Written evidence submitted by Professor Brendan Gough (MISS0029)



This evidence is submitted by Professor Brendan Gough, Leeds Beckett University, who works on issues concerning contemporary masculinity, including body image, along with colleagues and students in the Psychology department (Leeds School of Social Sciences). Our research programme on male body image has generated insights which we think will be of use to the Inquiry.


Impact of poor body image on (young) men

Although the focus of body image (BI) research has historically been on women, in recent years studies have highlighted the extent and nature of body dissatisfaction (BD) among men. The rise in prevalence of BD in men has reached such levels that it can now be described ‘normative’ (Jankowski et al., 2018). Evidence indicates that discontent in relation to the body is particularly prominent during the adolescent period (Nelson et al., 2018), and that young men may be just as concerned with their BI as young women (Lonegran et al., 2019; Murray and Touyz, 2012). In addition, mental health conditions such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Muscle Dysmorphia - in which an individual is consistently preoccupied with supposed (but often tangibly absent) imperfections in their appearance/muscularity - appear to be increasing rapidly among young men (Murray and Griffiths, 2015).


The contemporary tendency is for the male body to be increasingly constructed as an aesthetic object in mediated locations, from billboards and magazine covers to social media and reality tv programmes (e.g. Bordo, 1999). In particular, a lean but muscular ideal has emerged for (younger) men, featuring models with smooth, hairless skin and highly toned bodies with very little excess fat (see Labre, 2005; Stibbe, 2004). In pursuit of the dominant lean-muscular ideal, evidence indicates that (young) men may resort to using appearance-enhancing substances such as anabolic steroids (Hale & Smith, 2012; McCreary, 2012), although there are a range of products available online, including ephedrine and synthol, and associated digital communities where young men exchange tips about dosage, promote positive effects and downplay side-effects (Hall, Grogan & Gough, 2015). It is important to point out, however, that (young) men experience issues beyond the ‘drive for muscularity’ (Murray and Touyz, 2012), and research is beginning to explore other sources of BD, including hair (loss), height, body fat and penis size (Jankowski et al., 2018; Langdridge et al., 2013). These concerns are reflected in a recent report published by the British Youth Council, which looked specifically at the current state of knowledge and progress regarding BD in young people, advising the government to make provisions for the rapid exploration of “the distinctive challenges faced by young men” (2017: 13).


The problems associated with BD in (young) men are exacerbated by a culture of silence (Whittaker et al., 2019). For example, Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2006) indicated that male participant’s consideration of BI as a ‘feminine or gay issue’ (p. 567) often constrained discussion (see also Kehler and Atkinson, 2015). Further, Jankowski (2016) reported that men appear less likely or willing to disclose dissatisfaction than women, at least not directly or immediately. So, prevalent norms around ‘masculinity’ appear to constrain men’s capacity or willingness to disclose BD and seek appropriate help, whether informally from friends and family, or from relevant services. Even when men do disclose body image issues, for example in online community forums where anonymity is protected, the emphasis tends to be less on the emotional impact of BD and more on action-oriented strategies to create ‘better’ bodies through hard work (in the gym) and self-discipline – again highlighting pressures around maintaining ‘masculinity’ (e.g. Bennet & Gough, 2013). More broadly, evidence suggests that many men are reluctant to admit to emotional problems than women and, consequently, dismiss or delay help-seeking, often with mental health impacts (e.g. Seidler et al., 2016).


Research is now starting to examine BD in diverse groups of men. We know, for example that prevalence of BD and associated mental health impacts are more common in gay men compared to heterosexual men (e.g. Drummond, 2005; Jankowski, Fawkner, Slater & Tiggeman, 2014). There has also been some research on older men; for example, increasing numbers of men are also resorting to aesthetic surgery in order to combat ageing effects (balding, spreading, greying) and re-presenting themselves as more youthful, slim and successful (see Holliday & Cairnie, 2007). The boom in sporting competitions for older men (and women) also suggests growing concerns with weight management, body image and overall fitness (see Tulle & Phoenix, 2015). Our own research has identified various BI issues among older male groups, for example concerning being overweight and feeling unattractive (Gough et al, 2016; Malik et al., 2019). However, much more research is required to examine the nature and impact of BD among different groups of men – especially those from disadvantaged and minority ethnic backgrounds – and examining the interplay of multiple social positions (e.g. class, race, sexual orientation) on mens’ experiences in order to inform meaningful, appropriate community-based interventions.



June 2020


Select references

Malik, M., Grogan, S., Cole, J. & Gough, B (2019) Men's reflections on their body image at different life stages: A thematic analysis of interview accounts from middle-aged men, Journal of Health Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105319871640

Whittaker, C., Gough, B., Fawkner, H. & Deighton-Smith, N. (2019) Young Men’s Body Dissatisfaction: A qualitative analysis of anonymous online accounts, Journal of Health Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105319832352

Jankowski, G., Gough, B., Fawkner, H., Halliwell, E. & Diedrichs, P.C. (2018) Young men’s minimisation of their body dissatisfaction, Psychology & Health, 33:11, 1343-1363

Jankowski, G., Diedrichs, P.C., Atkinson, M., Fawkner, H., Gough, B. and Halliwell, E. (2017) A pilot controlled trial of a cognitive dissonance-based body dissatisfaction intervention with young British men. Body Image, 23:93-102

Gough, B., Seymour-Smith, S., & Matthews, C.R. (2016) Body dissatisfaction, appearance investment and wellbeing: How older obese men orient to 'aesthetic health', Psychology of Men & Masculinity 17(1):84-91

Hall, M., Grogan, S., & Gough, B. (2015) “It is safe to use if you are healthy”: A discursive analysis of men’s online accounts of ephedrine use, Psychology & Health, 30(7): 770-82

Bennet, E. & Gough, B. (2013) In Pursuit of Leanness: Constructing bodies and masculinities online within a men’s weight management forum, Health, 17 [3]: 284-99

Langdridge, D., Flowers, P., Gough, B. & Holliday, R. (2013) On the biomedicalisation of the penis: the commodification of function and aesthetics, International Journal of Men’s Health, 12[2]: 121-137