The Role Of Sports In Shaping Men’s Body Image—And How We Can Be More Inclusive


In today’s world, we often talk about women and body image—how society’s intense scrutiny and stereotypical expectations of women can cause self-esteem and mental health issues. And while boys and men might not be under quite the same microscope, they are under the influence of damaging societal gender constructs and unrealistic expectations.

In fact, a recent Henry Ford Health study showed that hegemonic masculinity—or stereotypically tough masculinity—is still largely viewed as ideal, especially when it comes to sports and athleticism.

“In this study, we used social media to look at the conversation around ESPN’s 2016 and 2017 Body Issues,” says Sara Santarossa, Ph.D., a research scientist at Henry Ford Health. “ESPN promoted this annual issue as a space of inclusivity. For example, within these two issues they featured a transgender athlete, they featured a football player who defied the stereotype of having a toned physique, they featured openly gay athletes. They were trying to push the boundaries of athleticism."

“But what we found, in pulling all of the commentary from social media, is that the conversation was largely still focused on traditional masculinity: adjectives like muscular and tough were most idealized.”

The Effect Of Idealizing Hegemonic Masculinity In Sports

“Sports can have a profound impact on how boys develop their sense of self and what it means to be a man,” says Dr. Santarossa. “Perpetuating an idea of being tough and aggressive with a super muscular physique can lead to repressed emotions and toxic masculinity, which can have negative consequences—both mentally and physically.”

There’s a gap in researching the effects of body image on men, likely because people have assumed they’re “aggressive and tough,” and wouldn’t be affected in the same way as women, explains Dr. Santarossa. But suicide is more common in men than women. And men also have eating disorders and body image issues. There is also a correlation between repressed emotions and bullying or abuse.

“So while we focus on women—which we should—it’s also important to consider men,” says Dr. Santarossa. “And on that note, the transgender community is another big area that needs our understanding and support. We need to understand how we can support people with their body image and self-esteem, what we can do to be more inclusive.”

How To Help Change The Body Image Conversation

While social media can give athletes and activists a platform to widen the narrative on gender expression and body image, social media is a double-edged sword: it can also have negative mental health effects.

“You can get into this cycle of constantly comparing yourself to other people online,” says Dr. Santarossa. “There are impossible standards to live up to.”

So what can we do? Dr. Santarossa offers a few tips:

  • Spring clean your social media. “If you’re constantly comparing yourself to people you follow, unfollow them,” says Dr. Santarossa. “Fill your social media with people and things that make you feel good about yourself.”
  • Focus on the qualities about yourself that you like. “Think of body image and self-esteem as a pie,” says Dr. Santarossa. “You need to have several pieces of pie that make up your self-worth, not just your looks. Don’t make your physical appearance the biggest piece of the pie.”
  • Compliment friends and family on their internal characteristics. “We comment on physical appearance because it’s easy," says Dr. Santarossa. "It takes a mind shift to be thoughtful and compliment someone's inner qualities. What you say can shape how someone feels about themselves. It might seem like a small thing, but it can help change the conversation.”

To find a doctor at Henry Ford Health, visit or call 1-800-436-7936.

Sara Santarossa, Ph.D., is an assistant scientist in the department of public health sciences. Her research program has emphasized a sociocultural lens to explore the impact of digital technology on a variety of psychosocial health outcomes.

Categories: FeelWell