Movies and TV shows full of svelte celebrities. Magazines and websites pushing weight loss and exercise.
It is tough being a man these days.
Just-published research, from one of the largest studies on male body image, shows how much men worry about being thin and muscular: Not quite as much as women agonize about their bodies. But still a lot. And it affects their relationships in surprising ways.
A partner may become resentful that her man slimmed down without her—or jealous of all the new attention he is getting. She may worry he will find someone else. Or he might encourage her to lose weight or work out to feel better, and she could view this as a not-so-subtle hint.
We all make sure our online presence makes us look fantastic. Better tone up the dad bod.
“There’s a much more extreme model today of what a healthy man looks like,” says David Frederick, assistant professor in health psychology at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif., and lead researcher on the new male body-image study.
‘“There’s a much more extreme model today of what a healthy man looks like.” ’
—David Frederick, assistant professor in health psychology at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif.
The research, published online in February in the journal “Psychology of Men and Masculinity,” analyzed the answers of 111,958 heterosexual and 4,398 gay men who responded to a series of five surveys posted on MSNBC.com, NBCNews.com and Today.com between 2003 and 2012. The respondents ranged from 18 to 65 years old, and the researchers found no differences in body satisfaction according to age. For comparison, the researchers also analyzed the answers of 103,376 heterosexual women and 2,145 lesbians who answered the surveys.
The research divided the results into four categories. The first looked at body satisfaction and found that men and women have similar levels of dissatisfaction with their physical appearance: 21% of heterosexual men and 29% of gay men were dissatisfied, compared with 27% of heterosexual women and 30% of lesbians.
When it comes to their weight, 39% of heterosexual men and 44% of gay men said they were dissatisfied. When asked about muscle tone, 30% heterosexual men and 45% of gay men were unhappy.
The second category found that 29% of heterosexual men and 37% of gay men said they had gone on a weight-loss diet in the past year. More than half of both heterosexual and gay men had exercised to lose weight in the past year.
The researchers asked people how many times they checked in the mirror each day. The most common response, for all groups, was one to three times.
The third category looked at social pressure—and showed that men feel a lot of it. Sixty-one percent of heterosexual men and 77% of gay men said they felt people judged them on their looks and many said they felt pressured by magazines and television to have a better body.
The last category looked at sex. People were asked if they tried to hide parts of their body during sex during the past month and which parts. Twenty percent of heterosexual men, 39% of gay men did. The body part they tried to hide the most? Their stomach.
Finally, the researchers asked people if they had avoided having sex during the past month because they felt bad about their body. Just 5% of heterosexual men said they did, compared with 20% of gay men.
All of this male body angst can cause romantic problems. A 2013 study in the journal “Sex Roles” found that men who felt body shame were less likely to seek out—and maintain—romantic relationships.
Alan Shade says he’s been bothered by his weight ever since he was “kind of a chubby” child. He noticed that the men on TV were always thin and the fat guy was the butt of the jokes. “Even the Power Rangers were all skinny,” says the 27-year-old entrepreneur from Las Cruces, N.M.
When he was 21, Mr. Shade met a woman, whose figure he describes as “like a pinup.” After they moved in together, Mr. Shade says he told her to look the other way when he was getting dressed and he tried to hide his stomach when they were intimate. “I always thought I was going to lose her,” he says.
Two years ago, when his then-employer had a weight-loss contest, he signed up and won, losing 40 pounds. When acquaintances commented on his appearance, his girlfriend became upset.
Mr. Shade says his girlfriend told him she was worried he was going to leave her, and that he tried to reassure her. He says the couple began to fight a lot and eventually broke up.
Now Mr. Shade is single. But he has learned some lessons for his next relationship. “You have to say how you feel,” he says. “And women don’t really care too much about what you look like.”
Therapists recommend: Communicate—before and after the weight loss. “Be open about the hurdles you might go through as a couple,” says Helen M. Farrell, a staff psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Farrell says it is also important to focus on the ways that getting in better shape has benefited your relationship: Are you happier together? Do you have better sex? Do you sleep well with less snoring to disturb your partner?
If you’re a man who isn’t comfortable receiving compliments, explain that to your partner. Say: “I like it when you tell me I look great, but too many compliments makes me worry you didn’t find me attractive before.”
A man whose partner is worried or insecure should work to make her more comfortable, says Dawnn Karen, a therapist and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Hold her hand tightly when you go out. Compliment her more. And be careful on social media: Shirtless shots that garner a lot of likes aren’t going to help.