Male Body Size and Weight Anxieties In the 20th Century

When you think of weight anxieties, obsession with body image, and the struggle to be thin, you might see this as something thatʼs mostly faced by women. But what many people donʼt realize is that weight issues and disordered eating are a steadily growing problem among men as well. The weight of the average man has increased consistently and at times sharply over the 20th century – and so have unhealthy eating habits and food addiction, all of this exacerbated by media-fueled anxiety about their looks.

By 2008, over 10% of the adult global population was obese – including 200 million men. How did these weight issues grow to epidemic proportions? While the average manʼs BMI has skyrocketed in recent decades, this increasing trend reaches all the way back to 1900 and beyond, accompanied by popular media depictions that are just as unrealistic as those of women.

Interactive BMI Widget

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While standards of male body image have gotten even more unrealistic in recent decades, the average American male body has ballooned. To demonstrate this fact, we put together the above interactive visualization. The first step in creating this asset was to input the average Body Mass Index of the American male (source 2) for each year into a formula (source 3) that returns a possible relationship between height and waist circumference. We then entered this information into the open source software MakeHuman to generate the bodies shown in the above visualization.

Physical Strength Dominates

In the late 1800s, “strongman” circus performers had become massively popular. These incredibly muscular men, like “King of Strength” Arthur Saxon, performed feats such as lifting 18 men sitting on a plank – with one foot. Such a muscle-bound body was seen as something to aspire to, with strongmen like Eugen Sandow publishing guides such as “Strength and How to Obtain It.” Sandow remains known as the “Father of Modern Bodybuilding.” In this era, obesity had yet to become a significant problem among men. West Point Military Academy cadets born from 1850 to 1879 had an average weight of only 138 lbs, and an average BMI of 20.5 – far below that considered overweight.

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Men's Body Sizes Begin to Swell

Yet, following the First World War, the average manʼs body size was well on its way to unhealthy proportions. Cadets at the Citadel military college of South Carolina, born between 1920 and 1939, now had an average BMI of nearly 22.5 – weighing about 155 lbs. Researchers with the CESifo Group in Munich note that “this generation was among the first to experience the introduction of radio broadcasting and the rapid spread of automobiles.”

The trend of exaggerated muscular bodies likewise continued into this era: by 1934, Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California, had become a haven for bodybuilders, and in 1939, the first Mr. America competition was held.

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Muscularity is Goal, but Obesity Prevails

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In a study of Playgirl magazine models born from the 1950s through the 1970s, these male models were estimated to have become more muscle-dense, with an ever-greater proportion of muscle and less body fat. While the average American man during this time had a fat-free mass index of around 20, these models had FFMIs ranging from 22 to 25 – far beyond the muscularity that most men could hope to attain. At the same time, menʼs BMIs continued to grow: beginning in the 1980s, levels of obesity underwent an unprecedented surge. While only 5% of men worldwide were obese in 1980, a startling 10% were obese in 2008 – and the prevalence of obesity remains the highest in the Americas, with 30% of all Americans being obese. In 1980, men in the US had an average BMI of 25.5, yet this had increased to 28.5 by 2008. As models became more and more muscular, this idealized image was becoming increasingly out of the reach of everyday men.

Men Seek Modeled Perfection

Today, men continue to face pervasive media messages telling them that their weight and their figure are not good enough. Fashion models such as those of Abercrombie & Fitch present a chiseled, smooth, hairless physique, and men increasingly feel that their own bodies just donʼt stack up. Researchers have found that men compare their bodies to these images – images which lack such “real body” features as blemishes, sweat, hair, or body odor.

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Consequently, men have begun to see these normal characteristics as instead being flaws of their bodies, and men are more likely to be uncomfortable with their own bodies the more they watch music videos and prime-time television. Even more men than women – 80% compared to 75% – speak negatively about their own bodies and their perceived imperfections. These tendencies get an early start: over half of 7-year-old boys want to be more muscular. By adolescence, over 30% of boys are concerned about their weight, and may choose to skip meals, exercise more, or even engage in disordered eating behaviors such as purging.

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Disordered Eating Stats on the Rise

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Long considered to be only a womenʼs issue, dangerous eating disorders are on the rise among men: up to 25% of all people with eating disorders are male. 7.5% of American men have engaged in binge eating, an overeating behavior with “a sense of loss of control.” The Binge Eating Disorder Association reports that while 5% of their calls were from men in 2008, this has now increased to 20%. Men who binge eat are also more likely than women to be at an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, and 70% of binge eaters are overweight.

Overeating: A Vicious Cycle

The symptoms of this compulsive overeating – also known as food addiction – can include eating when not hungry, weight fluctuations, eating alone, eating very rapidly and to the point of feeling ill, and experiencing anxiety when trying to resist overeating. Food addicts may choose to overeat rather than spend time with family or participate in social activities, or they may avoid eating in public due to the risk that theyʼll be seen overeating.

These overeaters can consume up to 15,000 calories a day – several times the recommended daily calories for the average person. And while women are more likely to purge to hide their binge eating, men are more likely to exercise frequently in an attempt to keep the pounds off. Many men who binge eat report that overeating is a coping mechanism for relief of anxiety and stress – and with the high standards for menʼs bodies promoted in the media, itʼs not surprising. While eating disorders among men have often been underrecognized and unacknowledged in past years, awareness is continuing to grow as more and more men struggle with this addiction.



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