If being a man means having body hair and sweating, why are the sexy guys in ads immune to both?

malemedia.jpg Credit: Dean Murray

In the movie Fight Club, the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) boards a bus and is confronted by an advertisement depicting a model’s perfectly muscled fantasy male body, sculpted by pathological obsession and posed as if natural. “Is that what a real man is supposed to look like?” he asks.

It’s a common question, though not always a conscious one. Modern life takes place amidst a never-ending barrage of flesh on screens, pages, and billboards. These images convey assumptions about what is desirable in our physical selves while dispensing with reality.

Because the media have been objectifying women for so long, researchers have had time to create a body of literature on the effects of these images on women. (In short, they make women feel worse about themselves, and often cause unhealthy behaviors.)

But over the past two decades, the gender gap in media objectification has closed. Every bit as unattainable as Barbie-doll proportions and the heroin chic look are the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, fat-free, and muscle-sheathed male physiques littering today’s media.

Researchers are beginning to pay attention to what these stimuli do to the male body image. Guys, it turns out, have body issues too. 

When it comes to the media and male bodies, size and shape aren’t the only issues. There’s also the so-called “real body”: hair, sweat, blemishes, smells—all the characteristics that are noticeably absent or can’t be fully conveyed in a picture or on a screen.

Twentieth-century communications guru George Gerbner said that what we see on TV and in magazines eventually becomes our standard of reality and desire; failing to meet it is perceived as deficiency. Characteristics like sweat and hair can be controlled on screen but never escaped in reality, so some men come to see these essential parts of their body as they might a rounded belly or unfirm bicep: as a gross, unfortunate flaw.

“Hair is supposed to be ugly, so men in ads have their body hair shaved off, or disappeared with Photoshop,” said Michael Rich, director of the Harvard Medical School’s Center on Media and Child Health. “Sweat is replaced with glisten from a spray bottle, and you can’t smell someone through a magazine.” 

This spring, San Francisco State University psychologist Deborah Schooler, who coined the term “real body” with her former advisor L. Monique Ward of the University of Michigan, published the first study to measure male real-body discomfort due to media consumption. They found not only that watching prime-time television and music videos appears to make men uncomfortable with themselves, but that such discomfort leads to sexual problems and risky behaviors. 

“People see the same images over and over and start to believe it’s a version of reality,” said Schooler. “If those bodies are real and that’s possible, but you can’t attain it, how can you not feel bad about your own body?”

For their study, which appeared in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, Schooler and Ward interviewed 179 undergraduate males at the University of Michigan, first asking how often each watched prime-time television and music videos, as well as how frequently they read fitness or sports magazines. Ward and Schooler also questioned the men about their sexual experiences and how they felt about their own physiques and their “real bodies.” 

Twentieth-century communications guru George Gerbner said that what we see on TV and in magazines eventually becomes our standard of reality and desire; failing to meet it is perceived as deficiency.

Looking at “real bodies” in addition to muscularity is a new approach for researchers, who have traditionally focused on muscularity or thinness.  Schooler and Ward used a measuring system co-developed by Ward just four years ago. It utilizes questions such as, “How comfortable are you with the quantity/thickness of your facial hair?” and “How comfortable are you with the smell of your own sweat?”

According to Schooler, she and Ward predicted that average guys would feel scrawny and inadequate in the face of pictures of sculpted, muscle-bound men. But this was, surprisingly, not the case. 

The students’ feelings about personal size and physique didn’t seem to be affected by media.

However, students who consumed more media than average, particularly music videos and prime-time TV, were uncomfortable with one aspect of their physique—their ‘real bodies’.

This discomfort correlated with the men being less likely to have healthy sexual relationships. 

“If all of a sudden you’re in an intimate situation and these aspects of your body are exposed, you have to deal with the fact that your body doesn’t meet the ideal,” said Schooler. “You’re concerned with how your partner is evaluating you, how you look and smell.” 

This discomfort appeared to increase the chances of guys to take sexual risks, such as engaging in unprotected sex. 

Schooler isn’t sure exactly how being grossed out by your back hair translates into unprotected sex. She hypothesizes that men, when ashamed, detach emotionally and mentally from sexual situations—they aren’t attentive to their partner’s needs or open with their own. She adds that they are more likely to be careless. Such behaviors have been observed in women who are uncomfortable with their bodies.

Depression could also play a role. 

According to University of North Dakota psychologist Ric Ferraro, a negative body image makes people unhappy, leading them to be alternatively less likely to speak up for themselves when pressured and more likely to take risks as a way of impressing others.

“They engage in behaviors in hopes of feeling better, and end up getting worse,” said Ferraro.

Whether “real-body” discomfort in men is truly new or something that’s only now being noticed is impossible to say, but sociologists and psychologists say that images of hairless, sweatless, pseudo-perfect men are more common than ever before.

Ideally, psychologists say, people should recognize that billboard bodies just aren’t real, and learn to be happy with their own appearance. That, of course, is easier said than done. 

Maybe an ad campaign would help.

Originally published September 15, 2006

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