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Body Image in Men: Self-Reported Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors in Response to Media Images

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Abstract

Exposure to muscular male images in the media may explain increasing body dissatisfaction in men and predispose men to body image-related disorders. The aim of this study was to increase our understanding of men's perceptions of these media images and the possible psychological and behavioral influences of these images. As the dimensions of age, exercise status, and sexual orientation may be important in understanding men's perceptions of male media images, 34 Australian men representing these dimensions were recruited for seven focus group discussions. Ethnographic analysis revealed two main interpretations of media images: a diversity of male images and the presentation of the mesomorphic physique as ideal. Men from half of all groups, predominantly exercisers and gay men, reported that their psychological state and behavior were influenced negatively by self-comparison with these idealized images. Further research examining the role of these factors and appearance schemas in relation to body dissatisfaction is suggested.
Body Image in Men:
Self-Reported Thoughts, Feelings, and
Behaviors in Response to Media Images
HELEN
J. FAWKNER
and NANCY
E. MCMURRAY
University of Melbourne
Exposure to muscular male images in the media may
explain increasing body dissatisfaction in men and
predispose men to body image-related disorders. The aim of
this study was to increase our understanding of men’s
perceptions of these media images and the possible
psychological and behavioral influences of these images. As
the dimensions of age, exercise status, and sexual
orientation may be important in understanding men’s
perceptions of male media images, 34 Australian men
representing these dimensions were recruited for seven
focus group discussions. Ethnographic analysis revealed
two main interpretations of media images: a diversity of
male images and the presentation of the mesomorphic
physique as ideal. Men from half of all groups,
predominantly exercisers and gay men, reported that their
psychological state and behavior were influenced negatively
by self-comparison with these idealized images. Further
research examining the role of these factors and appearance
schemas in relation to body dissatisfaction is suggested.
Parts of this manuscript have been presented at four scientific meetings: The Second National Men’s
Health Conference, Perth, Western Australia, Australia (1997); The Twelfth European Health Psychology
Society Conference, Vienna (1998); The Body Culture Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
(1999); The Australian Psychological Society’s Thirty-Fourth Annual Conference, Hobart, Tasmania,
Australia (1999).
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Helen J. Fawkner, School of Behavioural
Science, Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia. Electronic mail
may be sent to hjf@unimelb.edu.au.
International Journal of Men’s Health, Vol. 1, No. 2, May 2002, pp.137-161.
© 2002 by the Men’s Studies Press, LLC. All rights reserved.
137
Key Words: muscularity, media, body dissatisfaction, men’s
perceptions, body image, mesomorphic ideal
There is a growing body of literature describing body dissatisfaction and a
variety of disorders of body image, for example, steroid use, eating
disorders, body dysmorphia, and in particular, muscle dysmorphia, among
men (Pope, Olivardia, Gruber, & Borowiecki, 1999; Pope, Phillips, &
Olivardia, 2000). A high degree of body dissatisfaction has been reported in
men with eating disorders (e.g., Andersen, 1990; Schneider & Agras, 1987)
and those without (e.g., Cash, Winstead, & Janda, 1986; Drewnowski &
Yee, 1987; Garner & Kearney-Cooke, 1997).
Research examining men with eating disorders reveals there are two
groups in which eating disorders are more prevalent: gay men and athletes.
Gay men are hypothesized to be at greater risk for eating disorders because
of the high emphasis on appearance and physical attractiveness in elements
of this culture (e.g., Carlat & Camargo, 1991; Siever, 1994). This hypothesis
is supported by research with both clinical (e.g., Carlat & Camargo, 1991)
and non-clinical samples (e.g., French, Story, Remafedi, Resnick, & Blum,
1996; Siever, 1994).
Athletes are reported as being over-represented in the male eating
disordered population, especially those who compete in weight-prescribed
sports (e.g., Stoutjesdyk & Jevne, 1993; Thiel, Gottfried, & Hesse, 1993).
Further, Pope, Katz, and Hudson (1993) reported the prevalence of a
syndrome first labeled “reverse anorexia,” more recently recognized as
muscle dysmorphia—a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), whereby
males perceived themselves to be too small and weak despite actually having
high levels of hypertrophy. The occurrence of this form of BDD has been
associated with steroid use, prior diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, and
excessive weightlifting and dieting in an effort to increase muscularity (Pope,
Gruber, Choi, Olivardia, & Phillips, 1997; Pope et al., 2000).
Although a relationship between exercise, sexuality, and eating disorders
presupposes a relationship with body image, direct investigation of the
relationship between these variables is limited, and the findings equivocal.
