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Why Are Men Now Feeling the Pinch to Have a Better Body?

27/08/2015 18:28 BST | Updated 27/08/2016 10:59 BST

The results of the recent Alpha Man Male Body Image Survey 2015 were both fascinating and alarming in equal measure. Men, it seems, are now more body conscious than at any time in human history.

The survey of more than 1,200 British men revealed that 82% of them now feel under more pressure to have an impressive body than they did five years ago, and that 47% of men now believe there's the same or even more pressure on them than women to look good naked.

Highlighting just how desperate they feel, an incredible 29.4% would sacrifice a year of their lives - while 69% would give up booze forever - if it meant having their dream body.

So what's happened in the past five years to make men feel this way? Being exposed to the ideal male physique is nothing new, after all.

In the 80s our cinema screens were dominated by the huge action star physiques of Arnie, Sly and Dolph. In the 90s the charts were dominated by the lean and ripped bodies of the boy bands - even Gary Barlow had a six-pack, remember - not to mention Brad Pitt's iconic Fight Club poster that adorned the bedroom walls of both teenage boys and girls, and Mark Wahlberg regularly being snapped in nothing more than a pair of white, bright and tight Calvins.

Since the start of the new millennium our exposure to chiselled arms, shaved chests and sculpted six-packs has been impossible to avoid, as marketing executives the world over latched on to this aesthetic ideal to promote products and sell services.

Men's magazines were quick to capitalise on the average guy's desire to swap his beer belly for a washboard stomach, and found success by copying what women's mags had done for decades: too-good-to-be-true cover lines that played upon their insecurities and promised them quick and easy fixes to their biggest problems.

Starting in the early 2000s the circulations of the UK's mainstream men's health and fitness magazines soared as those of the lads' mags plummeted.

This was no coincidence. Men had matured.

Success in the eyes of the world was no longer defined by being a bad boy obsessed with booze and birds, but by having a six-figure salary and a six-pack stomach.

Full disclosure: I worked on one of these mags for five years - Men's Fitness - and even ended up on the cover one month without a top on. So some might say that I am personally part of the problem. But while some poetic licence may have been used on covers to entice potential readers in, the information inside would genuinely help the average guy get fitter and healthier.

Besides, magazines aren't any more to blame for the rise in men's body image issues than the action stars of the 80s or the boy bands of the 90s. And it least they tried to offer solutions to some of men's biggest problems.

So what's happened since 2010 to make almost half of British men believe there is now as much pressure on them as women to have the perfect physique?

The biggest societal change over the last five years has been the rise of social media. Facebook launched in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, but it took a good few years for them to reach a tipping point where the masses and not just the minority had accounts - I only signed up to the former in 2007 and the latter in 2009, despite working in London's West End media land. Instagram only launched in 2010. I created my account last year and still can't really see the point; maybe because I'd rather eat my dinner as soon as it's slopped onto a plate, rather than position it perfectly to take its photo.

And social media has given rise to the most bizarre navel-gazing craze of all time - the selfie.

And it is navel-gazing in the most literal sense of the saying. It doesn't take long on Instagram - searching #abs or #sixpack will do it - to be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of photos of taut, tight and tanned stomachs. While I am sure most people post them to motivate others it can have the opposite effect if viewed out of context, making the viewer acutely aware of all their self-perceived physical flaws, rather than appreciate all the hard hours in the gym and willpower in the kitchen that's gone into sculpting that body.

What's more, what most people don't realise - which can make these posts so confidence-crushing - is that these selfies are not only subject to the most flattering of filters, but are taken under the perfect conditions: the spot-on lighting highlights the definition or curves; poses are practised in the mirror long before the phone comes out; and only the best shot from these solo shoots ever sees the light of day.

Social media is great for so many reasons - keeping up to date with the latest news, gossip, trends, friends and family - and the beauty of it is that you can completely customise your experience to only every see what you want. If your newsfeed or timeline is cluttered with pictures or posts that make you feel down, just unfollow those people or accounts. Out of sight, out of mind.

Another saying also rooted in truth and even more pertinent here is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has, and always will be. No matter which Instagram filter you use.

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