From muscle man to puny in two minutes

Photo: Richy Burkett, an Arakan instructor, by Daniel Munoz

Our constant exposure to unrealistic body images can profoundly impact the way we see ourselves.

New research has found that exposure to muscular people is likely to lead people to think they look less muscular than they really are – and it can happen after just 2 minutes.

Our constant exposure to unrealistic body images can profoundly impact the way we see ourselves.

New research has found that exposure to muscular people is likely to lead people to think they look less muscular than they really are – and it can happen after just 2 minutes.

“There’s a link between the misperception of a person’s own body size and eating disorders and chronic body image disorders,” lead author and psychologist at Macquarie University, Associate professor Kevin Brooks said at the time.

“At the other end of the spectrum… there are overweight people who also misperceive their body size. Perhaps because everyone around them looks the same or has the same lifestyle.”

Extending on this research, Brooks and his team decided to find out if the same was true for our perception of muscularity.

Since muscle dysmorphia entered the psychiatric lexicon relatively recently, in 1997, its prevalence has been reported to be as much as 10 per cent of the gym-going community. Dr Clive Jones, an associate professor at Bond University’s faculty of health sciences and medicine estimates it affects about two per cent of the general population. Steroid abuse among young men is also a growing issue with the number of teenagers taking growth hormones more than doubling between 2009 and  2012.

“It occurred to me that there’s a very similar thing [as fat-concern] going on with muscle,” Brooks tells Fairfax.

“A lot of the features are very similar. people see a puny physique when they’re actually quite muscular… it’s the same as someone who looks in the mirror and sees a fat person when they’re actually rather skinny.”

Brooks adds that as media has traditionally presented the female body as extremely thin, increasingly, the male body is being presented as excessively muscular. Even little boys action figure toys have bulked up to dimensions that are “unlikely to impossible for anyone to achieve”.

In the new research, published in the journal, Scientific Reports, Brooks and his team recruited 192 18 to 30-year-olds (64 of which were men) and randomly showed them images of women and men, digitally manipulated to appear more or less muscly or with more or less body fat.

After two minutes of viewing the image, participants were asked to use a manipulation tool to alter the image until it represented an ‘average sized body’.

“What people considered a ‘normal’ body changed significantly as they were exposed to images with different characteristics,” said Dr. Ian Stephen, Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology.

“Participants exposed to low fat bodies saw their idea of a normal body become thinner. Also, seeing muscular figures led to bodies previously considered normal to be perceived as rather puny, and vice versa.”

Interestingly, they found that fat mass and muscle mass perception are “separate dimensions”.

“The brain mechanisms in perceiving fat and perceiving muscle are separate,” Brooks says, adding that this may help to explain why some people are only concerned about their size but not their muscle mass and vice versa.

“It does start to shed some light on these body image concerns an increasing number of people are suffering from.”

More research is needed to start to unravel why two people can be exposed to the same image for the same amount of time and one develops a body image issue while the other doesn’t, but it is a reminder that what we see shapes our reality.

“It really is what you are exposed to on a daily basis that sets your perception of what’s normal,” Brooks says.

Working out at North Bondi, Richard ‘Richy’ Burkett, 36, Arakan martial arts instructor conceded some people may be intimidated by him.

“I think maybe it’s more the tattoos. I’m only 92kg, but I guess I look heavier,” he said.

“I’m an Arakan instructor and we don’t focus on body image for fighting.

“It doesn’t help for fighting, but personally I like the look. But many other instructors just train Arakan – they don’t go to the gym. It’s more about skills and technique and functional strength.

“But today’s society is more focused on the look. And the Gold Coast where I work is big on body image.”

Main article written by Sarah Berry, interview by me. As published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 2017. Read the full article here

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