For example, Pasman and Thompson (1988) examined body satisfaction and
eating disturbance in obligatory runners, obligatory weightlifters, and
sedentary controls and reported no differences between these groups. In a
later study, McDonald and Thompson (1992) examined body image and
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eating disturbance in men who exercised. They reported that men who
exercised for appearance, as opposed to health, mood or enjoyment, had
elevated scores on the measures of eating disturbance and body
dissatisfaction, and the more men exercised specifically for fitness, the
lower the level of eating disturbance. Finally, there is evidence that exercise
involvement may have positive effects with respect to how men feel about
their bodies (e.g., Huddy & Cash, 1997; Huddy, Nieman, & Johnson, 1993;
Tucker, 1982, 1983, 1987). For example, Tucker reported regular
involvement in a weight lifting program was found to positively influence
self-concept. Huddy et al. (1993) reported that some college males who
exercised (swimmers and football players) were more satisfied with their
bodies than non-athletes, and Huddy and Cash’s comparison of marathon
runners and non-athletes yielded a similar pattern of results. Therefore, it
would seem that the relationship between exercise participation, athletic
participation, and body image is complex, and there is a need for further
research in this area.
FACTORS THOUGHT TO CONTRIBUTE
TO INCREASED BODY CONCERN
Well over a decade ago, Mishkind, Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegel-Moore
(1986) argued that body concern was increasing among American men and
hypothesized three major socio-cultural changes might be responsible. First,
a decline in the number of purely masculine domains was hypothesized as
resulting in increased muscularity being one of the few ways available to
men to express their masculinity (Mishkind et al., 1986). Secondly,
preventable diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease), as opposed to infectious
diseases, are now among the leading causes of death (Sarafino, 1998) and
there is increased importance placed upon the self-management of one’s
health (Mishkind et al., 1986). Unfortunately, being healthy has erroneously
become equated with looking healthy (Mishkind et al., 1986).
Finally, cultural attitudes toward the male body have changed (Mishkind
et al., 1986; Mort, 1988). Men’s bodies have become increasingly visible in
popular culture (Mort, 1988). Men have been actively targeted by the
advertising industry and now serve as marketing targets for products such as
soft drinks and cosmetics that previously were considered to be feminine
products and unappealing to men (Mishkind et al., 1986). Mort argued that
men are being “sold” images that challenge traditional masculine icons and
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encourage them to become more aware of how they look.
There is empirical evidence illustrating that boys and men are
increasingly exposed to idealized images of the male physique. Pope et al.
(2000) reported that the proportion of magazine images in which men are
undressed or naked has risen from 3% in the 1950s to 35% of images in the
1990s. Additionally, the ideal images presented to both boys and men have
become increasingly muscular. Pope et al. (1999) examined the body
proportions of a range of boys’ action toys (e.g., GI Joe, Star Wars
characters) and noted that they had all become significantly more muscular
over the last two decades. Images aimed at the adult market have also
changed in the same manner. Pope et al. (2000) examined the male models
presented in Playgirl magazine between its inception in 1973 and 1999. For
each centerfold an estimation of body fat was made using the quoted height
and weight data in conjunction with their picture. This analysis revealed that
the average male centerfold has lost approximately 12 pounds of fat while
gaining 27 pounds of muscle over this period of time. Further, a study of 10
of the most popular magazines for young men and women were examined
for articles promoting weight loss and articles promoting changing one’s
body shape (Andersen & DiDomenico, 1992). It was reported that men were
exposed to more than three times as many advertisements and articles
advocating changing their body shape as they were to articles advocating
dieting and weight loss.
Pope et al. (1999, 2000) contend that exposure to these idealized
muscular images from a young age may predispose men to muscle
dysmorphia. Implicit in this suggestion is that the presentation of these
idealized media images would result in men attempting to conform to these
images and promote body dissatisfaction among men, which may then result
in greater health risk behaviors. Additionally, based on a cross-cultural
comparison of American and Austrian men (Mangweth et al., 1997), it has
been hypothesized that body image disturbance might be more prominent in
American culture as a result of the presentation of these idealized images. To
date, however, there is no research examining the direct effects of media
exposure on body dissatisfaction, eating pathology, or other health-related
behaviors in men. There is, however, both indirect and direct evidence
supporting the hypothesis that media exposure can negatively influence
health behaviors in women (Hoek et al., 1995; Stice, 1994; Stice & Shaw,
1994), particularly influencing eating pathology by perpetuating the thin
ideal (Stice, 1994). Stice examined the direct effect of media exposure on
eating pathology. Structural equation modeling revealed a direct effect of
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media exposure on eating pathology and a link between media exposure and
gender-role endorsement, the internalization of body stereotypes, and body
dissatisfaction. As with women, it is feasible (suggested by Pope et al.,
1999) that the increased presentation of idealized (and distorted) images of
men may contribute to increased body concern among men. Further, as
many of the media images presented in other cultures, in particular
Australia, originate from the United States, it could be anticipated that body
image disturbance might become more prominent in these cultures. An
initial step in understanding the association between the media and men’s
perceptions of their bodies, body satisfaction, and health-related behaviors is
to gain some understanding of men’s perceptions of and reactions to these
media images.
The current study forms a component of the first phase of a three-phase
project examining the inter-relationship between body image, sexual
orientation, and exercise, and their relationship to health behaviors in men.
