Is the “Superhero Standard” Fueling Men’s Body Image Issues?

5 min read
Valery Sysoen / Unsplash

Valery Sysoen / Unsplash

What comes to mind when you think about superheroes from the Marvel or DC universe? Perfectly sculpted bodies, bulging muscles, and a spectacle of physical prowess? These idealized images turn out to have a significant impact on how both men and women perceive male beauty and strength, and masculinity in general.

The phenomenon, known as the “superhero standard,” perpetuates unrealistic ideals, placing immense pressure on men to excel in all aspects of life, including appearance and performance. This pressure also extends to a wider range of concerns, including hair loss, height perception, and skincare.

Research highlights that an increasing percentage of men are showing interest in seeking cosmetic procedures, indicating wider prevalence of the largely unaddressed issue of men’s body image.

To add to the distress, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, concerns about penis size are ranked among the top-three body image issues for heterosexual men, alongside worries about weight and height.

These silent struggles can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, resulting in feelings of low self-esteem, shame, and even sexual embarrassment. To counter the superhero effect, try these three strategies.

1. Stop looking at glorified images of “perfect” male bodies.

A major source of men’s body image issues is constant exposure to idealized male bodies on social media. It’s essential to realize that these images often undergo extensive editing, and that the individuals portrayed in them do not always represent the norm. Here are steps to address these triggers effectively:

  • First, recognize what sets off your reactions. Reflect on the specific accounts, posts, or content that make you feel dissatisfied with your own body. These triggers can stir feelings of comparison, self-doubt, or even a desire for unattainable perfection.
  • Once you’ve identified these triggers, take proactive steps to curate your social media feed. Consider unfollowing or muting accounts that contribute to these negative feelings. While it’s essential to acknowledge that everyone’s journey toward self-acceptance is unique, minimizing exposure to harmful content is a practical strategy and a great first step for anyone facing body image issues.

Follow accounts that promote body positivity, self-acceptance, and realistic portrayals of men. Engaging with content that celebrates diverse body types can help reshape your perspective and reduce the negative impact of social media on your self-esteem.

2. Think about how your fitness routine is affecting your well-being.

Are your fitness and dietary choices genuinely adding to your well-being, or are they worsening it?

While maintaining a healthy lifestyle is commendable, becoming fixated on working out to the extent that you experience anxiety or guilt when taking a rest day or use exercise as a form of punishment for “cheating on” your diet can indicate that your fitness regimen is defeating its purpose.

It’s important to listen to your body and its cues. Just like overeating, overtraining can lead to burnout, anxiety, and, ironically, poorer body image. A 2017 study highlights that a persistent absence of proper recovery or disruptions in the recovery process can contribute to overtraining and burnout. A strenuous workout regime can also lead to unhealthy cravings in the middle of the night, ultimately leading it to be an unfruitful endeavor.

Seek a balanced approach to health and fitness that aligns with your own goals and preferences, rather than someone else’s. Don’t shy away from consulting with a health care professional or therapist if you’re unsure about your relationship with exercise and food.

3. Reframe what masculinity means to you.

Body Image Essential Reads

The traditional concept of masculinity perpetuates the idea that men should be strong, emotionally resilient, and impervious to vulnerability. These stereotypical concepts of masculinity can intensify body image issues, as men feel pressured to conform to rigid ideals of what it means to be “manly,” particularly in the context of relationships with women. But research states otherwise.

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality reveals that women not only welcome but also promote emotional openness in men within relationships, and that this openness is positively associated with relationship satisfaction. According to another study, women find it sexier when men share the responsibility of household chores.

All these findings emphasize the need to work on reframing your understanding of masculinity. Instead of placing all of your focus on unattainable ideals, consider the following:

  • Challenge societal stereotypes by discussing harmful gender expectations, especially with other men in your life. Educate and advocate for inclusive and realistic definitions of masculinity.
  • Find role models who defy stereotypes and celebrate diversity. Build a supportive community that encourages open dialogue about emotions and self-acceptance.


The fact that men’s body image issues are not discussed as widely as women’s does not mean that they are any less detrimental to society. Body image issues have a tendency to spill over into the realm of emotions and mental health, setting the stage for much larger problems like eating disorders and isolation. Healthy content consumption, a mindful approach to working out, and conversations around masculine stereotypes can help you see through the filters and airbrushing that fuel “the superhero effect.”

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