Six-pack stress: Men worry more about their appearance than their jobs

Young man dressing in front of mirror
Surprising finding from the TODAY/AOL Body Image survey: Men worry about their appearance more than their health, their family or professional success.Domino / Today

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By Melissa Dahl

“NEW BABY, NEW BODY!” the headline screamed across the pages of a recent US Weekly. The tabloid took a two-page spread to tease actor Channing Tatum about his weight gain after becoming a father, juxtaposing an image of him from “Magic Mike” (“Before: Beefcake”) next to a current paparazzi shot (“Now: Beefy”).

Women tend to dominate the conversation when we talk about body image. And that’s for a good reason: We know that women are judged more harshly by their looks than men are and have been for decades. But the expectations for men are quickly catching up, experts say.

“Guys are just a couple of decades behind women of going down this really awful road,” said David LaPorte, a psychologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has studied body image and social media.

The TODAY/AOL Body Image survey released this week found that men worry about their appearance more than they worry about their health, their family, their relationships or professional success. Fifty-three percent of men say they feel unsure about their appearance at least once a week. Only finances topped looks, with 59 percent of men worrying about money weekly.  

Nearly half of the men we surveyed said they think about their personal appearance several times each day. Other findings from the survey:

  • 63 percent of guys said they “always feel like (they) could lose weight
  • 53 percent don’t like having their picture taken
  • 41 percent said they worry that people judge their appearance
  • 44 percent feel uncomfortable wearing swim trunks (not to mention Speedos!)

“From a historical perspective people, have focused more on female body image because women are perceived to have more body image issues,” said Heather Hausenblas, a Florida psychologist who recently published a study looking at men’s body image issues. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”

The cultural expectation for men’s bodies has evolved in the last several decades, experts say. You can see this in a classic study in the late 1990s, which examined G. I. Joe action figures. The study found that in 1964, Joe had what would equal a 32-inch waist and 12-inch biceps. By 1991, Joe had a six-pack and had lost 3 inches off his waist, but bulked his upper arms up to 16 1/2-inch biceps — nearly impossible to attain dimensions.

“Even Halloween costumes for kids now, the superhero costumes come with built-in muscles; you never saw that back in the day,” Hausenblas says.

Because the conversation around body image has been so focused on the feminine perspective for so long, many guys may feel bad about their appearance, but they may not quite know what to do with those feelings. 

Stacey Tantleff Dunn, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Central Florida, published a study on this back in 2004. She found that when men were shown pictures of the idealized male figure — lean and young with lots of muscles— the guys became angrier and more depressed.

“I think for a very long time, we really believed that men were more satisfied with their bodies,” Dunn says. “But we weren’t measuring things accurately.” Researchers tended to use the same self-reported surveys for men that they did for women, which were heavily focused on weight loss. “It wasn’t until we started to look at things like muscularity, chest and legs, and other parts, is when we started to see that men, too, had concerns.

“It is true that in the overall evaluation of a person’s physical appearance is still more a part of how women are evaluated than men. There are more stringent standards for female beauty,” Dunn says. “But I think that the standards for men are equally hard to obtain in terms of muscularity leanness and youth.”