A specific aim of the current study was to extend our understanding of how
men think and feel about their bodies, in particular to increase our
knowledge regarding their perceptions of the representation of men in the
media and the range of possible psychological and behavioral influences of
these images. As there is no prior research addressing these issues, it was
decided that a qualitative approach would be most appropriate. These issues,
in addition to a range of others, were canvassed via focus discussion groups
with a wide range of men. Of particular interest were ways in which age,
sexual orientation, and exercise status were associated with media
perceptions. In this paper, self-reported thoughts and beliefs about the
images of men in the media and thoughts and behaviors as self-reported
consequences of these images are explored. Further, the implications these
findings may have for men’s health and future research are considered.
METHOD
P
ARTICIPANTS
Thirty-four Australian men participated in seven small focus group
discussions. The size of the focus groups ranged between three and eight
participants, and the ages of the participants ranged between 18 and 52
years. Purposeful and snowball sampling techniques were used to ensure
that there was a range in the following variables: ethnicity, level of
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education, amount and type of exercise undertaken, current work status,
current relationship status, and self-identified sexual orientation. These
sampling techniques ensured that “information rich” cases were selected
(Patton, 1990) and allowed for as broad a range of information as possible.
Participants represented eight groups: older gay exercisers (N = 5), older
heterosexual exercisers (N = 6), younger gay exercisers and younger gay
non-exercisers (N = 8), younger heterosexual exercisers (N = 6), older gay
non-exercisers (N = 3), older heterosexual non-exercisers (N = 3), and young
heterosexual non-exercisers (N = 3). Men between the ages of 18 and 29
years were classified as younger, and men aged 30 years and above were
classified as older. Although exercise is not a dichotomous variable, for the
purpose of this study, exercisers were considered to be those participants
who engaged in regular intentional aerobic or anaerobic exercise for a
minimum of 30 minutes duration, at least three times per week, and had
done so for a period of longer than six months.
Table 1
Initial Questions Asked in Focus Group Discussions
Discussion Topic Specific Initial Questions
Perceptions of the media 1. Think about the type of men you see in
films, TV programs, and advertisements.
What do you think about the images of
men you see in the media?
2. Do you think the representation of
men has changed in the last five to
ten years?
3. If so, how?
Influence of the media 1. Are you influenced by these images?
2. Do they affect the way you think about
your body?
3. Which media source is most influential?
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AWKNER AND MCMURRAY
MATERIALS
Each focus group essentially explored the same issues. Participants were
asked broad, open-ended questions to elicit data regarding their thoughts on
the images of men presented in the media and whether these images
influence their thoughts or behaviors. A summary of the initial questions can
be found in Table 1. A range of other issues was also explored; however,
only data pertaining to media images of men are presented in this report.
P
ROCEDURE
Participants were recruited through a metropolitan university and a variety
of community-based organizations. The participants were instructed they
were not required to respond to every stimulus question if they did not wish
to and that they were free to withdraw from the discussion at any point in
time. Informed consent was obtained in writing from each participant prior
to the commencement of the focus group discussion.
Each participant contributed to only one focus group discussion.
Participants in each group were matched for age group, sexual orientation,
and exercise status (with the exception of the young gay exercisers and non-
exercisers, who formed a single focus group).
One of the researchers acted as the group facilitator and led the
participants through interactive discussions that ranged from 1.5 to 2.75
hours in duration. Despite using what was fundamentally a semi-structured
interview, the questions served only as an interview guide, and deviations
from these questions were permissible as recommended by Patton (1990).
Thus, when unforeseen issues arose they were followed up, and these
themes or ideas were incorporated in subsequent focus group discussions.
D
ATA ANALYSIS
The analysis is primarily ethnographic in style (Morgan, 1988, 1997),
relying heavily on direct quotes from participants and a descriptive,
narrative summary of the data. It was felt that such an analysis would best
reflect and honor the views of the participants (Casey, 1998).
Four steps were undertaken in analyzing the data. Although breaking the
analysis into steps presents the process as though it were linear, as other
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analysts have acknowledged (e.g., Johnson, Noble, Matthews, & Aguilar,
1999), this process is recursive, with movement occurring back and forth
between these activities.
Transcription. Full transcriptions of each focus group were completed.
Following this, the analysts made themselves familiar with the transcripts.
Coding. A deductive approach was used in coding the transcripts (Patton,
1990). The categories for coding were pre-selected based upon the questions
asked in the focus group discussions. Information relevant to each question
was selected. The quotes varied in length from a single word to a paragraph
or more. When responses to one question pertained to another question, the
material was coded to fit with the appropriate question (Casey, 1998).
Valid ation. In order to increase the trustworthiness of the analysis (Patton,
1990), three strategies were employed: a reflexive diary, member checks
(Patton, 1990), and consensual validation (Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, 1989).
The facilitator kept a reflexive diary during the data collection and analysis.
The reflexive diary is a journal of the research process and includes
important information that assists in the analytic process, for example,
relevant observations made during the focus groups (e.g., group mood) and
an outline of the decision rules employed during coding. As it was
convenient for most group members to meet only once, member checks were
conducted during the focus group discussions to ensure that the facilitator
had understood the participants’ perspectives. Additionally, after the
preliminary analysis had been conducted, a report summarizing the main
themes and perspectives was forwarded to the participants, and they were
invited to provide feedback on the analysis. Although verbal feedback on the
report was received from only a minority of the participants, all confirmed it
was an accurate reflection and interpretation of the group discussion they
participated in. Finally, consensual validation was employed in an attempt to
decrease any potential bias by the primary researcher (Scanlan et al., 1989).
