By Harry Easton
Body image stereotypes have long been associated with women, but what may surprise you is that young men face their own body image battles.
Research has shown that male teenagers are increasingly using muscle-building supplements and even steroids, which are signs of a condition called muscle dysmorphia.
“The best way to begin to understand muscle dysmorphia is to think of it as a reverse form of anorexia,” says Dr Scott Griffiths, Conviction Group speaker, psychologist and National Health and Medical Research Council Fellow at the University of Melbourne, speaking to newsGP.
“Instead of abusing laxatives and diuretics to try and lose weight, someone with muscle dysmorphia is likely to abuse anabolic steroids to try and gain weight and muscle.”
According to Dr Lyn Worsley, Conviction Group speaker, senior clinical psychologist and director at The Resilience Centre, muscle dysmorphia is the most prevalent symptom associated with eating disorders for men.
“The prevalence is sketchy since males are often left out of the eating disorder statistics however there is a study from 2018 (1) that shows that 30% of males report an unhealthy obsession with their body shape and have unhealthy weight control measures,” she says.
According to a 2020 Australian study that surveyed students at a Victorian high school, 50% of boys reported use of protein powder, while 4% reported use of anabolic steroids (2).
The study found that a higher drive for muscularity among the students significantly predicted greater intent to use protein powder, supplements and steroids.
Dy Worsley says findings like these point to the fact that young men are at greater risk of muscle dysmorphia than other age groups, due to their desire to look masculine.
“Young men are looking to become masculine, or attractive according to the media they are looking at.
“They are closer to puberty than their older counterparts, and they have a developing identity, which is often based on what they look like, and if they are masculine enough according to the culture.”
While attending gyms and looking to achieve peak physical performance are not unhealthy goals, the behaviours of a number of young Australian men in taking anabolic steroids to build muscle mass can have negative implications.
A 2016 study from the United Kingdom that researched the motivations of underlying anabolic steroid use in adolescents concluded, “young adult men progressed through a clear transition whereby their motives for using these substances changed from a mere desire to compete with other men to more internalised body image problems (3)”.
Dr Worsley believes this growing trend of muscle dysmorphia can be traced back to social media habits of young men.
“There are a multitude of social media influences that establish that a male is to have large, enhanced muscles which are really only possible with intense exercise.
“Many young men are also growing up in a female world, with many growing up in separate households with a higher chance of having female teachers. This means they have limited role models, and are more influenced by the shallow social media portrayal of men.”
To combat muscle dysmorphia in young men, Dr Worsley suggests a number of preventive measures.
“Young men need adult role models who are respected, healthy but not body obsessed. They need a deeper and purposeful influence on identity formation, like spiritual, philosophical, moral, ethical conversations. Lastly, programs that help young men to reach out and help others could also be beneficial.”
Masculinity is one of the many issues Conviction Group is tackling through our forums and mentoring programs for young men, fostering conversation on muscularity and unpacking masculine traits. To find out more about Conviction Group’s forums, click here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with some of the topics raised around body image issues discussed in this article, speak to a psychologist by searching here.