Isn't He Lovely: The Cult of Muscularity

Cristen Conger
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Mike "the Situation" Sorrentino on the red carpetEarlier 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:

ryan gosling shirtless screen shot from the movie "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.

Schooler writes:

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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19 Comments Have Been Posted

Weight Is over talked about

People worry about their weight 24/7.If you just walked everyday and watch what you eat you will be fine.I have always walked atleast 1 miles every other day.

Thanks Casey Mahoney

Casey Mahoney missed the

Casey Mahoney missed the point.

Spoken like someone who has

Spoken like someone who has never battled with weight, body image, or identity issues. It may shock the world to learn that diet and exercise don't always translate to a media/society-approved body. There are dozens of blogs that chronicle the horror stories of mental, emotional, and psychological abuse afflicted by medical practitioners on people who appear larger than we'd like, stories that usually entail the doctor ignoring the patient to focus on the patient's apparent weight problems. Surprise surprise, many of these bloggers report a healthy diet and consistent exercise.

So yes, if you walk every day and watch what you eat, you will likely improve your overall health. But you will not be guaranteed a body that matches the images that inundate us on such a vast scale as they currently do. You will not be guaranteed a body that others will accept as 'healthy' or 'fit,' even if you can walk 10 miles a day without getting out of breath. And you will not necessarily be immune to the psychological complexes that can sometimes follow.

Save your holier than thou self-righteousness. If you have a problem with people talking about weight, why not try to understand the issue before dismissing it as if it weren't worth discussing?

Sorry if I fed a troll, but they need to eat, too.

You Probably Have My Body Type

Hi, I'm a skinny chick who can "walk every day" and be constantly praised for her level of "fitness." (If I *am* praised for my level of fitness, I use that opportunity to discuss how wrong they are about that and how silly it is to make assumptions about my fitness level due to my size. I know 200lb chicks that run circles around me.) Moral of the story: people are all different sizes. Often, people's bodies decide *for* them (as mine has), and their physical appearance regularly defies theories about eating and exercise on a daily basis - and walking or not walking hasn't sh** to do with it. These assumptions are so outdated... why do people still say things like that??

It seems people's bodies

It seems people's bodies decide if they're going to be lying landwhales with bodies that break the laws of physics.

the whole hairless undefined

the whole hairless undefined pre-pubescent female genitalia look just simply creeps me out...sorry just being honest- to me a healthy male/female would seek not a stylized child image but a real woman- public hair and all, tamed perhaps but still there..

It makes sense that men who

It makes sense that men who have grown up seeing only hairless vulvas would believe that it's normal, and that an untrimmed/unshaved/unwaxed vulva is abnormal. That doesn't make them 'unhealthy'; it means they've been exposed to a sanitized version of vulvas for a prolonged period of time. Go ahead and criticize the portrayal of female genitals in the media, but that doesn't mean that every man who prefers the look/feel of it is a paedophile, as you imply.

Lady boys

Personally, I'm 6'6", 390lbs, mildly hairy, beergut, and covered in tattoos and have 100x the confidence of most of these chiseled little lady boys.

Lady Boys Missed the Point

And calling men who struggle with their body image "lady boys" just exacerbates the problem. Yes, trolls need to eat, too, especially trolls who make self-righteous, homophobic remarks.

Hells Bells, Can I get some Moderation?

Using "Lady" as a dis on a feminist website, are you lost fella?

One night, my brother asked

One night, my brother asked me to look up an actress that was about to be on a night time program. I looked her up and lo and behold, she was a skinny, big breasted, and attractive woman. My brother admitted that the woman's appearance "wasn't fair" to other women. I agreed, but my brother said that in reality, he only wanted an average looking girl and that was all. I then asked him, "do guys feel bad about their appearances?" to which he replied "Yes, absolutely" and went on to say that he has felt bad about not looking like the guys in the movie 300, which I think started the recent muscle trend. I myself don't find muscley men attractive and hope that guys everywhere come to accept themselves like many women have.

The whole 'sanitized ideal'

The whole 'sanitized ideal' concept is a really good point. For some reason it is becoming less and comfortable, at least in the mainstream, to gaze upon someone who acknowledges their own human-Ness. Hair, sweat, calluses, blemishes, dirt, whatever, are inevitable -no matter how much we try to pretend they're not. It's funny that being in denial about the reality of our own bodies is sexy. It is easier that way to perceive ourselves and others more as objects than as whole people. We objectify and simplify ourselves. But it only makes sense in a culture where sex is a commodity! Very strange....

I agree with you

People worry about there image 24/7 and spend thousands to look good.People freak out over the smallest things.People need to enjoy life and not worry about if they have a pimple or not.

Thanks Casey Mahoney

Yeah, because it's all their

Yeah, because it's all their own fault for not seeing more variation in the "acceptable" body type, or at the very least something even resembling the average human being. Honestly.

I'm sorry, but it won't go away by trying to "enjoy life" as long as the cause of the problem remains unaddressed.

This actually poses an

This actually poses an interesting dilemma, like some of the comments above illustrates. On the one hand, dudes are increasingly suffering from poor body images, with less being done about it, one the other, they have less outlets for it, as any complaints/venting/honesty in the matter is perceived as girly and emasculating. It's unfortunate and troublesome.

Men, of course, do a much policing in these matters as women. Just look at how much your mainstream guy HATES whatshisface from Twilight. Teenage girls adore him, but dudes spew hatred all over, mainly because he's skinny and not super-toned (the 'gay as insult for daring to break gender expectations, no matter how little' has never been so prevalent.)

I think it's also important to note that personal preference has very little relevance here. Just as it's not changing female body image issues in general when some straight guy says "but "I" prefer women with smaller breasts and bit of hips" (unless you're a woman and have a raging crush on that particular guy), it doesn't matter than I, or other women, find tons of toned muscles off-putting. It's what the media approves of, what the mainstream deems worthy of being displayed, desired and admired (and what isn't) that's problematic. People are just pissing in the huge ocean of media pressure.

I have SO witnessed this in

I have SO witnessed this in practice. Anecdote: I once dated a two-metre-tall with the body and looks of a Greek god and he *still* was pitifully self-conscious, even when he matched pretty much all the criteria that men have to meet to be deemed "hot". He's not the only I know, either, but his way-above-average good looks just made him a more startling example of how it's all in the head.

And how it gets there is the real issue. I imagine it's even worse in countries where people don't routinely see each other (= normal people) naked, if at all: it's easy have one's perceptions of what is normal and acceptable if there is only one outlet and that outlet is as far removed from normal people's lives as the Entertainment Industrial Complex.

missing words...

Should be: "a two-metre-tall GUY", "it's easy TO have one's perceptions of what is normal and acceptable SKEWED if". Sorry.

annamatopoetry - Great

annamatopoetry - Great comment and I completely agree.

Do you think there is any jealousy involved with guys hating whats-his-face from Twilight? Is it the same as women secretely feeling threated by a pretty actress that men fawn all over?

check your tough guys at the door

this makes me think of the 1999 film "Tough Guise"
it was shown as part of freshman orientation at SmallLiberalArts School

i believe they cited research documenting an increase in both bicep and bust of GI Joe and Barbie (respectively)

as a more-hairy-than-average man i do feel a lot of shame and frustration despite lots of thinking/knowing better
when i was in middle school i remember a very strong impulse to shave my legs but the reciprical pressure that 'only girls do that' kept me anxiously inactive.
later 'manscaping' became a word and i learned more about what i 'was allowed' to do or try
(to varying degrees of success/discomfort)

it is a confusing line to walk and i am very glad to see it interrogated in this public space

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