The Evolution of Male Body Ideals

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This article was written by Nutritionist and Dietetically Speaking Intern Hanna Tejani and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.


Timeline image with one man representing each body image ideal for the historical periods covered in this article.

In our previous article, we discussed how female body ideals have changed over time.

This article will explore how body ideals have changed for men at prominent times in history.

Current research shows that approximately 30% of men over the age of 18 feel anxious as a result of their body image (1).

The negative impact of the media is thought to play a big role in this and the rise in risky behaviours which can lead to disordered eating, steroid use and overexercising (2). 

Please note: this article provides a snapshot from a mostly Western perspective, body image ideals vary widely depending on a variety of geographical, social and cultural factors. 

Ancient Egypt (1200-1000 BC)

A lot of our insight into body ideals at this time is based on art. Many of these works display men with broad shoulders with a narrow waist. These ideals are suggested to be based on the royal leaders during this time (4).

The works from this time also depict labourers and herdsmen with differing characteristics, for example, pattern baldness used to represent men from lower-class backgrounds suggesting this as a negative trait (4). 

Ancient Greece (500-300 BC)

Greek history depicted a significant change in the ideal male body. This period was synonymous with chiselled Greek Gods and the first Olympics games. This in turn resulted in a new body ideal that was largely unattainable by most. These ideals are depicted across statues that show athletic, symmetrical and ‘perfect’ bodies. 

Ancient Greek’s also thought that there was a link between physical beauty and moral beauty, which added extra pressure to conform to these physical standards (5). 

Some of the ideals from this time are still seen and promoted in our society today. A good example of this is the mythological God Adonis who was praised for his beauty and strength. It is believed that the term “Adonis Belt” that many male bodybuilders aim to achieve was derived from statues of Adonis that depicted distinct V lines on his abdomen i.e. transverse abdominal muscles (7). 

The Italian Renaissance (1400-1700 AD)

The copious amounts of art and literature from this period give us a good indication as to what the ‘ideal’ male body was thought to be during this time.

Leonardo Da Vinci brought forward new ideas for what the ideal male body should be, through one of his famous pieces of work “The Vitruvian Man.” Completed in 1490, it displayed an image of a man that showed what perfect proportions would and should look like. He used male models to complete this piece and it was suggested to depict the epitome of beauty that connected the human form to the universe (8)! Other sources also depicted men from this time as lean, soft and boyish (9).

19th Century New York

The 1900s took a 180-degree turn from the proportions promoted by Da Vinci.

This time period saw the rise of ‘Fat Men’s Clubs’ mainly across the East Coast, Nevada, Utah and Tennesee. These clubs were highly exclusive and only accepted those that weighed above a certain amount.

These clubs brought forth a new ideal that celebrated larger bodies as a sign of wealth. However, this too fell out of fashion and it was suggested that the last meetings occurred in 1924 when a new era changed the trending body image (10). 

The 1920s

The rise of film production during this time had a profound influence on male body image which was a big step away from the previous era that favoured larger-bodied males. It was thought that the camera added weight to male actors so, in a bid to combat this, a new ideal where men appeared lean and thin was introduced (3).

The leading men of the 1920s included stars such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart who were athletic and lean, giving men a sense of what was appealing during this time period (11). 

The Silver Era of Bodybuilding (1940-1960s)

Whilst bodybuilding was popularised internationally in the 1970s, its early origins actually date back to the 1940s.

Muscle Beach in Santa Monica became a hotspot where these men would train, socialise and compete. The media played a big role in promoting the diets and workout routines of these individuals (12).

This period followed World War 2 and the Great Depression and individuals such as Charles Atlas became notable figures due to their physique. It was suggested that Atlas’ strive to “be bigger than everyone else” came as a solution to dealing with the war and the depression that had occurred in the previous decade (3).

Moreover, these men were cast across film and television and actors such as Steve Reeves who were also bodybuilders, had characteristics such as a chiselled face, broad shoulders and small waists (12).

The 1960s

Once again, film stars played a massive role in the differing ideals that men should strive to achieve. The 1960s brought us the first Bond film, Dr No, with Sean Connery being cast as 007.

This was a drastic change from the bodybuilding physiques from previous eras. The new ideal promoted broad shoulders, a flat stomach, visible biceps but no six-pack (3).

The Golden Era of Bodybuilding (1970-80s)

Bodybuilding is back, and more extreme than ever before. The 1970s saw the rise of icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, infamous for their small waists and large muscles, and the shift in the body ideals reflected this (13). Many trainers even attributed Schwarzenegger to the increase in resistance training to enhance aesthetics alone!

