Young men in the UAE are at least as unhappy with their bodies as are young women, a new study found, contradicting findings elsewhere.
The researchers said their results showed that just as much effort should be put into understanding body image dissatisfaction in men as it is in women.
Young men are thought to be concerned about not having well-developed muscles, whereas for young women the most common worry is being overweight.
The study was carried out at UAE University in Abu Dhabi and researchers found that more than a third of students overall were dissatisfied with their body image.
There was actually a slightly higher rate of dissatisfation among males than females, although the difference was not statistically significant.
Those responsible for the study, Hamzeh Dodeen and Siham Alharballeh, said they were surprised at their finding, "because we expected it to be [skewed towards] females".
“Females, in general, are more concerned with the appearance of their bodies and less satisfied with their body image than their male counterparts – this is what is clearly documented in the literature of body image,” they said in an email.
“We found that males in the UAE felt ashamed of their bodies, felt a lack of self control, and avoided situations in which people could see their bodies.”
In their paper, published in the journal Current Psychology, the researchers wrote that the findings showed that "both genders need the same consideration when studying BID".
The effect of negative body image
The work was based on questionnaire responses from 728 federal university students, most aged between 19 and 26.
They were questioned on 14 subjects, such as whether they felt ashamed of their body, avoided places like swimming pools where others might see their body, or had been worried enough about body shape to diet.
Each question was give a score between one and six, with higher numbers indicating greater concern.
The overall mean result for males was 43.95, compared with 41.21 for females.
The result goes against expectations, because some studies found dissatisfaction to be almost one and a half times as prevalent among females than among males.
“A healthy body image among young people, especially men, is really important as numerous studies have shown that body dissatisfaction predicts numerous mental health outcomes and health risk behaviours later in life,” said Lenneke van Nes, Clinical Psychologist at kidsFirst Medical Centre.
“These include depressive mood, low self esteem, suicidal thoughts, self harm, substance abuse and the maintenance of obesity."
It can also lead to eating disorders in males.
“To improve body image dissatisfaction, adolescents have to try to focus on accepting the body despite weight, body shape and imperfections, and respecting the body by learning about healthy behaviours, and protection of the body by rejecting unrealistic media images,” she said.
The researchers said their findings showed the importance of carrying out research in many countries, because cultural factors may affect the outcome.
The changing culture around body shape
“Body dissatisfaction in the male population differs from that in the female population because men desire to develop their muscles,” the study said.
“Women’s perceptions about themselves are different from those of men – they more often perceive themselves as fat compared with their male counterparts.”
Of those surveyed, 36.7 per cent of students had a total score above 49, which indicates overall dissatisfaction with body image.
This result indicated dissatisfaction was as prevalent among young people in the UAE as much as elsewhere.
The researchers said this tied in with other results indicating that more young Arabs are worried about their bodies.
This appears to reflect cultural change, with body shape preferences in the Middle East now approaching those of western society.
“While being thin is the desired body shape in many western societies, it has been undesirable throughout Arab culture, societies, and history, compared with a plump body,” the researchers said.
According to Nadia Brooker, counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, “body image issues have long been regarded as a problem faced only by women".
"Increasingly, however, men are also becoming susceptible to unhealthy and unrealistic expectations over their body weight, size and shape.
“Like women, men can struggle with their appearance and, living in today’s increasingly wired society, with a growing obsession with social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, it can be easy to understand why.
“Men are proving to be just as vulnerable as women to the constant bombardment of unattainable and negative media images regarding body shape, which can place untold pressure on them to conform to a body norm,” she said.
The study concluded that there is a need for awareness programmes to encourage young people to eat appropriately and to carry out a healthy amount of physical activity.
“These practices improve body size, weight and body image perceptions,” the researchers said.
“Additionally, individuals in general and young people in particular need awareness programmes to change any unrealistic views of body image.”
But, they said, concern over body image was not always a negative thing, because it could encourage young people to exercise or take other action to improve their figure.
Some simple tips to improve body image
- Notice the positives in yourself every day. We can easily get caught up in the things we are unhappy with, or think we should improve on, and often forget the things we have achieved or enjoyed.
- Listen to your body – pay attention to what makes you feel good.
- Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself.
- Be critical of the media that you see and always be wary of false comparisons.
- Try to engage in mindful eating and healthy physical activity.
- If you are struggling, talk to someone about it and access professional support.