I first felt a draw towards the gym at around 15 years old. Seeing older peers acquiring more muscular statures, I started feeling subtle social pressures to do the same. Having been a member of several gyms, ranging from purely weightlifting clubs to more high-end centres like Virgin Active, I have noticed that free weight areas are frequently hyper masculine environments. By this, I mean that loud grunts, strength contests and macho posturing not out of place in the animal kingdom do abound. Whilst there is a certain degree of camaraderie between the brawny, not being the most muscular of gentlemen does subject you to intolerant glares, especially when lifting small weights. Like there is a stigma on women who lift weights, there is one on men who do not.

Speaking to friends who grew up in Cyprus, Greece and Germany, they confirm that this gym culture transcends national borders. They too felt a pressure to lift weights during adolescence, to become part of this aggressively masculine environment.  In fact, the number of Europeans joining a gym has grown in recent years, with 50.1 million gym members at the end of 2014, a 9% increase on the year prior. 

A consistent theme across Europe has been the growth of the budget gym; indeed in the UK, Xercise4Less and The Gym Group are amongst the country’s 50 fastest growing businesses. From these statistics one can assume that more men than ever are feeling the pressure to gain muscle. From my own anecdotal evidence in the UK, I have seen younger and younger boys start weightlifting, and I think it is obvious why.

Creating an “IDEAL” masculine body

Since the 1990s, TV/ Film and the cosmetics and beauty industry have promoted a consumer culture surrounding male body enhancement. Ranging from muscular heroes of the action genre to shows like Geordie Shore, from magazines like Men’s Health to advertisements for fragrances and sporting equipment, there has undoubtedly been a dramatic rise in the visibility of the male body in the media and popular culture. Moreover, it has been portrayed in an increasingly idealised and eroticised style; now the image of big muscles, a six-pack, a v shape underneath and a small waist is seen to be what male body should look like.  The recent explosion of social media into popular culture, particularly through apps like Instagram, one of the world’s largest mobile ads platforms, has definitely worsened the problem. Paid male models or popular figures such as Dan Bilzerian, possessing hundreds of thousands of followers actively seek to portray unrealistic standards so as to sell products. With the sports supplements industry alone set to be worth €5.68billion by 2018, it is clear that this consumer culture surrounding male bodies has successfully roused in men a desire to be attractive in society, through achieving this ‘ideal’ masculine body.

Photo: FUMIGRAFIK-Photographist (Flickr); Credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rising pressures on millennials

Naturally, this increased societal pressure plays heavily on men’s self esteem. Professor Rosalind Gill at Loughborough university has argued that in the light of the socioeconomic changes eroding work as a source of identity, i.e. service sector jobs replacing manufacturing and other manual labour, working class men have increasingly sought to define themselves through their bodies. Indeed, a 23-year old amateur male bodybuilder named Oli Smith stated in an interview that “In (a) club you feel like the biggest, strongest, best-looking, most powerful man in the world.” Evidently, some men see large muscles as a powerful, public assertion of their masculinity. 

Rob Wilson, chairman of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation has stated that men of all backgrounds are simply not prepared for these recent, dramatic media pressures, citing Muscle Dysmorphia as evidence. This condition is defined as a pathological preoccupation with muscularity, to the point that it affects everyday functionality. Common symptoms are seeing oneself as ‘small’ or ‘fat’ despite having an average body or even one the picture of fitness to others, an excessive use of nutritional supplements, often steroids, extreme exercise such as many hours of weight training, and working out even when suffering from injury. We know that around 10% of men in UK gyms have this condition, but tragically, due to a lack of awareness on the subject, many cases go unreported. In my own experience I have witnessed examples of the above symptoms, particularly very long weightlifting sessions and working through painful injuries so as not to miss workouts. Although media pressures have made men overall more prone to the condition, Rob Wilson has identified many of those who develop it were bullied or teased or had family members with another psychiatric condition. 

Photo: Sigfrid Lundberg (Flickr); Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0

The dangers of these rising pressures

The condition is synonymous with the use of anabolic steroids, which is why consequences of the condition can be disastrous. In fact, a shift in the way steroids are used has generally paralleled increased media pressures on male bodies. Jim McVeigh, director at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moore’s University, states that the vast majority of current users are in their “late teens” and doing it for “informal, cosmetic reasons”, rather than in the early 1990s, when users were largely aspiring or experienced bodybuilders with competition in mind. Aside from economic factors, with drugs costing 1/10th of the price they were 15 years ago and easily accessible through the Internet, McVeigh also places the blame on unprecedented pressures to “conform to a stylized body image.” The natural by-product of younger users is a lack of education on the subject, so misuse is rife. The British Tabloid Press reported on the case of Oliver Cooney, a 20-year-old man who died from his second heart attack resulting from anabolic steroid misuse. His mother Sarah Cooney said that insecurities about his height drove him towards an obsessive preoccupation with bodybuilding, such that he would ignore medical advice even after a heart attack. This is a sombre example of how tragic the consequences can be when trying to meet societal standards for bodies.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 31% of British men are unhappy with their bodies. Even I, who would not identify as ‘unhappy’, criticize myself when I have not gone to the gym for a while. Whilst my parents can relate to the urge to be healthy, they do not understand my desire to build muscle. I believe that this is due to the vastly differing celebrity culture in their youth, in which the pressure for men to look a certain way was minimal. It was not until the 1990s that bodybuilding gained its unprecedented popular status, and even more recent was the explosion of social media. For me, the lessons to be learnt is that whatever your gender, advertising has a motivation other than to make you feel good about yourself. Although it may sound like a tired cliché, it rings true: love for yourself is the most important thing. It would be nice if advertising companies would take some responsibility, as campaigns appear ever more pervasive; even on the tube I cannot seem to escape advertisements for protein shake advertisements featuring ridiculously ripped men. 

Of course, the pressures felt by women to conform to a stylised body image are far stronger, and it is only with the exacerbation of our image-obsessed culture that such pressures have finally permeated onto men. In any case, feelings towards ourselves do colour everything; as evidenced by cases of Muscle Dysmorphia, even with a  body the carbon copy of superman one can still feel a negative self-image. The truth is we are perfect in all our imperfections, and the concept of ‘ideal’ is utterly illusory. 


Teaser photo: Rockin’Rita (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    Sam Hassan is English and spent the past year living in Jinan teaching English at a Foreign Language School. He graduated from University College London in September 2015 studying history. He is now back in London and spends his time travelling, writing and making music (https://soundcloud.com/sininigenie). He is a participant in the Battersea Arts Centre Young Producers of the Year programme.

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