Two analysts coded the transcripts independently and then presented their
findings and rationales to one another. When there was disagreement as to
the content or categorization of a quote, discussion between the analysts was
utilized in order to reach agreement on the final form for each quote or the
category to which each quote belonged. It should be noted, possibly because
of the deductive approach used, that there was a high initial agreement
among the two analysts, and where there was disagreement neither analyst
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Table 2
Summary of the Major Themes as a Function of Group Membership
Group
Theme YGNE YGE OGE OHE OGNE OHNE YHNE YHE
Diversity of images
Recognition of
mesomorphic ideal • • • •
Identification with an
alternative media image
Negative affect as result
of self-ideal comparison
Negative behavioral
change as a result of
self-ideal comparison
Legend: YGNE = Young Gay Non-Exercisers; YGE = Young Gay Exercisers; OGE = Older Gay Exercisers; OHE = Older Heterosexual
Exercisers; OGNE = Older Gay Non-Exercisers; OHNE = Older Heterosexual Non-Exercisers; YHNE = Young Heterosexual Non-Exercisers;
YHE = Young Heterosexual Exercisers. • Indicates that this theme was evident for the group.
appeared to acquiesce significantly more or less than the other.
Summarizing. The fourth step in the data analysis was the creation of a
“master transcript” and a theme-by-group matrix (Knodel, 1993). For each
question/theme, relevant information from each focus group was included
under that heading so that one text contained all relevant responses. On
completion of the master transcript, each piece of information relevant to
each question was read in order that patterns, trends, and themes across
responses could be identified (Casey, 1998). Quotes that illustrated a
particular theme were moved together and then a paragraph summarizing
that theme was written. Although an exploration of group differences is not
the usual purpose of qualitative research, some understanding of whether the
issues being explored were equally salient across the groups necessitated the
construction of a theme-by-group matrix (Knodel, 1993). This combination
of methods allowed similarities and differences across groups to be
identified (Morgan, 1997).
RESULTS
The theme-by-group matrix revealed that certain issues were more salient
for some groups of participants than others. Table 2 summarizes the major
findings of the qualitative analysis as a function of group membership.
P
ERCEPTIONS OF THE MEDIA
Two main themes emerged when men discussed the types of images
presented in popular media: image diversity and the idealized, mesomorphic
image. As can be seen from Table 2, men from six of the eight groups report
perceiving a diversity of media images. The degree of diversity was
especially noticeable when the men made comparisons with the presentation
of images of women. In contrast, young gay men, irrespective of exercise
status, cited a lack of diversity in the presentation of male images.
Surprisingly, they felt there was greater diversity and a larger range of non-
stereotypical role models for women than for men.
Older Gay Non-Exerciser: There’s a variety of shapes. Once
upon a time everyone on TV was thin. Like I think of “Pie
In The Sky,” [British Television program]—look the man’s
an absolute slob, yes, it’s awful to say, but he’s just about
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spherical, and yet here he’s shown for all his sphericalness
as being quite a complex person with relationships and
whatever.
Young Heterosexual Exerciser: There’s extremes too. It
probably used to be the average bloke but now we’ve got
extremes.
Older Gay Exerciser: There’s still a double standard, what
about Jo Pearson [Newsreader] who was sacked, she was in
her 40s but she was still attractive, but yet “Brian” [Older
Newsreader] can still read the news.
Older Heterosexual Exerciser: I think it’s a bit more
acceptable for guys to have a different look about them than
for girls, you know, women are rarely ever given the same
sort of palette that males are offered as characters.
Young Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: … a few different
groups of stereotyped guys, there’s a lot more of the geek,
the muscular person in Levi’s, a lot of different stereotypes
within the images the media gives us.
Older Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: … it’s diverse….
Young Gay Exerciser: It would be good to see male models
that are just like a normal size, like how women have
Sophie Dahl [large size model] and those types of women,
Kate Winslet [actor], everyone’s talking about how she’s not
thin. It would be good to see a male do that.
Although the majority of men commented on the diverse range of male
images presented in the media, men from seven of eight groups agreed that
one image was idealized above all others; the mesomorphic male, that is, a
muscular, slim, v-shaped physique. Although some men commented on
images that were hyper-mesomorphic (i.e., the physique of professional
body-builders), the less extreme physique was considered to be the ideal.
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Only a single group, the Young Heterosexual Exercisers, perceived another
image was idealized, reporting that the Australian media idealized athletes
and placed more emphasis on fitness and ability than physique.
Young Gay Exerciser: Yeah, a great body and a six-pack
[Authors’ Note: A “six-pack” refers to clearly defined
abdominal muscles].
Young Gay Non-Exerciser: Well, you just have to look in
some of the gay newspapers, it’s six-foot-tall, blond,
muscley, Anglo-Saxon background, you know—the right
labels.
