When we think of fashion, we often think that it is women more than men who participate or that fashion is within the realm of women much like tool and machinery may be viewed as a guy’s world. But a close look at the word “fashion” reveals that fashion means an accepted way of behaving in a given time and location. This definition means that fashion impacts not only our apparel choices but also our language, the food we eat, the cars we drive, the interiors and exteriors of our homes and the communities we live in. Each reflects an accepted way of doing something and each is subject to change. These two ideas, an accepted way of behaving and inevitable change (such that one way of behaving is replaced by another) are the essence of the term fashion. Therefore, because fashion reflects systematic change in how we behave, men are active participants in fashion and are not immune to its influence.

How, then, are men impacted by fashion and what connections are there for fashion and health for men? The short answer is that some men experience the same type of pressure as women to achieve cultural ideals regarding physical appearance as depicted by the media. In western cultures, this ideal is leanness with defined musculature. In fact, men are heavily targeted by advertisements in health and lifestyle magazines to shape up their bodies, tone their muscles and alter their exercise and food intake. Jaehee Jung, a researcher in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware, completed a study on how men were depicted in advertisements contained in Men’s Health, one of the world’s largest selling men’s magazines. She found that the images of men changed significantly over this decade with the male models demonstrating higher degrees of muscularity (well developed muscles) and smaller body sizes.

If men featured in advertising are considered to be ideal images of men and they are increasingly depicted as having muscled physiques, what does this mean for men? Some researchers suggest images like these fuel what they label “a drive for muscularity.” Drive for muscularity, simply put, is the desire to become muscular. Being fit, toned and muscular is not necessarily a threat to health, but this desire for muscularity has been linked to several adverse outcomes, including  low self-esteem and  low life satisfaction, and to something researchers have labeled “social physique anxiety,” that is, anxiety men and women experience  when displaying their bodies in public. The anxiety is a result of people thinking that through displaying their bodies in public (e.g., wearing a swim suit, wearing tight fitting clothing) their bodies are being evaluated by others and they are being devalued as a person.

An extreme desire for muscularity could become a threat to good health if individuals seek harmful means to achieve their muscularity, including the abuse of steroids. Anabolic steroids are drugs such as testosterone or substances that work like testosterone. Doctors prescribe these drugs to treat problems, including delayed puberty, but they are also taken by both men and women who have no medical problems but desire to build their muscles. People abuse steroids when they are taking high doses as well as taking more than one type of steroid at the same time (i.e., stacking). Abuse of steroids can cause several side effects in both men and women, but in men abuse has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and the inability to father children, among other side effects.

A drive for muscularity in all circumstances is certainly not a threat to health. Moderate to low levels may contribute to good health, as it may motivate some individuals to get off the couch and away from watching sports to actually participating in them!

By Kim Johnson, PhD University of Minnesota