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Men: how to boost your body confidence

CaringEveryday.co.uk logo CaringEveryday.co.uk 12/11/2014 Hugh Wilson
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Men obsessed about all sorts of things, from job security to England’s chances at the World Cup. But as long as their bodies worked (most of the time at least) men were thought to be happy with what they’d got. But in the last decade that has changed, and it has become obvious that men’s relationship with their physical form is far more complex than that. More men are being treated for eating disorders and are turning to cosmetic surgery to correct perceived flaws. In short, more men are looking at themselves in the mirror and being dissatisfied with what they see.

Negative body talk

Studies bear this out. Research by psychologists at the University of the West of England, published in 2012, revealed – perhaps surprisingly – that men worry about body shape and appearance. Men talk about moobs (man boobs), beer bellies and having a six pack.

Shockingly, the research also found that men said they would sacrifice a year of their lives in exchange for the perfect body.

Experts who led the research said the findings showed that men are concerned about body image, just like women, and were just as prepared to engage in negative ‘body talk’.

That ‘body talk’ had very real consequences. Some male respondents said concerns about their appearance had deterred them from going to the gym, while 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass. Some had made themselves sick in an attempt to lose weight, and others had taken laxatives. Almost a third had "exercised in a driven or compulsive way" for the same reason.

Recent figures also show that about 4,700 men underwent cosmetic surgery in 2013, a rise of 16% on 2012 figures, including a 28% rise in the number of men asking for liposuction.

So, what’s behind this rise in dissatisfaction? Why are more men critical of the way they look than ever before?

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An unobtainable ideal?

Media preoccupation with images of the ideal, almost unachievable V-shaped male physique as well as with toned, muscular sportsmen and entertainers has reached fever pitch. Research by psychologists at San Francisco State University found that the more media young men were exposed to - especially music videos and prime-time TV - the worse they felt about their ‘real’ bodies.

The upshot of all this is that men are idealising bodies that, without extreme measures, are obtainable for very few. And the use of extreme measures among men, from crash dieting and steroid use to obsessive exercise and cosmetic surgery, is seeing a sustained rise.

The sensible solution

But there is an antidote. The good news here is that there are ways for men to improve the way they perceive their bodies without going to such extremes. The key, it appears, is healthy exercise.

If that sounds like a contradiction – after all, obsessive exercise is an extreme measure men with poor body image often turn to – it shouldn’t. Exercise is the healthy way to weight loss and muscle gain, as well as improvements in mood. It only becomes problematic when it becomes an obsession.

Experts say that danger signs of that include exercising when you’re ill or injured, and letting exercise affect other important areas of life, such as work or relationships. As long as men exercise sensibly, and enjoy a full life in other ways, it’s an almost guaranteed way to improve the way they perceive their bodies.

Eating healthily is another easy and obvious winner. Enjoy food, but eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and pulses. Again, it’s a healthy way for men to improve their body image, by naturally and gradually improving the way their bodies look.

And finally, men should understand that women have a very different idea of what men should look like. A few years ago, researchers at the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at San Fransisco State University in the US carried out an interesting experiment. They asked men in the US, France and Australia to design their ideal body shape using a computer. The men overwhelmingly chose a physique with 20-30lb more muscle than average.

Then women were asked to design their perfect male body shape. Their designs were much closer to the average. In other words, the physique many men crave is not the same as the physique women find attractive. The really good news here is that most men are already much closer to an attractive body shape than they probably realise.

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