The true impact of social media on men’s bodies

The impact of social media has changed how men view their bodies (Getty)

Scrolling through social media, it’s hard to avoid pictures of seemingly perfect lives; where success is measured in travel, clothes and, more often than not, in the perfect body.  

Thanks to the work of campaigners, we know a lot about how stereotypical depictions of beauty can affect women’s mental health. But far less well-known is the impact this kind of content has on men. 

A recent survey found that almost 40% of men aged 18-40 feel pressure to have a ‘perfect body,’ and half say social media, celebrity culture and mass media are the main sources of these ideals. 

Perhaps most worryingly, the survey, from Instagram and suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), found that 21% of the 2,000 respondents don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about these issues. 

Unnattainable masculinity

CALM CEO Simon Gunnings told Metro.co.uk that unattainable ideas of masculinity were at the heart of a lot of men’s mental health problems. Previous research by the organisation found that men believe their relationships and career are key to happiness: results that reflect a deeply ingrained notion that ties success to the ability to provide for others. 

‘It’s something that’s kind of coupled with this strange notion of silence being strength,’ he says. ‘When men are feeling like they need some support, or that stuff just sometimes doesn’t feel right in between our ears, we’re told to ‘man up’, to ‘grow a pair’ and to not ask for help.’ 

That certainly reflects the experience of mental health campaigner Danny Bowman, who struggled with body dysmorphic disorder — a disabling preoccupation with perceived flaws in appearance — as a teenager. 

‘Being a man, it’s really hard to kind of open up about it. It was a body image problem. Men didn’t suffer from body image problems. That was kind of the narrative I got told,’ he says. ‘Men are kind of told to be masculine. That they shouldn’t care about the way they look.’ 

Social media, he said, was a ‘catalyst’ for his mental health issues. After moving to a new school as a young teenager, Danny posted selfies to Facebook in an effort to fit in.  

‘At the time I didn’t really feel like I looked as good as everyone else,’ he said. ‘So, I started to post images of myself on social media…to try get that validation from others.  

‘I wanted people to say, ‘you look fine’, you know, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’. Kind of ‘you look good,’ pretty much. Unfortunately, I got the complete opposite.’ 

People he knew began posting negative comments about his hair, his weight and his skin. ‘It just became a complete demolishment really of my appearance,’ he says.  

At the same time, he would compare himself to images of men he saw on the same platforms — rugby players and models —  an early version of the influencers prominent on social media today. ‘In a weird sort of way I kind of linked success with the way they looked,’ he says. 

Danny’s selfie-taking soon spiralled out of control, and he began spending hours in front of the mirror every day, taking hundreds of photos.  

Danny Bowman set up his own charity to tackle eating disorders in men (Credit: Danny Bowman)

He started restricting his diet and purging as his confidence fell, and he eventually dropped out of school under the pressure. After six months it all became too much, and he tried to take his own life. 

He got a second chance, he says, when he started receiving treatment from the Maudsley Hospital in London. 

With the help of specialist charities, Danny was able to re-enter education and is currently studying for a master’s degree. 

He’s also set up his own charity, MaleVoicED, which offers aims to give a voice to men experiencing eating disorders. 

But he worries that the media landscape is far more dangerous today than when he was a teenager. He says a rise of influencers with stereotypically attractive bodies, as well as the fusion of different types of media — social, advertising and broadcasts like Love Island, puts even more pressure on men today than he experienced. 

‘Toxic’ relationship with social media

Influencer culture has been a huge factor in Ronnie Malyon’s experience of an eating disorder. Ronnie, who has struggled with his eating for more than 15 years, told Metro.co.uk that he developed an unhealthy — even ‘toxic’ — relationship with social media when he started a job in fashion and began mixing in influencer circles. 

Colleagues liked his style, and he was asked to post pictures as a kind of brand ambassador. But he says he wasn’t prepared for the exposure these campaigns would get, and he found it hard to cope with negative comments on his pictures. 

‘There’s always going to be people on social media that troll you,’ he says. ‘But for me on social media, when I started to read these comments — what people were saying — I really took it to heart.’ 

Ronnie Malyon in a natural photo. (Credit: Ronnie Malyon)

These comments would make him fixate on certain aspects of his body and punish himself by restricting his diet. At the same time, ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ became a marker of success, leading him to construct more and more professional-looking content like his influencer friends. 

‘I was posting at certain times; I was hash tagging. I became fixated with trying to up my engagement because I felt like I needed to be accepted by these people,’ he said.  

