Negative Body Image and Child Abuse History

The Truth About Male Body Image Issues

Negative Body Image and Child Abuse History
Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s not just young women who struggle with body image issues. In recent years, eating disorders and problems with excessive exercise have increased among men, along with what’s known as “muscle dysmorphia.” Exacerbated by the unrealistic expectations set by media and social media, male body image issues are especially prevalent among young adults.

Moreover, men are less ly than women to talk about or get help for these issues.

While the body positivity movement among women has grown substantially over the last decade, male body positivity isn’t focused on nearly as much.

Therefore, the stigma around male body image issues often prevents young men from speaking honestly about their experiences and seeking treatment for related mental health challenges.

Male body image issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Mental health conditions and low self-esteem in men are often at the root of these unhealthy behaviors and co-occurring disorders. A meta-analysis of 23 studies, mostly involving young males at Western universities, found that male body image issues are significantly associated with anxiety and depression.

Because young people are particularly focused on their appearance, body dissatisfaction can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and contribute to other underlying mental health conditions.

In addition, teen boys who experience bullying due to their appearance may continue to suffer from body dissatisfaction and related issues as they mature into young adults.

Male body image issues can be a result of trauma connected with bullying, sexual trauma, or other childhood trauma.

Moreover, during the pandemic, isolation and lack of social and physical activity has led to a spike in disordered eating and negative body image issues in men.

In a recent survey of 2,000 males in Britain, almost half of the respondents said that their body image issues had impacted their mental health.

Furthermore, 58 percent said the pandemic had negatively affected how they feel about their body, and only a quarter said that they were happy with how they look.

A 2020 study led by social psychology professor Viren Swami dug deeper into the link between males affected by negative body image and mental health challenges during COVID.

The research team found that pandemic-related anxiety and stress was associated with greater desire for muscularity, and anxiety was also associated with body dissatisfaction. They attributed these results to the stereotypical ideas that society continues to hold about how men should act in stressful situations.

Specifically, being able to project strength and competence during a crisis are still associated in the collective imagination with body size and muscularity.

Our findings reflect the way in which stress and anxiety impact men's relationships with their bodies, particularly in terms of masculine body ideals. Given that masculinity typically emphasizes the value of toughness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of status, COVID-19-related stress and anxiety may be leading men to place greater value on the importance of being muscular.

Viren Swami
Researcher and Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University

The Latest Statistics on Eating Disorders in Males

Negative body image is one of the most frequent causes of eating disorders, and that’s true for men as well as women. However, because men are less ly to talk about these issues, it’s difficult for researchers to determine accurate rates of eating disorders in males.

What is clear is that the numbers are higher than commonly believed. In fact, the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders estimates that men account for between 25 and 40 percent of those with eating disorders.

One study found that about a quarter of young adult men reported disordered eating behaviors related to body dissatisfaction.

In general, males are more ly to struggle with binge eating disorder and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) as opposed to anorexia.

Experts say that ab quarter of people with anorexia are men, but they are at higher risk of death due to their reluctance to seek help.

And other disordered eating behaviors, such as purging, fasting, and laxative abuse, are almost as common in men as in women, some researchers say.

25% of males with normal weight perceive themselves to be underweight, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Exercise Addiction in Young Adult Men

While women with eating disorders and body image issues are typically focused on being thin, men tend to focus on gaining muscle.

Research shows that 90 percent of teen boys exercise with the specific goal of “bulking up,” and this behavior often continues into young adulthood.

Hence, researchers have coined the phrase “muscle dysmorphia,” also known as “reverse anorexia” or “bigorexia,” to describe male body image disorders that are focused around the obsessive desire to have a bigger, more muscular body.

Male body image disorders muscle dysmorphia can lead not only to eating disorders in men but also to exercise addiction.

The signs of exercise addiction include continuing to work out despite suffering injuries or illness; experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, when you are unable to exercise; and exercising secretly so others won’t realize the extent of your fixation on the behavior.

As with other male body image issues, exercise addiction is linked with poor mental health.

A study of 895 graduate students found that males who were dissatisfied with their bodies and with their exercise performance were more ly to be depressed.

It’s a vicious cycle of sorts: Underlying depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem in men catalyze problems related to body image, and negative body image also intensifies self-esteem and mental health issues.

Male Body Image and Social Media

Many experts attribute the increase in males affected by negative body image over the last decade to the influence of social media as well as popular media.

The muscular superheroes in action movies and the highly documented body transformations and workout regimens of celebrities contribute to feelings of inferiority among young men with “average” bodies.

While some actors, including Robert Pattinson and Sam Smith, have opened up about their body image issues and eating disorders, stars Chris Pratt and Hugh Jackman have morphed from “regular guys” into superheroes by packing on muscle—convincing young men that they, too, can attain the “ideal” body if they try hard enough.

Social media provides constant exposure to these perceived ideals. In one study, male participants were shown either neutral images of men on Instagram or images of muscular men.

The group that was shown images of men who represented the supposed ideal felt worse afterward about their weight and their bodies.

The researchers also found that these negative comparisons focused not just on celebrities and models but also on relatives and friends.