Older Heterosexual Exerciser: For example, like Man Power
[Authors’ Note: Man Power is a male dance troupe similar
to The Chippendales].
Young Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: It’s certainly not the
Hulk Hogan look that’s considered ideal, but now certainly
if you look at packets of underwear and things, there’s
definitely the pronounced six-pack, and the biceps is it? …
Yes, there’s still a definite (look) … it’s muscular. It’s like
an athletic, toned, smooth, and brown look.
Older Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: Yes, it’s Caucasian,
shiny skin, and tanned good face, muscular, very muscular,
and they don’t usually show much hair on the chest, do they?
Older Gay Non-Exerciser: It’s a very strong image that’s
presented, in terms of gym fit, hairless, young, upwardly
mobile, no not upwardly mobile but moneyed.
Older Gay Exerciser: There is this incredible emphasis on
youth and beauty. They are really beautiful, slim, athletic,
well-toned, muscular, and no love handles, definitely no
love handles.
Young Heterosexual Exerciser: The overall impression is
it’s good to be fit if you’re a guy.
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The majority of participants reported that the idealized mesomorphic
image had become increasingly prominent in the last five to ten years. In
fact, they perceived that the overall number of images of men has increased
in the last decade and that men were increasingly objectified.
Four groups of men indicated there were alternative images with which
they identified presented in the media (see Table 2). For example, the Young
Heterosexual Exercisers felt that the Australian media placed greater
emphasis on men’s athletic prowess rather than their physique. In contrast,
Young Heterosexual Non-Exercisers suggested there was an increasing
presence of the “sensitive new age” male in the media. The Older Gay Non-
Exercisers spoke of the recent emergence of alternative images in the gay
press, for example, the increase in visual images and magazines aimed at
gay men who idealize “Bears”—large, hirsute men. Although the Older
Heterosexual Non-Exercisers did not select a single alternative image in the
way that the preceding groups did, the men in this group did report finding
images or aspects of images with which they could identify.
Young Heterosexual Exerciser: Yeah, more fitness than
physique, I think …. And also ability, men should be at least
able to participate in some sort of sport.
Young Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: Where the ideal now is
sort of a sensitive new age guy….
Older Gay Non-Exerciser: We used to be fat old men, now
we are Bears! It’s the greatest thing to come along for a lot
of people.
Older Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: The general approach is
to doctor it up so to speak [i.e., representations of men]. I
just laugh at that character or say it does represent some part
of the male figure, but I don’t really identify with it in any
great way. Unless of course there is something that is
peculiar to myself as a person, and I might say I understand
simply because it’s me, but that’s all.
I
NFLUENCE OF THE MEDIA
Although almost all reported some degree of self-comparison with the
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idealized images presented in the media, as can be seen from Table 2, our
data indicate that gay men and exercisers more commonly reported negative
consequences as a result of self-comparison with media images. Men in
three of four groups of exercisers (Young Gay Exercisers, Older Gay
Exercisers, and Older Heterosexual Exercisers) reported experiencing
negative affect and behavioral changes in response to this self-comparison.
The negative affect ranged in intensity from feelings of insecurity,
questioning one’s ability to fit in with a group ideal to suicidal ideation, and
behavioral consequences typically included increasing exercise and food
restriction.
Young Gay Exerciser: You could ask about the number of
people who have contemplated suicide because they can’t
attain this perfect body image, so what’s the point of being
here?
Older Heterosexual Exerciser: Oh, I feel small and slim, in a
negative way, too, and you know often I think to myself, all
right, let’s hit the weights, let’s get our self in shape.
Older Gay Exerciser: Well, I’ve certainly made
comparisons, and it certainly affects how I feel, I mean, I
know that you should just be the best you can be, but
sometimes I feel really bad about myself for not being more
like that.
Young Gay Exerciser: I find myself looking at things like
that and thinking, oh, wow, he’s got a great stomach and
really huge arms, right, tomorrow I’m going to the gym and
I’m going to double the amount of weight that I normally do.
Older Heterosexual Exerciser: For me it makes me spend
excessive hours in the gym pumping weights, which is
probably a waste of time, but you do it anyway.
Older Gay Exerciser: Well, I mean, I exercise because it
feels great; I just love the feeling you get when you have
been out for a long hard ride and you are absolutely
buggered, but I also exercise because I know it will help
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how my body looks, and that’s just as important, more
important a lot of the time. Yeah, it motivates me to get out
and just exercise till it hurts and my body can’t do any more.
Only the Young Heterosexual Exercisers reported no conscious negative
affect or behavioral change in response to the presentation of these images;
however, there was some acknowledgment that a response may occur on a
subconscious level. And only one group of non-exercisers, Young Gay Non-
Exercisers, reported experiencing negative affect and engaging in changes of
diet.
Young Heterosexual Exerciser: Ah, not knowingly, maybe
subconsciously. I don’t recognize that I watch an ad or
something and then go, “Oh damn, I look a bit small
compared to him”—I’m not out at the gym because of it,
and I get over it pretty quickly if I do.
