Talk to a group of teen boys, and they’ll probably tell you that, sure, they’d like to have the swoon-inducing sex appeal of Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner, or whomever is playing the newest iteration of the Degrassi High heartthrob. But do they want to look like them, immaculately styled and toned to the max? No way, bro.
A new study just came out in the journal Men and Masculinities that offers an interesting twist on gender differences in body image perception, management and communication. Based on a small sample of 32 13- to 15-year-old Canadian boys, the results indicate that adolescent males indeed internalize the body image-related media messages of muscularity, just as adolescent females pay close attention to the thinness ideal. But they aren’t necessarily in pursuit of physical perfection. Boys want to look good, but not too good. Why? Because that would mean that they care about their appearance—a feminine stereotype.
Study author and University of Manitoba professor Moss Norman describes this body image balancing act as the “double-bind of masculinity” that demands a nonchalant cultivation of one’s appearance. He explained:
In many cases, boys who took part in our study were staunchly critical of idealized male images. They found it problematic, feminine or vain to be overly concerned with appearances. Sculpted bodies were seen as unnatural, the product of steroids or zealous weight-lifting.
At the same time, Norman explained to the Montreal Gazette:
What I was seeing is that (the boys) were actually worried and anxious about their bodies, but they were just using these masculine-appropriate ways of talking about their bodies. Whereas a lot of research has found that, with girls and women, fat talk is normal in their discourse, to talk about dieting or worry about the sizes of certain parts of their body.
It isn’t surprising in the least that this small group of boys doesn’t strive to look like “The Situation” from Jersey Shore. He’s a caricatured pop culture product who might be more sexually active that the average Joe, but he isn’t a mainstream sex symbol by any stretch. We stare at his washboard abs for the same reason we couldn’t help but look at the post-plastic surgery images of a Barbie-like Heidi Montag. The extremity is as visually attractive as it is off-putting.
Really, the inherent message in the study wasn’t that teen boys prefer average builds to UFC fighter physiques, but the emphasis on normalcy. The participating boys didn’t wish to deviate from the norms of masculinity. By that token, though, this might mean that the safest way to preserve one’s masculinity in the adolescent male world is to strive for no more than average and chalk anything more up to luck.
And while it may seem counterintuitive, boys exert plenty of energy maintaining laissez faire normalcy, and manufacturers are selling them more and more products to do that—especially grooming products. Reporting on the appeal of Axe products to 10- to 14-year-old boys, The New York Times noted:
Many psychologists, parents, market researchers and middle-school principals (with drawers full of confiscated spray cans), report a sharp surge in the last few years of the use of grooming products by tween boys. In a December 2007 report on teenage and tween grooming products, Packaged Facts, a market research firm, projected that worldwide retail sales for boys ages 8 to 19 would be almost $1.9 billion.
Cloistered in the private confines of the bathroom, boys can douse themselves in body spray, scrub down with “For Him” exfoliators and deep condition their Bieber-worthy coifs—and emerge looking as “average” as before.