This era also saw the rise in steroids and other aids to improve performance and bulk up. Anabolic steroids were first discovered as a tool to boost muscle growth in the 1950s. During the 1970s, the demand for these androgenic steroids grew and bodybuilders continue to use them through till the 1980s. In 1990, the USA introduced the Anabolic Steroids Control Act which made possession without prescription an illegal offence (14, 15). 

The 90s to the Postmodern Era

Fast forward to the present day where pop culture and the media and entertainment industry dictate the ideals that men should aspire towards.

Nowadays it is common for male leads in American movies to be extremely toned and muscular. Whereas the rise of the South Korean entertainment industry has promoted an alternative ideal with kpop groups and kdrama leads displaying soft masculinity, characterised by little muscle, no body hair and skin that is well looked after. These differing ideals have been shown to alter the way we feel about our bodies, research has highlighted that whilst muscular, toned bodies are strived for in American individuals, South Korean men have a higher drive for thinness (16). 

Furthermore, male body-shaming is also on the rise with many media channels objectifying men and scrutinizing them for not having ‘the perfect physique’ and referring to ‘dad bods’ as a negative thing! (3)

Thankfully, the male body positivity movement is also picking up and brands are championing diversity within their campaigns. This being said, there is still a long way to go. 

Take-Home Message

Looking at these varied body ideals highlights how unrealistic body and beauty standards for men can be. See here for information about how female body ideals changed over time. 

If you are struggling with any of the issues touched upon in this article please reach out to your GP, Mental Health Professional or Body Image Specialist for support.

References:

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2019). Millions of Men in the UK Affected by Body Image Issues – Mental Health Foundation Survey. Mental Health Foundation. Available from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/millions-men-uk-affected-body-image-issues-mental-health-foundation-survey [Accessed September 2021]
  2. Segura-Garcia, C., Ammendolia, A., Procopio, L., Papaianni, M. C., Sinopoli., D., Bianco, C., De Fazio, P., Capranica, L. (2010). Body Uneasiness, Eating Disorders and Muscle Dysmorphia in Individuals Who Overexercise. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (11), 3098-3104. 
  3. Petty, A. (2017). How Men’s Perfect Body Types Have Changed Throughout History. The List. Available from https://www.thelist.com/56105/mens-perfect-body-types-changed-throughout-history/ [Accessed September 2021]
  4. Rutherford, M. P. (n, d). The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Beauty. Tour Egypt. Available from http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/beauty.htm [Accessed September 2021]
  5. UCL. (n,d). The Athletic Body and its Depictions. University College London. Available from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/classics/outreach/public-engagement/olympics/athletic-body-and-its-depictions [Accessed September 2021]
  6. Shreif, K. (2021) Transversus Abdominis. Physiopedia. Available from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Transversus_Abdominis [Accessed September 2021]
  7. Galli, N., Reel, J. J. (2009). Adonis or Hephaestus? Exploring Body Image in Male Athletes. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 10 (2), 96-108.
  8. Gormon. M. J. (2002). Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Stanford University. Available from http://leonardodavinci.stanford.edu/submissions/clabaugh/history/leonardo.html [Accessed September 2021]
  9. Kaszubowska, J. (2021). Celebrating the Male Body in Renaissance Florence. Daily Art Magazine. Available from https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/celebrating-the-male-body-in-renaissance-florence/ [Accessed September 2021]
  10. Basu, T. (2016). The Forgotten History of Fat Men’s Clubs. The Salt. Available from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/03/07/469571114/the-forgotten-history-of-fat-men-s-clubs [Accessed September 2021]
  11. Kanani, A. (2021). How the ‘Ideal’ Male Body Has Changed Throughout History. ChemistClick. Available from https://www.chemistclick.co.uk/news/how-the-ideal-male-body-has-changed-throughout-history [Accessed September 2021]
  12. Drasin, R. (2017). The Silver Era of Bodybuilding 1940s thru 1960s. HuffPost. Available from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-silver-era-of-bodybui_b_10136890 [Accessed September 2021]
  13. Shout Out UK. (2020). History of the ‘Ideal’ Male Body and How it has Changed Over Time. Shout Out UK. Available from https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2020/05/21/history-of-the-ideal-male-body-and-how-it-has-changed-over-time/ [Accessed September 2021]
  14. Bateman, O. Drugs and the Evolution of Bodybuilding. The Atlantic. Available from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/drugs-and-the-evolution-of-bodybuilding/375100/ [Accessed September 2021]
  15. Educational Speciality Publishing. (n,d). History of Steroid Use. In the Know Zone. Available from: http://www.intheknowzone.com/substance-abuse-topics/steroids/history.html [Accessed September 2021]
  16. Monticello, L. T., and Dressler, W. W. (2020). Flower Boys and Muscled Mens: Comparing South Korean and American Male Body Ideals Using Cultural Domain Analysis. Anthropology and Medicine, 10 (2), 104-115. 

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