Young Gay Non-Exerciser: I think it can be very negative,
though when you are constantly being shown these perfectly
toned bodies, perfectly tanned—some people can’t attain
that and it can be quite depressing because you know you
won’t attain that, you can’t genetically.
Young Gay Non-Exerciser: Mmm, I don’t know if this is a
gay thing? But I know so many gay men with eating
disorders that are related to their sense of self-image—some
of my friends seem to think that it is okay not to eat for a
week and a half, and you can joke about it, but on a serious
level, if this is happening because they perceive themselves
as having a certain body type and they’re not fitting in, then
I think that is dangerous. I’m guilty myself. I’ve gone
through periods of not eating because I think that will help
me get the body I want.
Three of four groups of heterosexual men (Young Heterosexual
Exercisers, Older Heterosexual Non-Exercisers, and Young Heterosexual
Non-Exercisers) and only one group of gay men, Older Gay Non-Exercisers,
reported that they were unaware of actively being influenced by these
images. Although these men reported that they engaged in some social
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comparison, they felt these images had little, if any, long-term psychological
or behavioral consequences. It is interesting to note that of those groups of
men reporting no negative affect or behavioral change as a result of self-
ideal comparison, they all were able to discern and self-identify with
alternative media images to the idealized mesomorphic male.
Older Gay Non-Exerciser: I don’t feel that I am influenced
by these things. I know what I am, and I know what I look
like, and I am comfortable with that.
Older Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: I don’t think so, just try
to look healthy.
Older Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever
seen a guy and sort of been envious about the image he puts
forward. Like I might see a guy and go, yeah, I wish I was
six foot three or, you know, looked as good as he did, but
like I said, they are things you can’t change. But yet again, I
suppose if I see a guy who is six three and good looking I’m
much more likely to say “oh, I like his jumper,” and I might
try that jumper.
Young Heterosexual Non-Exerciser: I suppose I said what’s
being represented is the ideal, so that might not necessarily
make me feel strongly toward changing the way that I
appear, but definitely you do feel influenced by it, and you
look at that as an ideal.
Age appears to have an interesting interactive effect with both exercise and
sexual orientation. Older men who are exercisers, irrespective of sexual
orientation, report feelings of negative affect and changes in behavior in
response to self-comparison with the idealized mesomorphic image. If age
alone is considered, then two of the younger groups (Young Gay Exercisers
and Young Gay Non-Exercisers) and two of the older groups (Older
Heterosexual Exercisers and Older Gay Exercisers) report negative affect
and behavioral change in response to self-comparison with media images. In
summary, it appears that both being gay (three of four groups) and being an
exerciser (three of four groups) may be risk factors for negative affect and
behavioral change in response to self-comparisons with media images.
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DISCUSSION
P
ERCEPTIONS OF THE
MEDIA
The description of the idealized image for men as slim, mesomorphic, and
handsome confirms those reported by Grogan, Donaldson, Richards, and
Wainwright (1997) and Ogden (1992). These researchers reported that
British men felt the ideal physique for men was tall, slim, well-built with
wide shoulders and back that tapered to a narrow waist and hips—the classic
V-shape. As Australian men share a similar popular culture to that of both
British and American men (e.g., exposure to many of the same TV
programs, movies, and advertisements), it is not surprising that men idealize
this physique across these cultures. Collectively, these findings challenge the
notion that body concern as a result of an increase in the presentation of
muscular images is a phenomenon unique to American culture as suggested
by Mangweth et al. (1997) and Pope et al. (1999). Pope et al. (2000)
reported an increase in the proportion of naked or undressed images of men
displayed in magazines in the last four decades. There was consensus among
the men that we interviewed that there was both an increase in the
prevalence of similar images in the Australian media and that men were
being increasingly objectified in an effort to manipulate consumer interest.
Thus, it would appear that Australian men perceive some increased pressure
to conform to an idealized image, as has been suggested for American men
(Mishkind et al., 1986).
The majority of men recognized that, in addition to the idealized male
image, there was considerable diversity in the presentation of men in the
media. Only young gay men perceived a lack of diversity. It is possible that
this is because these men are struggling with a number of developmental
issues: the usual difficulties in the transition from late adolescence to young
adulthood, coupled with the difficulty of building a positive gay identity
(Radowsky & Siegel, 1997). It has been acknowledged that many gay men
experience a great deal of internal conflict in coming out to themselves.
During the period of coming out, gay men experience a variety of emotions,
learn new behaviors and roles, and experience a restructuring of beliefs. To
develop a positive gay identity, gay men need to find a way to connect first
with the gay community and then ways to re-connect with the heterosexual
community (Alderson, 1999). Radowsky and Siegel (1997) point out that
most young gay men have few opportunities to experience many of the
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153
normal developmental aspects of adolescence, striving to remain hidden
within the contexts of heterosexual and heterosocial environments in which
they feel alien. It is possible that striving to develop a sense of self for which
there are few perceived media images creates a situation of self-other in
which the young gay person with an undeveloped or unstable sense of self
identity sees the heterosexual community and all its images as an amorphous
“other,” lacking in diversity. As they continue along their developmental
path, some find other ways in which to identify with a variety of roles and
images in the gay community, such as attending peer support groups
(Radowsky & Siegel, 1997), and as they develop a more stable sense of self,
feel less threatened and therefore are able to perceive a diversity of male
images in the media, as do the older gay men.
