The bodies of boys, men and the heroes they aspire to look like have changed. It is twisting the perception many have of what is normal and what people are willing to do to achieve it.
In 2000, when Hugh Jackman first played Wolverine in X-Men, he was fabulously fit.
Then the movie 300 came out in 2006, and the cast of stripped-down, rippling bodies redefined the standard for male physiques in Hollywood films: Thor, Superman, the latest Magic Mike, and now Jackman again.
He is now 54 and will reprise Wolverine in the upcoming Deadpool 3 (out in 2024). Over the years Jackman’s physique changed so much that his original Wolverine seems nothing short of doughy now.
“There has definitely been a change in appearance ideals for men,” says Associate Professor Gemma Sharp, the head of Body Image and Eating Disorder Research at Monash University.
“Men have always aimed to be muscular, but now we talk about a mesomorphic ideal for men. This involves low body fat with very well-defined muscles, particularly in the shoulders, chest and arms, narrowing down to a slim waist with a muscular mid-section or ‘six pack’.”
This new standard of masculinity – or at least muscularity – has been accelerated by social media, adds Dr Scott Griffiths, the director of the Physical Appearance Research Team at the University of Melbourne.
“The portrayals of these bodies can be misleading,” he says. “A lot of influencers are ostensibly presenting as someone with a physique that is natural and therefore obtainable through hard work and diet and exercise, but who are using steroids or other substances to get there… it has warped the view of what is normal and what is achievable.”
Instagram sensation Brian Johnson, aka Liver King, has built an empire off the back of his jacked body, which he claimed was the product of adhering to ‘ancestral tenets’ like a raw, carnivorous diet, sleep, sun and training hard.
Late last year, the 44-year-old, who sells a range of supplements, was sued for false advertising after it was revealed he spends USD $11,000 a month on steroids and other image-enhancing substances.
Bodies like his saturate social media feeds and, if you show any interest in them, algorithms will serve up more of the same. This is particularly problematic for men vulnerable to muscle dysmorphia, as a new study led by Griffiths found.
“[The algorithm] doesn’t care if this content is making you upset,” Griffiths says. “This is a steady, personalised drip feed of content that entrenches and exacerbates their worries.”
James Smith, a best-selling author and personal trainer with 1.1 million Instagram followers, has witnessed the changing standards and influences with dismay.
Personal Trainer and social media influencer James Smith.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
When he started out in the fitness industry 10 years ago, he felt men aspired to be strong and capable. Now, he believes, it’s less about feeling a certain way so much as looking a certain way: “Closer to what a Men’s Health front cover would look like. And that’s kind of weird.”
Weird, Smith says, because of the reality of what it takes most people to look like that.
“The day that those dudes do the Men’s Health cover, they are at their worst from a physiological and a psychological standpoint,” says the 33-year-old Australian-based Brit.
To get ready for such a shoot they are likely to spend 10 or more weeks preparing: “They’re going to deprive themselves, starve themselves, go to bed hungry, go on a treadmill for an hour after their workout, just thinking and fantasising about how lean they can get for that photo shoot. Then we’re going to masquerade that as ‘normal’.”
James Smith.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
Research has shown that the number of men experiencing body image dissatisfaction has tripled in the last 25 years. Men who are unhappy with how they look are significantly more likely to succumb to fad dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders, exercise addiction, steroid and other substance abuse.
Smith himself was once one of these men.
Teased for being a “fat kid” at school, 10 years ago, he became a personal trainer, one who used anabolic steroids in an attempt to look the part.
“When you take anabolic steroids, you get more compliments,” he says. “And if your world is going to the gym every lunchtime, people go, ‘bro, look at f–king good. Oh man, you’re looking jacked’.”
Along with the compliments from using steroids, came side effects. “I was holding water in my face and my blood pressure was really high, to the point that I was looking sunburnt all the time.”
He didn’t feel well but when he went to seek advice, his doctor told him he didn’t know anything about the drugs he was taking. The issue, Griffiths explains, is that many substances that are readily available online – anabolic steroids, but also human growth hormone, peptides and SARMS – are not regulated, so the short and long-term effects are not always known.
Smith decided to stop taking them: “I was like, ‘this could potentially ruin me’. I don’t want to have a heart attack in my 40s.”
He also realised something that can be hard when men are inundated with unrealistic, unsustainable, unhappily perfect bodies: “There are more important things to life being muscular. I could eat less, I could diet and more. I could spend more time hungry. I could have a better physique. But to me, it’s not a good deal. It would be giving up 90 per cent of my life for 10 per cent change in body weight.”
Now, Smith uses his platform to be the person he needed to hear from 10 years ago and publicly challenge the ideals men are aspiring to: “I’m a personal trainer without a six-pack, who wears Speedos. But, you know, I’m happy.”
It’s not an easy feat. Men are a new target market for appearance enhancement industries; as our lives have migrated online our physical appearance is sadly often the sole feature we are evaluated on; and, as Gemma Sharp points out, the threatened masculinity hypothesis may be driving men to over-invest in their appearance.
This is because gender equality means traditional markers for masculine success – like being the breadwinner, the protector and dominating academically – are increasingly less relevant, Griffiths explains:
“One of the few ways left, one that a lot of young boys turn to, is to literally embody masculinity by having this big muscular body.”
The antidote, when the algorithms and images won’t stop, is manifold: performance goals over appearance goals; social media literacy; a broader discussion around how much value we want to place on physical appearance; a gender-sensitive approach to treating body image and eating disorders in boys and men; and, Griffiths says, self-esteem that is based on more than how we look.
“You might still care about your appearance, and I think most people do, but when your self-worth is based on a whole bunch of things, not just how you look, it makes you more resilient and robust.”
Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Butterfly Foundation on 1800 334 673
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