It’s easy to forget the production that goes into many of these images — from flattering angles, lighting and make-up to editing — that make them not just unrealistic, but outright unattainable. 

Ronnie would plan his outfits down to the smallest detail, taking numerous shots of his looks and editing the pictures before posting them online. He had lip fillers and Botox earlier this year soon after an influencer friend responded negatively to an image he had spent hours curating. 

Ronnie Malyon is pictured in a photo taken for social media (Credit: Ronnie Malyon)

Lockdown, he says, has made things much harder; a statement that echoes CALM and Instagram’s findings. 58% of men in their survey said they felt worse about their body because of the pandemic, which has kept us indoors and stopped us socialising in person.

Whilst technology has played a vital role in keeping us connected, it also left many people doomscrolling through news websites and spending far longer on social media than normal. 

But the lowest point for Ronnie came when he agreed to let a reality star use a side-by-side weight loss photo of himself as part of a social media campaign for a diet product. 

‘I got it into my head that if I can reach a following, and I think I look great, then this is amazing. Like, so many people will see my weight loss,’ he says. ‘But It was probably one of the worst decisions that I’ve made.’ 

The photo did reach a huge following, but with that large audience came an avalanche of negative comments, which he describes as ‘absolutely horrendous.’  

What’s worse, he adds, is that he wasn’t healthy at all in the weight loss picture. ‘I was telling the world that I’d lost all of this weight and I was feeling great, and I was feeling amazing. But the truth behind it was that I’d stopped eating for a year, and I was making myself sick. I’d lost all this weight through an illness.’ 

Ronnie has started posting content about his experience with an eating disorder on social media. (Credit: Ronnie Malyon)

He has since cut ties with some of his influencer friends, and is trying to use his Instagram account as a force for good. He now posts content about his body image issues on the advice of eating disorder charity SEED, an organisation he says has ‘changed my life for the better’.  

‘I’ve completely shifted what I’m posting now, so my expectation of myself has almost eased a little bit,’ he says. 

But he still struggles with social media, and still finds himself fixating on follower numbers and curating his image.  

‘I actually hate the fact that I look so materialistic on my Instagram, because to be honest, it really isn’t me,’ Ronnie says. ‘To all these people that follow me, I look like I’m polished and I’ve got this fancy hair. But it’s really not me at all.’ 

The role of social media companies

Ronnie thinks that social media companies like Instagram and Twitter could do more to protect their users. He’s reported negative comments to Instagram, but says they aren’t always taken down for violating community standards.  

Danny says social media companies have a ‘moral responsibility’ to protect their users. He suggested they should label all edited photos on their platforms to make it clear when ‘perfect’ influencer bodies have been enhanced. 

He added the companies should crack down harder on accounts that post pro-eating disorder content, which he says can still be found on major platforms.  

Facebook, which owns Instagram, says such content is removed from its platforms as soon as the company becomes aware of it. Users searching for content related to eating disorders on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also flagged to websites that can offer support, like that of BEAT, the UK’s biggest eating disorder charity. 

Simon from CALM says that many social media companies are taking steps to make their platforms safer for users. 

In response to the charity’s recent research, CALM has launched a campaign called CALM Body Talks on Instagram, which sees famous men discussing their own body image issues. 

Facebook and Twitter both say they are involved in several initiatives to help protect users. Facebook, for example, is testing the removal of likes to help counter comparisons culture. Both companies have also partnered with eating disorder charities. 

A Facebook spokesperson said: ‘We take the wellbeing of our community seriously and are committed to making Facebook and Instagram a positive place for everyone. The body positivity movement has continued to build a strong community on our platforms in recent years, providing a space for all to share their experiences, encourage others to practise self-love and showcase how every-body is beautiful.’ 

Protecting yourself online 

To help protect yourself online, Danny says: ‘be sensible with how much social media you’re using. What you’re seeing on social media. Be aware that a lot of these photos have been edited.’ 

Talking about things can really help, Ronnie added. ‘It’s so taboo for a guy to talk about it and how much of a struggle it is. And I think that’s fuelled my embarrassment,’ Ronnie said. ‘I think that if we spoke about it a little bit more, it would make things a lot easier.’ 

If you’re struggling with your own body image, a number of charities can provide support. In addition to MaleVoicED and CALM, help is available from the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, SEED and BEAT, as well as formal medical care available on the NHS. 

Simon said: ‘The big advice from us is to seek help when you need it; as you would if you turned your ankle in a football match. You’ve got to put your hand up and ask for help.’ 

Danny added: ‘Be brave and bold and get the support you need.’ 



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