Perhaps the most interesting finding with respect to men’s perceptions of
the media is the selective attention paid to the diverse male images presented
by the media and the subsequent influence that this appears to have on affect
and behavior. Two theories can be drawn upon in an attempt to explain this
finding: Cash and Labarge’s (1996) adaptation of Markus’ (1977) self-
schema theory can perhaps help explain some of the differences, as can
Connell’s (1995) psychosocial theory of masculinity. According to Markus,
schemas influence the processing of information about the self such that
people will attend to and interpret information from the environment in ways
that are consistent with their self-images. People’s self-schemas and core
beliefs about what is important vary enormously and are the product of their
upbringing and life experiences. Therefore, some people are strongly
appearance-schematic while others are much less so (Cash & Labarge,
1996), and those who are appearance-schematic will attend to appearance-
related information from the environment and process it differently to those
who are less schematic in relation to appearance. According to Cash and
Grant (Cash, 1994a, 1994b; Cash & Grant, 1996; Grant & Cash, 1995),
contextual cues serve to activate schema-driven processing about one’s
appearance, which produce affective experiences about one’s body, and
these activate self-regulatory behaviors.
Although we did not measure self-schemas directly, or the degree to
which the men were appearance-schematic, our findings suggest that the
varying images the men focused upon and appeared to have identified with
or aspired to were self-reflections (i.e., the athlete, the Bear, the sensitive
new age male, and the slim, mesomorphic ideal). As appearance schemas
influence the way in which an individual processes information, activate
processing about one’s own appearance, and activate self-regulatory
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behavior, appearance-schemas might explain not only the selective attention
to particular media images, but also the different behaviors that might result
from these schemas.
I
NFLUENCE OF THE
MEDIA
All men reported some degree of self-comparison with the idealized image
portrayed in the media; however, not all men reported negative
psychological and behavioral consequences in response to this self-
comparison. Four groups of men reported no negative affect or behavioral
change, and each of these groups reported an alternative media image or
images with which they appeared to identify. The Young Heterosexual
Exercisers appeared to identify with the images of athletes that they reported
were prolific and idealized in the media, and they perceived their own
bodies in terms of function rather than appearance. These men didn’t
compare their physiques with the idealized images presented in the media;
they made comparisons between themselves and others on the basis of
ability. Weight training was a means of becoming stronger and better
athletes. Older Gay Non-Exercisers, who identified with “Bears,” and Young
Heterosexual Non-Exercisers, who appeared to identify with the “sensitive
new age” male, also reported little negative affect and little self-regulatory
behavior with respect to diet, exercise, or other appearance-related
behaviors. Behavioral modifications were minimal and did not present any
health risk. Although Older Heterosexual Non-Exercisers did not report one
particular alternative image with which they identified, they reported they
were able to identify with a range of images alternative to the ideal. Most
importantly, this group of men reported having an acceptance of themselves
and who they were, including comments that image-related aspects of
people, such as height and body shape were things one couldn’t change
anyway, so why worry about it. This is in accord with results reported by
Reboussin et al. (2000) of a study of sedentary middle-aged and older men
and women, which found a clear distinction between satisfaction with body
function and body appearance in older adults and that satisfaction with body
function, not appearance, was associated with measures of well-being. Our
results for the Older Non-Exercisers also partially support the conclusion
drawn by Cash et al. (1986) of indications that in middle age the standards
for body evaluation change and body dissatisfaction diminishes.
In contrast, the Older Heterosexual Exercisers, Older Gay Exercisers,
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ODY IMAGE IN MEN
Young Gay Exercisers, and Young Gay Non-Exercisers all identified
strongly with the slender but mesomorphic, or to some degree the hyper-
mesomorphic, male. None reported an alternative image with which they
could identify, and all reported negative affect as a consequence of self-
comparison with the idealized images. Some men reported knowingly
engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors, and men from the exercise groups,
three of the four groups, were at least partially motivated by a desire to
acquire the idealized body shape. This finding raises a number of questions
regarding the relationship between exercise and body satisfaction. It is
possible that men who have already engaged in self-comparison and
experience negative affect as a consequence of this self-comparison are
motivated to engage in exercise in an attempt to change their body shape and
match the idealized image. Previously, McDonald and Thompson (1992)
reported that men who exercised to control weight and improve muscle tone
and attractiveness reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction, eating
disturbance, and lower self-esteem compared with men who exercised for
health or fitness reasons. It is, however, equally plausible that exercise
serves to increase narcissistic investment in one’s body. Research by Davis
and Cowles (1991) examined the relationship between body image and
exercise in older and younger men. Contrary to our findings, they reported
that exercise was not related to any of the body image variables for older
men; for young men, however, high body satisfaction was associated with
high levels of exercise and an increased degree of body focus. Thus, it is
evident that the relationship between body image and exercise is not simple
and is further complicated by factors such as age and sexual orientation.
