Does the Muscle Make the Man?

by Lisa Wilmore

I HOPE it goes without saying that the answer to this question is no, the muscle does not make the man. Yet despite most men and women feeling indifferent whether their partner has a Batman-chiseled six-pack, men are becoming more and more self-conscious about body image, going to extreme lengths to alleviate body dissatisfaction.

And it’s no wonder men are feeling the same pressures that women have been subjected to for so long. Media outlets for men, such as Men’s Health Magazine, are now following the same formula that women’s magazines have used. There are more “how-to” articles and advertisements geared toward aesthetics than ever before. “Gain a Pound of Muscle Every Week” and “Blast Fat: Get Strong and Lean” have become men’s magazine mantra.

A study aimed at scratching the surface of male body dissatisfaction found that, in the past 25 years, Playgirl centerfolds have shed roughly 12 pounds of fat and put on an average of 27 pounds of muscle (Leit et al. 2001).

And it’s not just grown men that are being bombarded with the ubiquitous Adonis. Consider the evolution of the G.I. Joe action figure. In 1964, G.I. Joe had a 32″ waist and 12″ biceps, a reasonably attainable build. But by 1991, G.I. Joe came with the trendy six-pack and had trimmed down to a 29″ waist with 16 1/2″ biceps, dimensions that are rarely attained (Pope et al. 1998).

With America’s obesity epidemic still at hand media can be an effective tool for encouraging men and women to lose weight and become healthier. But at what point does ‘trying to be healthier’ or ‘trying to be a better you’ teeter into a body image disorder?

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, at least one million men suffer from an eating disorder. But, due to stigma, disorders are grossly underreported. It is estimated that only 10 percent of men suffering seek treatment.

Media studies have found that men who frequently view music videos and prime time TV described “significantly less comfort” with their bodies as well as feelings of shame in sexual situations. Those who expressed comfort with their bodies reported greater ease engaging in safe sex behaviors (Labre 2002).

Men and women alike are suffering embodied consequences from body image disorders. Yet the experience of body image is much different for men than for women. A disorder much more common in young males, muscle dysmorphia, is a body image disorder where an individual obsesses over muscularity and never feels muscular enough. Conditions like this can lead to eating disorders, harmful muscle development strategies, misuse of weight gaining supplements, and anabolic steroids.

In mainstream culture, the greater the extent of muscular build a man can achieve has come to index, inaccurately, function and health. The shift in cultural ideals of male beauty and function informs men that masculinity is all about muscularity.

So why does it seem that America has not given men’s negative body image the formal, structural attention that it deserves? The topic has always been distanced from public discourse by a thick, stagnant air of taboo.


And why is the topic of men and body image taboo? Mental health illnesses already come with their fair share of stigma due to the inconspicuous nature of many mental health states—no matter who you are. But because worry of appearance is seen as a feminine concern and since feminine concerns are so often devalued in our society as being petty, men get an extra serving of stigma for associating with seemingly trivial worries.

Without a culture shift, we will continue to participate in hero worship where young aspiring boys (and many other Americans) revere NFL, NHL, and NBA superstars who epitomize our current definition of masculinity as physically strong, powerful, and big. They are our idealized images of the male form.

So, to set Miss Representation readers on a new course, I have a new hero for men to worship (or maybe simply read up on). If you haven’t heard of it, check out The Good Men Project. The website, with the tagline, “A social movement from the front lines of modern manhood” is a priceless resource for men and women on parenting, relationships, gender, and hey, men and body image!

Despite our society’s lack of openness on the topic, The Good Men Project is confronting the issue head on through blogging, engaging its community of men, and a little exposure therapy of their own. And just like that, the website is defying the code of silence.

Lisa Wilmore is a blogger for on the topic of masculinity in the media. During her time at Miami University she was editor of The Femellectual, the university Women’s Center’s bi-annual newsletter. She has conducted anthropological research on the embodiment of structural violence and female genital alteration both in the US and abroad. Keep up with her work on Twitter.


Labre, Magdala Peixoto
2002 “Adolescent Boys and the Muscular Male Body Ideal”. Journal of Adolescent Health. p 233-242.

Leit, Richard A.; Pope Jr., Harrison G.
2001 “Cultural Expectations of Muscularity in Men: The Evolution of Playgirl Centerfolds”. International Journal of Eating Disorders. p 90-93.

Pope, Jr. Harrison G.; Olivardia, Roberto; Gruber, Amanda; Borowiecki, John
1998 “Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys”. P 65-72