Male body ideals have been historically neglected in favor of female body ideals. Male body ideals have their origins in the sculpture and artwork of Greek and Renaissance artists. In addition to classical influences, modern media has added a new dimension to these influences. Football uniforms and superhero physiques have projected increasingly unrealistic musculature since the 1960s. The empirical evidence suggests that the increasing muscularity relative to body fat presented by media sources has had a direct effect on what is considered the ideal male body in the United States.
Keywords: Male Body Ideal, United States
Body ideal can be understood as a body type that is considered the most suitable and attractive for a person in relation to one’s age, gender, build, and culture. While people tend to automatically associate body-ideal issues with women, it is important to pay more attention to body-ideal issues experienced by both men and young boys. Thankfully, throughout the twentieth century, a lot more attention was brought to this area. The primary catalyst for body-ideal issues experienced by both men and women is the growing ubiquitous nature of media in the modern world.
Male Body Ideal Throughout History
The origins of what has been understood as the ideal male body in the modern United States can be traced back to Ancient Greece as well as the Renaissance. (Varanese, 2013) Much in the same way that modern body ideals have their roots in pre-modern societies, the Greek Hellenistic period (323 – 31 BC) and Renaissance era (1300 – 1600 AD) sculpture, particularly the statue of David, has driven what has been considered the ideal male body, which is lean and muscular. Historically, men have experienced more stigma than women because men have been expected to be large and meet the ideals of what is considered “hegemonic” masculinity, which was conceptualized in Connell’s gender order theory as a practice that legitimizes powerful men’s dominant position in society and thus justifies the subordination of the common male population, as well as women (Connell, 2005). Varanese (2013) further purports that a man failing to meet these societal expectations leads to a gaping separation between virtual and actual social identities, which can cause an internalized stigma. (p. 2)
Male Body Ideals in the Twentieth Century
Two of the major influences on male body ideals throughout the twentieth century may potentially be football uniforms and superhero physiques (Jirousek, 1996) Football uniforms have displayed increasingly muscular physiques since the inception of the Ivy League during the 1870s. When the Ivy League was first created, very little protective gear was worn. However, by the 1920s when the National Football League (NFL) was created the use of protective gear, most importantly large shoulder pads, began to create unrealistic muscular proportions. At the same time, the bulky leg pads that were worn by football players created the appearance of legs and hips that were larger than the upper body. Even the most muscular men of that period often resembled the early Greek ideals, which were lean, smooth, and muscular with a naturally attainable muscular development. At the same time, superhero physiques, notably Superman and Batman, started to mimic the muscular build that is falsely presented by football uniforms (Jirousek, 1996). Therefore, it can be said that generations of men have imbibed these unrealistic standards.
Buchanan (2016) noted in Daily Star how drastic the body ideals have changed with each decade of the 20th century. Before the 1930s, it was considered ideal to be overweight in the United States to the relative inaccessibility of food. (Buchanan, 2016) However, after the 1930s, body ideals have been increasingly influenced by media. (Buchanan, 2016) Sociocultural theories of body ideals have also suggested that body dissatisfaction may result from unrealistic societal beauty ideals that can be transmitted through mass media. (Hargreaves and Tiggemann) Buchanan further observed that Hollywood brought new body expectations for men during its Golden Age (late 1920s to the early 1960s) (Buchanan, 2016). Actors needed to be slimmer and fitter than previous generations because “the camera adds 10 pounds,” which was a common myth in Hollywood due to cameras affecting the perceived body morphology of actors. (Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000). Icons of the era like John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Gregory Peck had the toned, masculine physique (Buchanan, 2016)
The effect of media became even more obvious in the 1960s when men came to stylize themselves after rock stars such as Mick Jagger and Robert Plant and rebelled against previous ideals (Buchanan, 2016). This resulted in men with much slimmer physiques than in previous decades. (Buchanan, 2016)
The goal of this research is to determine how male body ideals changed in the United States since the 1960s and what effect media has had.
