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Idealized Images

Body image disturbances arise when a discrepancy between a person’s idealized body image and perceived body image leads to clinically significant impairment or distress. An individual’s idealized body image is often influenced by a variety of sociocultural influences, such as popular culture and subcultures, including ethnic, sexual orientation–based, athletic, artistic, and occupational cultures, as well as self-identity, including gender identity. Common body image ideals in males include the “thin ideal,” a desire to have low body fat, and the “muscular ideal,” a desire to have large muscles. Other body image ideals may include a “fatness ideal,” a desire to have a large body, or feature-specific ideals, such as a desire for a feature to have a particular shape, texture, or shade. Beyond aesthetics, body image ideals may also include a functional, or performance component. Functional body image ideals may include ideals of endurance, power, agility, and health. These ideals may coexist: someone who strongly self-identifies as a bodybuilder may cherish both thinness and muscularity, while the powerlifter’s ideal may include muscularity as well as a strength component, but not a thinness component. An artist’s ideal may be solely focused on thinness, and a dancer’s ideal centered on thinness and agility.

Many males derive their body image ideals in part from popular sports that they either enjoy participating in or watching. These ideals are often based on the body type of professional athletes whose body composition and physiological capacities derive from a mixture of genetic predisposition and intense training. Additionally, professional athletes have financial and professional incentives to use appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs (APEDs), which serve to increase the divide between their body composition and that of most males. Those who place a high value on their own body image and who hold professional athletes as their models are at high risk of developing a body image disturbance, as they may lack the genetic predisposition or the ability to engage in intense physical training.

Military personnel are a distinct group that may be susceptible to body image disturbances. They are required to meet strict weight and performance requirements, including while deployed in situations that may make exercise training difficult. Additionally, they may face extreme stressors, including war, sexual harassment, or physical or psychological abuse by fellow military personnel. Military personnel, as well as those whose jobs involve physical confrontation, such as law enforcement personnel and security guards, may perceive that their safety is related to enhanced muscularity and physical performance, further increasing their risk of body image disturbance. These factors likely contribute to the high rates of nutritional supplement and APED use among military personnel.1

Some males hold idealized body images that value traditionally “feminine” features of extreme thinness and fine features. Some athletes and performance artists (e.g., dancers), members of certain LGTBQ+ communities, and other groups that may value ...

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