick to home workouts. But if you do want to hit the gym, then make sure you are entering these spaces with awareness and a presence of mind of your own worth, capabilities and goals.

Even more so when you are entering online spaces, remember that pictures can be deceiving and the reality we are being sold is not always exactly as it seems. Various media literacy projects have been created to help educate people on how to better access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. An improved media literacy, especially from a young age, will help people to accept the inspirational and health-conscious messages to be found on social media, without absorbing the misleading and confidence damaging aspects of online gym culture and influencers. Do not tie your self-worth to your body, instead let your body complement it.

If you think you might be suffering from body dysmorphia, do not suffer alone:

BEAT Eating Disorder

Their Helplines are open 365 days a year from 1pm – 9pm during the week, and 5pm–9pm on weekends and bank holidays.

0808 801 0677

[email protected]

BDD Foundation

They provide support and information for people affected by Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Or you can message their email helpline - [email protected]

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