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Media Images of Men
According to Farquhar and Wasylkiw (2007), the focus of body image research throughout history has been focused on women. However, in the 1997 Psychology Today Body Image Survey, it was found that body dissatisfaction (among men?) had risen from 15% to 43% since 1972 (Garner, 1997). The fact that G.I. Joe’s arm circumference has risen from a naturally attainable size of 12.2 inches to an unnatural circumference of 26.8 inches has potentially increased levels of body dissatisfaction in men, which has led them to value themselves more for their physical attributes than for their instrumentality, as they have been valued in the past. (Farquhar & Wasylkiw, 2007). In addition to the trend seen with G.I. Joe dolls, a similar trend was seen with Playgirl centerfolds models who gained 27 pounds of muscle while losing 12 pounds of body fat between 1973 to 1997. This also corresponds with the abovementioned rise in body dissatisfaction between 1972 from 1997. (Leit et al., 2000)
By the trend seen with body dissatisfaction between these years, Farquhar and Wasylkiw (2007) conducted a study that utilized constructs previously conducted by Franzoi (1995). Franzoi (1995) conceptualized the terms physical beauty and instrumentation as “body-as-object” (which is the view that a body is primarily valued for its physical beauty) and “body-as-process,” (which is the view that a body is primarily valuable for its instrumentality) and the goal of Farquhar and Wasylkiw (2007) was to expand this research by including their constructs. They gathered and classified advertisements from a convenience sample of magazines in the United States as belonging to one of four time periods (1975–1979, 1984–1989,1992–1996, and 2000–2005). They found that instances of “Level of Activity,” (amount of physical activity portrayed) “Percentage of Nudity” (the amount of bare skin shown), and “Fragmentation (presentation of male body without the face)” in advertisements had all increased, while “Level of Ad Item Used” (how often the focus of the advertisement is the actual item advertised) had decreased. “Level of Activity,” “Percentage of Nudity,” and “Fragmentation” are associated with body-as-object, whereas “Level of Ad Item Used” is associated with body-as-process.
Social Comparison Process
Sohn (2009) operationally defined the body perceptual gap as the resultant score computed by subtracting the current BMI score from the ideal BMI score (p. 25). In addition to the influence of media on body ideals, there is also a perceptual gap that can be found among men. When men intentionally seek out images of men with more muscular physiques – in magazines such as Men’s Health – it can have an impact on their idea of what the ideal male body is when compared to men who passively consume media. As stated by Sohn (2009), among the male participants, a social comparison that involves television characters diminishes their body perceptual gap, whereas social comparison, – as seen with men that specifically seek out muscle magazines – actually enlarges the body perceptual gap, among men (p. 31) If consumers passively consume media such as television shows, there is less of an impact than for those that actively seek to compare themselves to other men. (Sohn, 2009).
As a means of empirically assessing this construct, Chaudhuri and Buck (1995) developed the Affect, Reason, and Involvement (ARI) Model, which contains specific affect-oriented keywords such as sexy, proud, happy, confident, powerful, desirable, and secure were utilized to create a scale that measured affective and cognitive involvements as well as overall involvements in regards to body satisfaction and how it was affected by social comparison. (1995) Affect refers to syncretic cognition (combining of different elements), Reason refers to analytic cognition, and Involvement is calculated by the mean score of Affect plus Reason scores. Sohn’s (2009) study focused specifically on the Involvement aspect of the scale and found that there was a significant negative correlation between ARI involvement and body satisfaction. This indicates that the perceptual gap for men can increase when they specifically focused on such termed “muscle magazines” as Men’s Health.
