Isn't He Lovely: The Cult of Muscularity
Earlier this year, researchers at Indiana University examined the physical proportions and genital appearance and presentation of Playboy magazine centerfolds from 1953 to 2007. Not surprisingly, the naked models have grown bustier, thinner and less hairy over time. In a nutshell, the study concludes:
Taken together, results suggest the perpetuation of a “Barbie Doll” ideal characterized by a low BMI, narrow hips, a prominent bust, and hairless, undefined genitalia resembling those of a prepubescent female.
While I’m dubious that the Western female body ideal can be reliably found within in the pages of Playboy, a similar evolution has occurred in the sister (?) publication, Playgirl. A team of psychologists calculated the body mass index (BMI) and fat-free mass index (FFMI) of 115 Playgirl centerfolds and found that, lo and behold, the supposed male body ideal has changed as well. But instead of getting thinner, the boys have bulked up.
So-called “Barbie Doll” ideal, meet muscularity. Gender parity in unrealistic body standards, huzzah!
Only in recent years have researchers started paying more attention to how media consumption influences what men see—and want to see—when they look in the mirror. Statistically, guys are less likely to develop eating disorders, nevertheless, an estimated 1 million American men battle anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and even more have tried anabolic steroids, presumably to amp their muscularity. Also, body dysmorphic disorder is a gender-blind somatoform disorder, affecting men and women equally.
In a 2005 study comparing men’s body image and expectations of masculinity and gender roles, Brock University psychologist Donald R. McCreary found that boys are just as body conscious as girls—just in a different way. For instance, while many women strive to lose weight:
…men’s ideal body size represents an average increase of 28 pounds of muscle and men feel women are most attracted to a body shape that is, on average, 30 pounds heavier in muscle than their actual size.”
A year later, in 2006, Deborah Schooler at The Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University published one of the first studies diving into the interactions between the type and amount of media men consume and their physical and sexual confidence. For years, study after study examined (and often confirmed) negative relationships between girls’ media exposure and body image—an effect referred to in academic circles as the cultivation theory, which posits that unrealistic beauty and body standards portrayed in mainstream media create a false ideal that we adopt and use to gauge our own self-worth and fitness. Cultivation theory, according to Schooler’s research, potently affects young men as well; they may simply manifest it differently via muscularity.
In addition to striving for the muscularity that media images from television, magazines, movies and more might fuel, media images in Schooler’s study also seemed to foster a “sanitized ideal.” Not only is the masculine ideal hyper-muscular, it’s also sweat-free, odorless, and hairless (unless we’re talking about facial hair, which we’ll cover in a later post as promised).
Take this screen shot of Ryan Gosling from Crazy, Stupid, Love:
Behold the washboard abs and completely hairless chest, the calling card of the sanitized ideal. And while those sanitized features are subtler than Gosling’s swollen pectorals, they have an insidious effect on how men perceive themselves in sexual situations, potentially triggering insecurity when faced with, say, their own active sweat glands and nipple hair.
Men who are uncomfortable with the real aspects of their bodies may experience shame in sexual situations when these parts of their bodies are revealed. Fearing negative evaluation, these men may withdraw emotionally from the situation, finding it especially difficult to communicate their needs and interests to their partner.
Granted, Schooler’s research on media consumption and male body image didn’t take into account sexuality, which she pointed out as a caveat for interpreting the study results. And certainly, we can’t extrapolate the responses of 18- to 24-year-old white, self-identified heterosexual college males as the standard for identifying men everywhere (note: I’ll be discussing ethnicity and body image in more depth in later posts).
But at the same time, the muscularity ideal has become a common thread among health psychology studies among gay male populations as well. For instance, just as Schooler’s media image examination found a correlation between male-targeted media and the portrayal of a muscular ideal, so did a recent content analysis of 1,578 pictures of men from the Advocate and Out magazines from 1967 to 2008. The only difference among the male models and celebrities portrayed in the collection of magazines were that those in gay publications featured thinner waists while maintaining the overtly muscular build.
Considering how recent body acceptance movements among female-oriented media and brands have emphasized greater appreciation for a diversity of shapes and sizes, I’d venture that the male body ideal is far more static. Perhaps the question, then, boils down to pursuit. Just because the average young man might wish for an extra 28 pounds in muscle weight, does that translate to diet and exercise regimens? Or, like "sanitized male ideal," does it settle more subliminally into the self esteem?
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