Further research considering the full complexity of body image (evaluation
and investment in one’s body, self-schemas, and appearance-schemas) and
their possible role in the manifestation of body image disturbance and self-
regulatory behavior (e.g., exercise, dieting, steroid use) in both older and
younger men would make an interesting and important contribution to the
research literature.
Psychosocial theories on masculinity and its relation to how men feel
about their bodies may also provide some insight into the ways in which
sport, exercise, and sexual orientation may moderate the influence of media
images on men’s sense of self and subsequent behavior. Connell (1995) has
argued that men need to achieve a sense of their masculinity and that a
bodily sense of masculinity is thought to be central to current western social
process. For many men, one of the traditional ways in which this is achieved
is through participation in sport and exercise. For others, their sense of
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masculinity needs to be achieved in ways that do not involve sport, and
Connell has suggested that it may be more useful to think in terms of a
variety of masculinities, rather than a single masculinity. However, if media
images reflect the dominant social culture and stereotyped ideals of men,
then those men who do not identify with the dominant social culture, such as
gay men, may process those media images differently at the self-schema
level than those who do make that identification.
L
IMITATIONS OF THE
STUDY
On reflection, as with any study, one always regrets the questions that one
did not ask the participants. On transcribing, reflecting upon, and analyzing
the focus group discussions, there were a number of instances in which
further exploration of these issues might have revealed even richer data.
Another issue, which needs to be acknowledged, is the gender difference
between the participants and the discussion facilitator and the potential for
embarrassment in discussing some health- and body-related issues.
However, this gender difference did not appear to limit the discussions in
any way, given the honesty and the revealing nature of many of the
comments made by the participants.
Finally, a note regarding the sample size, sampling techniques, and
qualitative methodology is warranted. The current study did not employ
random sampling, and the findings are based on a small number of
participants compared with the numbers traditionally employed in
quantitative methods; however, this does not undermine the validity of the
findings. As noted by Patton (1990, p. 185), the validity, meaningfulness,
and insights generated from qualitative inquiry have more to do with the
informational richness of the cases selected than the actual sample size.
CONCLUSIONS
In conclusion, this study provides evidence illustrating that media images
influence both psychological states and behavior in half of the groups of
men that we interviewed. Until now the link between the presentation of
media images and subsequent thoughts and feelings about one’s body and
behaviors as a consequence of this affective state has been theoretical as
opposed to being supported by data. The findings from the current study
157
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ODY IMAGE IN MEN
suggest that among the sample we interviewed there were three risk factors
for negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body as a consequence of
comparison with idealized media images: being gay, being an exerciser, and
not identifying with any of the alternative images portrayed in the media.
Further research, adopting a positivistic framework and employing the use
of modeling techniques, would enhance our understanding of the complex
relationship among these variables. Additionally, research examining self
and appearance schemas and their relationship with body dissatisfaction and
disorders of body image would be a valuable addition to the literature.
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... The mass media has become a pervasive mechanism by which the gendered body ideals have been transmitted to individual people (e.g., Andersen, Cohn, & Holbrook, 2000;Bordo, 1999;Fawkner & McMurray, 2002;Kilbourne, 1994;Luciano, 2001;Pope et al., 2000). The media provides entertainment, socialization, education, and advertising opportunities to viewers. ...
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Current psychological research indicates that men are increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies (e.g., McCabe & Ricciardelli 2004; Olivardia, Pope, Borowiecki, & Cohane, 2004). The consequences of body image concerns range from mild discontent (e.g., body dissatisfaction) to the more pathological (e.g., muscle dysmorphic disorder, steroid use, and eating disorders). College-age men are at particular risk of body image disturbances. Drawing from body image research and theory, a one session prevention intervention was designed for college men to address this growing concern. The prevention intervention was intended to serve as a preliminary step into men’s body image prevention programming. The intervention was implemented within a large Midwestern university setting and was evaluated using a randomized control design. A mixed factorial analysis was used to determine what effect the program had on improving body image attitudes, self-objectification, and psychological distress. Results from the study indicated that the prevention intervention was effective at improving global body image attitudes, muscle satisfaction, and increasing media skepticism. Additionally, participants in the intervention exhibited a reduction in the internalization of the muscular-lean ideal, the athletic ideal, self-objectification, and general psychological distress at post-intervention. The intervention, however, did not influence men’s attitudes about body fat or felt pressure from society to have the lean-muscular ideal. The implications and limitations of the study are presented as well as directions for future research. Advisor: Michael J. Scheel
... Indeed, such portrayal of male images in contemporary media has lead men to compare their current bodies against those advertised and purported bodies (Baird and Grieve, 2006). In the work of Fawkner and McMurray (2002), high exposure to muscular male bodies in the media, such as David Beckham, has lead to increasing body dissatisfaction in men and has predisposed men to body image-related disorders, as it portrays the 'perfect' body image in which some men are not aligned to. Furthermore, Gill et al. (2005) argues that there has been an evident change in the way men think about their bodies, in which Harvey and Robinson (2008) suggests that such changes are observed through the alteration of their opinions and behaviours of going to the gymnasium. ...
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