Idealized Media Images and Adolescent Body Ideals
Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2004) conducted research that examined the effect of exposure to images of idealized bodies in the media on adolescent girls’ and boys’ body image. A study was conducted to test if viewing thin/muscular-ideal commercials would potentially lead to more body dissatisfaction than viewing commercials not focusing on appearance. It was found that exposure to idealized male body images in advertisements led to greater body dissatisfaction for girls but not boys. Idealized body images in media lead to greater negative mood and body image comparison for both girls and boys. However, the effect on appearance comparison was stronger for girls. (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004. While this can be somewhat disheartening when considering the validity of the previous results that did indicate significant results, they further noted that this finding was also in contrast to some previous studies that did find a negative impact of muscular-ideal magazine images on college-aged men. They further stated that there is a possibility that the effects of comparison for males may not occur until late adolescence, which could explain such contradictory results. This highlights the importance of determining such factors so that the negative effects of media could potentially be mollified in the future. (p. 358) This is of particular importance in the case of how body ideals have changed since the 1960s as it has been shown that idealized images have had a significant effect on body ideal perception of men.
The ideal male body has changed significantly since the 1960s. While at the period in time, the male body ideal was relatively healthy, the increased amount of musculature and reduction in body fat has created a male body ideal that is increasingly unhealthy. While male body ideals have their origins in the Greek ideals of lean and muscular, the advent of various forms of media, particularly sports and superheroes, has modified the concept of what lean and muscular truly are. The current male body ideal projected through media holds a standard of musculature and body fat percentage that is at best unrealistic, and at worst dangerous and outright unattainable, leaving both men and boys striving for an ideal that can never be achieved.
The most important fact that can be determined from these findings is that more attention must be given to male body ideals in the future. While the changes in male body ideals since the 1960s can be summarized as increasingly unrealistic in the amount of musculature relative to the amount of fat, what needs more attention is how definitive the effect that media has on determining what the male body ideal is overall, because the empirical evidence suggests that media may have a direct effect on what is considered the ideal body image is.
One beneficial study may be to empirically examine what male body ideals have been projected by the media in each decade (the 1930s – 2010s) in the United States to determine the effect that celebrities can have on shaping what is considered the ideal male body. There may be a third variable that is not accounted for such as nutrition or culture overall. It could also help media purveyors be more cognizant of the effect of media on body ideals.
Another study may compare what is promoted as the ideal male body in the United States to the ideal body image in other countries as a means of potentially enforcing practices that could project a more realistic male body ideal. Countries with fewer media exposure will likely hold more realistic standards. This could also help determine if media exposure is deleterious to male body ideals overall.
Another potentially beneficial study could be one involving young men and adolescent boys of different ages. This could help to determine the age at which social comparison for males normally begins and at what age it is most prevalent. This could potentially help in developing intervention programs to prevent the negative effects of media exposure on body ideals.
Lastly, there are certainly boys and men who desire to have smaller bodies and suffer from eating disorders, notably men involved in athletic pursuits that require them to monitor and control their weight such as gymnastics, swimming, dancing, jockeying, wrestling, rowing, running, and bodybuilding. (Eating Disorders in Men: Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatment, n.d.) It would be good to conduct additional studies on this often overlooked minority to develop a more robust understanding of male body ideals, which could eventually lead to therapies and interventions that can be more malleable and adaptive to all men.
Understanding the history of male body image and how it is affected by media is essential to promoting healthier body image standards than what is currently presented through media. While the projecting of male body ideals in media is not inherently bad, it can be dangerous when not tempered by a genuine understanding of human psychology and biology, because it can create unrealistic standards that can’t be achieved or maintained healthily. Instead of using unrealistic male body ideals as a marketing tool based on the inculcation of insecurity, it may be good to combat such practices and allow men to feel secure in their natural bodies. The ideal male body must be healthy than the aesthetic.
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Buchanan, S. (2016, February 12). Do YOU have the ‘perfect’ figure? How men’s ideal body has changed over last 150 years. Retrieved from https://www.dailystar.co.uk/fashion-beauty/494167/Perfect-male-body-type-ideal-man-figure-changed-history-150-years
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Eating Disorders in Men: Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/eating-disorders-men
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