Sunday 15 September 2019

The 'Geordie Shore' effect: The pressure on young Irishmen to bulk up and slim down

*The first part in a special series focusing on how young men are increasingly looking to 'bulk up' - and the possible knock-on physiological and psychological effects

More than 50pc of men said they are unhappy with their body
More than 50pc of men said they are unhappy with their body
Much has been made of the 'Geordie Shore effect' over recent years; where men feel pressure to conform to the 'ideal' body type
Actor Chris Hemsworth famously bulk up massively for his role in Thor; a thread that has become very common among Hollywood's leading men

David Kearns

If first impressions mean everything then Jason makes a big one – his chest is massive, his abdominals chiselled, and at 16 inches, his biceps are well above the average man's size.

And yet, being big is not enough for Jason because, despite his size, he still feels the pressure to be bigger.

“Nowadays it seems to be all about size. Everyone is bigger now; from GAA forwards, to anyone that plays rugby, to all the Hollywood stars. No one is just ‘average’ – they’re all bulked up,” he said.

The 26-year-old is not alone in feeling the pressure to bulk. Across Ireland the number of men joining gyms has soared, as more than a quarter of us are now signed up for a gym membership.

According to the ESRI, six years ago men made up few less than a quarter of gym users in Dublin. Today they account for nearly half.

Jason began weight-training seriously about four years ago, a decision he made following a trip to Ibiza, where he said he felt that his skinny, albeit, athletic frame was “out-matched” by the “Geordie Shore effect”.

“The same guys seemed to dominate the beach and clubs; they were always the centre of attention and they all had the same thing in common. They were all massive.”

This 'effect', as Jason describes it, has been blamed for driving men to bulk up in recent years.

“Hitting the gym isn’t just in, it is expected,” he said.

Like Jason, Mark’s quest for the ‘perfect’ body started a few years ago when he became increasingly dissatisfied with his body’s appearance.

“At first, I just decided to put on a bit of weight, to get a bit of muscle because that seemed like the thing to do,” said Mark, a Cork native.

“I liked the look and, more importantly, people told me I looked good so I just carried on with it. The more I trained, the more I came in contact with other people who were pushing for more and more extremes.”

“Myself I wanted to be big beyond belief. I wanted to be that man, the one that people look at and go ‘Jesus, he’s something else’.”   

Both men agreed the media had played its part, with television, movies and magazines increasingly becoming “an equal opportunity discriminator” against both men and women.

But while Jason said he enjoyed the drive to get bigger, Mark found himself unable to cope with what he believed "was the constant media barrage telling him he wasn't good enough."

The endless hours in the gym may have given Mark an imposing physique but there was always some part of his body that ‘embarrassed’ him.

“I often wore bottoms to hide my calves because I could never get them to where I wanted them to be. But if it wasn't them, it was something else. Always something else.”

For years, the 29-year-old said he lived and breathed the gym until he was forced to confront his ‘obsession’.

“It was like being addicted to a drug. You live off the high and, at first, it is enough but eventually you need to go heavier.”

Feeling increasingly isolated and sure he was slipping into depression, Mark was encouraged to go to counselling and talk about how he was feeling and why he felt he needed to continually bulk up.

Surprised by how much changed once he started to speak up, Mark said sharing his experience help him to come to terms with insecurities he never knew existed.

“Often we talk about the female body image and the pressure women face to conform to a particular womanly image,” he said.

“You don’t see guys post on Facebook complaining about how fat they look or how they don’t match up with the Hollywood movie star image.”

“You don’t see this because, men still can’t talk openly about their insecurities because when you do so, you get told to ‘man up. I’ve been there myself and seen it, there are quite a few men out there who are suffering in silence.”

Mark said he believes a major factor was the social pressure he felt to conform to the view that he needed to be large and muscular.

“Guys are looking for approval from others. They are comparing themselves to other athletes and actors because they desperately want to fit into one of the categories that we now identified as manly, attractive, or ideal,” he said.

The statistics are alarming: according to researchers in the UK, men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies has increased to more than a 50pc.

Other statistics regarding men show that eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) have increased by more than 25pc since 2000. And that 10pc of Irish cases of anorexia and bulimia are male, though, BodyWhy Ireland, suggest this figure could be as high as 25pc.

According to the group, on average, it takes men much longer recognise their experiences as being that of an eating disorder.

“Most guys say, ‘I don’t have a problem. I’m great,’ then they go workout for hours. That’s not healthy,” said Mark.

“Both men and women face challenges regarding body image, and it is important to address both sides instead of just one.” 

“When a guy is bullied about his weight, barely an eyelid is batted. When he is called a slob or a pig, he is expected to let it roll right off his back.”

The pressure Mark and Jason said they felt is not isolated, nor is the feeling that to be "muscular and lean” is to feel valued.

“If you are overweight, respect is simply not given to you,” said one 20-year-old reader of Independent.ie, who wrote in to share his experiences of ‘bulking up’.

“Last year I started hitting the Gym hard trying to lose weight and gain muscle so that I can look better. The idea of the ‘ideal male’ is a very real concern in the minds of lots of teens.

“I have since lost weight and feel and look a lot better, but sometimes I also feel very bitter, since not long ago these same people giving me compliments and respect would never give me the light of day not so long ago. Body image for men is a very overlooked topic and I definitely think it deserves more attention.”

This month Independent.ie will be running a series of features focusing on the pressure that men face to 'bulk up' and slim down. If you would like to share your experiences you can email contact@independent.ie. Let us know in the email if you wish to remain anonymous.

Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the tag #BulkingForBeauty.

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