Toxic Masculinity & Male Body Image

Toxic masculinity serves as nothing more than a money-spinner for problematic white men who weren’t hugged enough as a child. In addition, toxic masculinity has some far-reaching consequences for male body image and has created huge barriers to improving same. Let’s get straight into the science, my beautiful tropical fish.

What is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is a term that is bandied around online a lot. As noted by Harrington (2020) it is challenging to find a concrete definition in the literature [1], This presents its own challenges, but it generally encompasses misogyny, homophobia, gender hierarchies and cultural “alpha-male” aspirations.

In the context of body image then, toxic masculinity manifests through the Masculine Gender Role Conflict Theory.

First conceptualised by James O’Neil, the male gender role conflict is defined as a “psychological state in which restrictive definitions of masculinity limit men’s well-being and human potential” [2]. In essence, traditional “alpha-male” feel-nothing-grind-harder-bro bullshit actually doesn’t lead to “high-value” men, it leads to a reduced quality of life and potential engagement in deleterious behaviours [3]. None of these outcomes are very alpha, are they?

The Drive for Muscularity

The male “ideal” physique is one of high levels of lean muscle mass, and low body fat [4], and chasing this male body ideal is known as the drive for muscularity. This male body ideal is pushed by society and the media, and have synonymised this physique with masculinity [5]. The idea that you can only be “manly” if you are jacked is equal parts ridiculous and harmful to male mental health. DFM hugely impacts men’s body image and self-worth [6]. Indeed, one study found that males with a high drive for muscularity were more likely to abuse substances and suffer from poorer physical and mental health [7].

Evidently, we learned nothing from the impact of creating “thin” ideals for women and gave men the same insecurities and pressures (equality is sometimes not always the answer). This relentless pursuit of the ideal “masculine” body is perpetuated by the media, interpersonal encounters and comparison with other men to reach this “ideal” [8]. So much so, that dissatisfaction with muscularity is hypothesised to be more influential on male mental health than dissatisfaction with body fat [8], and is a known predictor of male body dissatisfaction.

The Alpha-Male & Body Image

Gender roles and societal expectations also impact male body image. The traditional alpha-male stereotype is incredibly damaging. Conforming to traditional male gender roles, such as this drive to “win” at everything is strongly associated with a drive for muscularity [9].

In addition, this stereotypical “emotionless” man who does not discuss anything beyond body count and certainly never any body image concerns creates further barriers for improving male body image. As noted in research, men are hesitant discussing their bodies in larger groups or with male moderators [10].

This idea that men suffer in silence prevents us from intervening and becoming more aware of the impact of poor body image on men. Vulnerability is not encouraged by these traditional gender roles, but this is to their detriment. Men are far less likely to utilise mental health support services [11].

Why It Matters

Of course, suffering from poor body image regardless of gender is always a big yikes. And whilst male body image research is currently playing catch up to that of female research, the meta-analyses speak for themselves. Pressure to conform to male muscular ideals is associated with body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, psychological disorders and disordered eating behaviours [12]. This occurs across multiple countries and across the lifespan for men of all ages [13].

From having a shred of compassion and empathy, it is quite clear that having this rigid, one-way-to-be-a-man grindbro culture serves literally no one. And yes of course, this research is still in its infancy, but from what we have seen there is not one positive to be gleaned from enforcing this “muscular” ideal onto anyone.

You can read more about the Drive for Muscularity here.

What do you think? Is alpha-male culture helpful or hurtful?


  1. Harrington C (2020) What is “Toxic Masculinity” and Why Does it Matter? Men Masc, pp. 1-8.
  2. O’Neil JM (2015) Men’s Gender Role Conflict: Psychological Costs, Consequences and an Agenda for Change. United States: American Psychological Association.
  3. Grogan S (2010) Promoting Positive Body Image in Males and Females: Contemporary Issues and Future Directions. Sex Roles 63, pp. 757-765.
  4. Thomas A, Tod DA, Edwards CJ et al. (2014) Drive for Muscularity and Social Physique Anxiety Mediate the Perceived Ideal Physique Muscle Dysmorphia Relationship. J Strength Cond Res 28(12), pp. 3508-3514.
  5. Blashill AJ (2011) Gender roles, eating pathology, and body dissatisfaction in men: A meta-analysis. Body Image 8(1), pp. 1-11
  6. Hobza CL, Rochlen AB (2009) Gender role conflict, drive for muscularity and the impact of ideal media portrayals on men. Psychol Men Masc 10(2), pp. 120-130.
  7.  Eik-Nes TT, Austin SB, Blashill AJ et al. (2018) Prospective health associations of drive for muscularity in young adult males. Int J Eat Disord 51(10), pp. 1185-1193.
  8. Tylka TL (2011) Refinement of the tripartite influence model for men: Dual body image pathways to body change behaviors. Body Image 8(3), pp. 199-207.
  9. Mahalik JR, Locke BD, Ludlow LH et al. (2003) Development of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory. Psychol of Men Masc 4(1), pp. 3-25.
  10.  Grogan S, Richards H (2002) Body Image: Focus Groups with Boys and Men. Men Masc 4(3), pp. 219-232.
  11.  Ogrodniczuk J, Oliffe J, Kuhl D (2016) Men’s mental health: Spaces and places that work for men. Can Fam Physician 62(6), pp. 463-464.
  12.  Barlett CP, Vowels CL, Saucier DA (2008) Meta-analyses of the effects of media images on men’s body-image concerns. J Soc Clin Psychol 27(3).
  13.  Huang Q, Peng W, Ahn S (2021) When media become the mirror: a meta-analysis on media and body image. Media Psychol 24(4), pp. 437-489.

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am an online coach (MSc Sports & Exercise Nutrition, EQF Level 4 Personal Trainer, PN Level 1) and radiographer (BSc). I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I hope by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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