At a young age, we're exposed to unrealistic body ideals by playing with Barbie dolls or G.I. Joes. These toys are part of our childhood memories that may linger well into our adulthood — subconsciously. Idealized body types can shape what we see as “attractive” when we're older, especially when we see muscly figures at the gym, according to a recent study in Scientific Reports.

Researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia found repeated exposure to images of extremely muscular physiques could make young men with average bodies feel their muscles look smaller in the mirror.

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"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, in a statement.

Men exposed to low fat bodies saw their idea of a normal body become thinner. Moreover, bodies previously considered "normal" were also perceived to be puny.

The researchers also sought to unveil what happens in the brain when people see these images. They tested whether visual adaption — the alteration of operating properties in the visual system in response to new or intense stimulus — could explain why people who look at thin or muscular images start to see thinness or muscularity as the norm.

When we look an at extreme stimulus, such as a bright red circle, the neurons that encode redness are strongly activated. As we continually expose ourselves to it, these neurons "adapt," reducing their immediate reaction to the color. In other words, the color doesn't become as alarming as it was at first.

Meanwhile, the brain processes a neutral color like white with a balance of activity in cells responding to complimentary colors, such as red and green. However, after prolonged exposure to red, when we look at a white wall, the neurons encoding the opposite color, green in this case, show more activity than the adapted red neurons. The imbalance in responses of red and green neurons results in us seeing an illusory green circle on the white wall.

Man working out
Why going to the gym may make men's muscles appear smaller to them. Photo courtesy of Hàn Vi Phạm Thị, Public Domain

Similarly to how we process color, the findings revealed looking at muscular or thin bodies produced illusions in the brain that neutral bodies were puny or fat. These fat and muscle effects could also occur independently, which suggests the brain doesn't just process bodies as large or small, but rather, there are groups of neurons to represent fatness and muscularity.

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"This kind of body image distortion is worrying as it can lead not just to mental health issues but also physical health complications associated with extreme dieting and/or exercise behaviour and, in some cases, steroid use," said Kevin Brooks, associate professor from Macquarie University's Department of Psychology, in the statement.

The desire for increased muscularity among men is not uncommon. Previous research has found up to 25 percent of normal weight males perceive themselves to be underweight. They have a perception they're too small, which has led them to seek out means, like steroids, to conform to the muscular ideal. A 2012 study found both middle school and high school-age males exhibited muscle-enhancing behaviors: more than a third took protein powders or shakes to bulk up; about 6 percent admitted to steroid use; and 10.5 percent confirmed using some other muscle-enhancing substance.

Idealized images presented by the media, including those seen at the gym, can have a negative impact on mental health, and fuel body dysmorphia. The condition affects as many men as it does women, and consists of a preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance, which can lead to significant distress or even impairment in functioning.

A 2000 study found that the percentage of men dissatisfied with their overall appearance (43 percent) has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, with nearly as many men as women unhappy with how they look.

Researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the neural process that involves body image distortion to effectively find strategies to reduce its effects, and develop therapies for sufferers.

Source: Sturman D, Stephen ID, Mond J et al. Independent Aftereffects of Fat and Muscle: Implications for neural encoding, body space representation, and body image disturbance. Scientific Reports. 2017.

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