Male Body Image and Magazine Standards: Considering Dimensions of Age and Ethnicity

Article excerpt

This study contributes to two theory streams by examining magazine use among males, along dimensions of age and ethnicity. First, social comparison theory (SCT) is invoked to examine how males use magazine images to benchmark the "ideal" male. Second, a developing theory of magazines as standard bearers for "the ideal woman" is modified to suggest that magazines also set standards for "the ideal man." Findings of focus groups and interviews with two generations of males-Generation X and Baby Boomers (BBs)-posit that such images tend to fuel males' eventual ambivalence toward their body. Two significant patterns were identified among the data: (1) authority of magazine standards and (2) competition.

Male identity is morphing in profound ways in this era of changing gender norms,1 and body image plays a major role in self-esteem.2 The "ideal" male body concept reflects a socially-constructed equation of beauty and goodness,3 with consequences for those considered ugly and unworthy of happiness, success, and control that comes "naturally" to attractive males. For every ten-fifteen females diagnosed with an eating disorder twenty years ago, there was one male-but now that gap has closed significantly, with one male for every four females.4 Health professionals are less likely to properly diagnose symptoms in males.5 Also, males increasingly resort to excessive exercise, plastic surgery, and steroids.

Magazines reflect changing tastes and interests across U.S. society, but our research agenda has not kept pace with the growth in men's magazines or mirrored the same attention to women's magazines. Until the late 1980s, U.S. and U.K. publishers believed that men did not really identify with magazines.6 By the end of the 1990s, men's general interest magazines were among the fastest-growing consumer magazine markets. Today they are segmented according to lifestyles-with a common theme of "constructed certitude" affirming male identity throughout.7 Specifically, gaps exist in our understanding of magazines and body image with regard to age and ethnicity. Americans fear aging and it is prophesied that men's media-induced insecurities are "the next great big juicy market."8 Among males of color, the body also bears "the inscription of societally based inequalities" that hardly are "ideal."9

Two theories undergird the current study. Mass media impact the social construction of reality, with frequent exposure to mediated images cultivating our beliefs and expectations.10 Social comparison theory (SCT) helps to explain group uniformity pressures and feelings of uncertainty associated with comparing individual perceptions and behaviors with idealized, mediated standards"-especially among women.12 Also invoked here is a theory developing around how specific media (magazines) establish the "ideal" body image.13 We build upon SCT and a developing theory of magazines as standard bearers in order to examine males' "ideal" body image perceptions and magazine use along age and ethnicity dimensions.

Literature Review

Ideal Male Body Image and Standard Bearers. Body image is one's internal representation of her/his outer physical appearance.14 "Ideal" body image origins may lie in distinct biological functions,15 but forms such as "Adonis" or the eighteenth-century Greek revival classical male beauty have represented the ideal over time. Today, male celebrities tend to set the ideal standard.16 For most males, the ideal body and high self-esteem equate with potency, dominance, power, and contrast with the physically ugly who are considered deformed, powerless, and impotent.17

Body image research began around the 1970s, with a focus on women's desire for thinness18 and far less attention to how men experience body image.19 Men report that the ideal male body type is the triangular or V-shaped20 muscular mesomorph or the ecto-mesomorph, a man with a well-proportioned build-in sharp contrast to the thin, weak-looking ectomorph or the fat endomorph. …