Rob McElhenney, star of as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia once described the workout regimen that took him from Fat Mac to Jacked Mac for the show’s new season. “Look, it’s not that hard,” he wrote sardonically, “All you need to do is lift weights six days a week, stop drinking alcohol, don’t eat anything after 7 pm, don’t eat any carbs or sugar at all, in fact just don’t eat anything you like, get the personal trainer from Magic Mike, sleep nine hours a night, run three miles a day, and have a studio pay for the whole thing over a six to seven month span.”
All it takes to get a Schwarzeneggerian physique, in other words, is giving up everything that’s not devoted to sculpting your body. As McElhenney concluded, “I don’t know why everyone’s not doing this. It’s a super realistic lifestyle and an appropriate body image to compare oneself to.”
Again, he’s joking—pointing out that professionally sculpted bodies are unrealistic aspirations for most men. Imagining you should—and can—look like, say, a shirtless and dead-eyed Zac Ephron while holding down a normal 9-to-5 is probably not great for your self-esteem.
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But surprisingly, according to a new study, there hasn’t been much research on what the authors call a “drive for muscularity” in men. It’s well understood that women can develop body image issues when they feel pressured to be model-thin. Studies have shown men are less likely to develop similar problems around being skinny.
For men, the new study suggests, the real problem isn’t a thin ideal—it’s a muscular one. “Girls are supposed to be thin and have small waistlines,” Trine Tetlie Eik‐Nes, a co-author of the paper and an associate professor at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, says in a statement. “Boys should have wide shoulders and big muscles. Those are the narrow ideals that young people grow up with today. It turns out that this unrealistic body image is as challenging for men as for women.”
To find out just how that unrealistic image affects men, researchers used data on 2460 American men aged 18-32 years. Fifteen questions established each participant’s “drive for muscularity”—essentially, how preoccupied they were with being ripped.
Their analysis concluded that those who were overly driven to muscularity had high rates of depression and weekend binge drinking. They were also four times as likely to be using supplements, both legal and illegal, and anabolic steroids. Some also showed evidence of familiar body-image disorders: More than a third had dieted in the last year for reasons not connected to obesity; ten percent thought they were too fat and wanted to be thinner.
Eik-Nes compares muscles to cosmetics for men: They’re aesthetically appealing, and men don’t pursue them for practical reasons. “They’re only exercising to build their muscles, without the training having anything to do with muscle function. That’s a big difference,” she says.
The study suggests a more complicated picture for male body image issues—one that researchers are just beginning to probe. Eik-Nes is especially cautious about the effect a drive for muscularity may have on adolescent boys. Similar to their female counterparts, it may be easy for boys and young men to get caught up in an unhealthy view of themselves. “If their whole world is about their workouts, parents should take the time to talk with them—for example, by asking questions about what they’re actually training for,” Eik-Nes said.
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