Another, similar study confirmed these results, showing that men perceived themselves as weaker, less attractive, and in worse shape after viewing images of physically fit men. “It seems plausible that changes in body esteem and the internalization of media portrayals could contribute to problematic dieting, exercise, and steroid use in men,” the researchers concluded.

6 Tips for Coping with Male Body Image Issues

The vast majority of the focus around body image and eating disorders focuses on women. Consequently, young men often have a harder time accessing supportive communities or finding guidance tailored for their male body image issues. Here are a few tips that may help young men establish healthier attitudes and behaviors surrounding body image and exercise.

  • Limit social media use or adjust what comes into your feed, in order to avoid negative social comparison.
  • Remember that media portrayals of muscular bodies are often curated and unrealistic.
  • Be honest about your struggles with negative body image issues, and find safe places to talk about what you’re going through.
  • Create exercise and eating goals that emphasize overall health and wellness rather than appearance.
  • Build confidence and healthy masculinity through activities that aren’t related to body image, such as volunteering, hikes in nature, and creative expression.
  • Help build male body positivity by accepting your body as it is, and focusing on what you about it.

Hopefully, the male body positivity movement will begin to grow in momentum as awareness around the prevalence and severity of male body image issues increases.

Treatment for Male Body Image Issues

Mental health treatment may be necessary in order to help young men heal from the anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidal ideation associated with male body image issues.

Modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness techniques, and Attachment-Based Family Therapy are effective in enhancing low self-esteem and supporting young people to build healthier habits and coping mechanisms.

Contact us today to learn more about Newport Institute’s approach to young adult treatment. Our clinical model of care addresses the root causes of co-occurring disorders eating disorders and exercise addiction, guiding young people to find thriving and self-acceptance.


Sexual Abuse and Body Image

Negative Body Image and Child Abuse History

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

Sadly, sexual abuse and trauma is a reality that many individuals face and struggle with in their lifetime. According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats against, or taking advantage of victims who may not be able to give consent1.

Sexual abuse can happen to women and men regardless of age, background, ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic status. Sexual abuse can occur by a partner, a known family member, relative, friend or complete stranger.

The Severe Impact of Sexual Abuse

Acts of sexual abuse are a direct defilement of a victim’s body and create intense distress, suffering, and grief. Because of the severity of this trauma, a person who has suffered with sexual abuse may feel uncertain about how to process the intense emotions that often result from the defiled acts that have been performed against them.

Sexual abuse can cause a victim to feel disgusted with his or her own body. Other such feelings that a victim may experience as a result of sexual abuse include repulsiveness and hatred towards himself or herself as well as towards the perpetrator.

Why It’s So Difficult to Escape Abuse

Because of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse against a person’s physical and emotional being, a victim may be manipulated toward thinking that the defilement against them was somehow their fault or that they are to blame for the mishap and chaos that they are suddenly experiencing.

Research has demonstrated that victims of sexual abuse and trauma experience a more complex symptom pattern, including increased negativity towards their body, compared with persons who have undergone non-sexual trauma or no trauma2.

A victim of sexual abuse may also develop a mental disorder, which results from the trauma they have experienced, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, severe anxiety, depression or other mood disorders. Poor or negative body image may co-occur with any of these mental illnesses.

Addressing the Complex Needs of Abuse Victims

Since individuals who have experienced sexual trauma suffer from a more complicated pattern of symptoms compared to those individuals with nonsexual trauma, treatment must also be multifaceted to address these complex concerns. This includes treatment methods that help a victim of sexual abuse and trauma heal from a negative perception of their own body.

In order to effectively heal from sexual trauma and subsequent negative body image, professional treatment is often needed. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of trauma-oriented psychotherapy, which focuses on relieving trauma-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Psychosomatic reintegration can also be helpful in overcoming sexual abuse and alleviating symptoms associated with sexual abuse and trauma2. A person who has suffered with sexual abuse may find peace with their own body by seeking out body-oriented forms of psychotherapy, which can help increase their body acceptance and restore a balance between bodily experience and self2.

Healing and Restoring Your Life

If you or a loved one has been a victim of sexual abuse, it is important to know that you can find healing and restoration in your own life. Knowing that you were not at fault from the wrong that has been done against you is also important.

It can be difficult to make sense of the trauma that you have experienced or to know how to pick up the pieces of a life that now seems disheveled. However broken and beyond repair you may feel or seem, know that there is help and hope for healing – step by step, one day at a time, you can get there.

Sexual abuse can be an extremely difficult trauma to overcome and heal from. If you or someone you love has had the opportunity to heal and recover from sexual trauma, what resources and tools were helpful to you in your journey? What encouragement might you offer to others who have found themselves in a similar type of situation?


  1. American Psychological Association, “Sexual Abuse”, Accessed 24 June 2015
  2. Iadep Foundation, “Trauma’s Effect on Body Image: Sexual Trauma can lead to more negative body image, especially among women.” Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review July/August 2012 Volume 21, Number 4. Accessed 24 June 2015

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 7th, 2015
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