The Ideal Fit Masculine Body
Research shows that not all men exercise to build a muscular body
Posted January 9, 2017
It is well established that many women exercise to improve their appearance. Do exercising men also worry about how they look? Some research reveals that men workout in order to have a well-functioning sporting or working body. Some men, as Hervik and Fasting (2016) note, think that attractiveness is a feminine concern, and not an appropriate goal for men’s fitness. Nevertheless, such magazines as Men’s Health that regularly include features related to men’s appearance have steadily increased their monthly distribution (Lawrence, 2016). Many researchers have become interested the type of exercising body these magazines portray. Do men now think differently about the reasons they exercise because of these images?
As research has shown, the fit male body portrayed in Men’s Health is a body with low body fat, muscular upper body, and cut abdominals (Labre, 2005a; Lawrence, 2016; Ricciadelli, Clow & White, 2010). Lawrence (2016) adds that the mostly white models shown in Men’s Health have hairless upper bodies, heads full of hair, and pronounced cheekbones and jaws. Instead of fitness or physical performance, the magazine focuses on helping men build this type of body (Labre, 2005a; Lawrence, 2016; Ricciadelli, Clow & White, 2010). Using such commands as ‘Lose your gut!,’ the magazine direct the readers to aspire to the ideal body shape (Lawrence, 2016).
These types of magazines, then, do not differ much from the women’s fitness magazines that emphasize building a better-looking body with exercise. The ideal fit male body shape, nevertheless, is different from the ideal fit feminine body. If women are to tone their bodies, men are to strive for visible, yet not hyper muscular bodies. If women are to focus on their lower bodies (hips, thighs, and legs with toned abdominals), men are to build their upper bodies with a visible ‘six-pack’ of abdominals. While both fit bodies are extremely thin, the male body ideal is also associated with other positive qualities. Alexander (2003) indicates that depictions of the ideal muscular male body are combined with financial success. Ricciadelli, Clow, and White (2010) add that while the models “often appeared as attracting the attention and interest of women,” they were also depicted “in a position of power and control” as men who “were at the top of the hierarchy” (p. 76). The promise, thus, is that by achieving the right look, the reader will also gain economic success.
Labre (2005a) notes that the images of the lean and muscular male body can have a positive effect: They can promote weight control through exercise and diet in these times of increasing obesity rates. She adds, however, that the ideal is “extremely low in body fat” and as such “not the result from following a balanced diet and moderate exercise” (p. 198).
Like the ideal fit feminine body, the ideal fit masculine body featured in the Men’s Health is quite unrealistic. Lawrence (2016) argues that even the models themselves cannot live up to the required beauty standard. When presented as “stone-like sculptures,” “it is beyond anyone to live as a motion-less figure, frozen in time, manipulated continually by a number of professional-standard photographic lighting aids, digital technologies and beauticians” (p. 789). Lawrence adds, however, that the magazine is careful to point out that building such a physique is a matter of disciplined work and as such, possible for any man. The exercise and diet programs that should be “a choice, not a chore” (p. 791), nevertheless, require both mental and physical strength. But if an individual reader takes responsibility for his bodily transformation, this ‘self-regulation’ will be rewarded “with a sense of stability and superiority, in the midst of uncertainty” (p. 791).
Although presented in a positive light, building the fit look requires a strict fitness and nutrition regimen designed for the pursuit of an “extreme appearance related goal” (Labre, 2005a, p. 198). Labre (2005a) suspects that this exercise practice “could lead to body image preoccupation as well as disordered eating behaviors, the use of steroids and performance-enhancing supplements, over exercising, cosmetic surgery, and other related behaviors among men” (p. 198).
We know that women who are exposed to images of the thin and toned fit bodies experience body image dissatisfaction (Arbour & Ginis, 2006). Researchers now reveal that exposure to muscular media images increases body dissatisfaction among, particularly young, men (e.g., Arbour & Ginis, 2006). Arbour and Ginis (2006) discovered that college age males experienced greater body dissatisfaction when exposed to muscular and fit images similar to those in Men’s Health rather than to hyper-muscular images such as bodybuilders’ bodies.
Although men can be more dissatisfied with their bodies when comparing them to the ideal image, when asked about the importance of actually building an ideal body, their reactions differ.
College age men interviewed by Labre (2005b) preferred a lean and moderately muscular body shape and engage in behavior to attain it. They did not, however, believe that actually obtaining the ideal is a very important goal. A group of older Norwegian men (aged 40- 90 years) interviewed by Hervik and Fasting (2016) held a similar opinion.
These Norwegian men found it easier to talk about their bodies as functional and healthy bodies. The functional body performed physical activities or negotiated everyday life effortlessly. The younger participants in this Norwegian study tended to emphasize an ability to do sports, but as men aged, their ability to perform everyday tasks became more important. Many men also said that they exercised to avoid pain and other health problems. They believed that weight loss, particularly from the abdominal area, was important for these reasons. When asked about bodily appearance, however, men seemed to be less definite. While several men were conscious and somewhat concerned with the ways their bodies look, most felt that appearance was not an issue for them. For example, Bjorn (in his 40s), although wanting to lose weight, outright denied any connection to appearance: “I think I’m too fat…That’s not based on, like a body ideal. I am too old to have such ideals” (p. 807). Magnus, also in his 40s, had “not given much consideration” to his appearance and while, like Bjorn, wanted to lose weight, felt that “it is not so important…I after all don’t do anything about it” (p. 811). Andrei, in his late 40s, pointed out some bodily flaws, but believed that overall his body was in an acceptable shape: “I know it [his ‘tummy’] is unnecessarily big. At the same time, I know that I’m not actually fat in other places…No, otherwise, I think I’m actually a splendid guy (laughter)” (p. 812). The researchers concluded that these men, while diverse in age and background, did care about their bodies, but were not concerned about their appearance.
While some men, obviously, are not worried about how they look, others are now more dissatisfied with their bodies because even ‘an average’ man, who is neither a bodybuilder nor an athlete, is to work toward the ideal muscular look (Labre, 2005a).
The National Eating Disorders Association indicates that eating disorders are a growing concern among men. For example, males have a lifetime prevalence of .3% for anorexia nervosa, .5% for bulimia, and 2% for binge eating disorder. This means that 10 million men in the United Sates suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. While such numbers are alarming, lifetime prevalence rates for eating disorders are still much higher among women: lifetime prevalence 0.9% for anorexia, 1.5% for bulimia, and 3.5% for binge eating disorder. This means that about 20 million women, twice as many as men, suffer from eating disorders. It is clear that women continue to be affected by the images of the feminine ideal more seriously than men. As noted in Hervik and Fasting’s (2016) study, many men still claim not being concerned by their body shapes, especially as the age. For women, this tends to be reversed: Women are advised actively to fight aging to retain their youthful looks. Thus, very few women can afford not to care for their appearance, even if the attempts are unsuccessful.
So if we know that exposure to the feminine ideal body is harmful for women, why promote men’s fitness with a similar premise? Fitness magazines exist in a commercial environment and need to make a profit to survive. Obviously, the strategy for selling fitness based on improved appearance appeals to consumers who continue to buy these magazines and hope to become more satisfied with their bodies. Ricciadelli, Clow, and White (2010) explain that the visibility of an ideal body shape in magazines increases the individual’s responsibility for his or her body shape and subsequently puts pressure on both women and men to improve their bodies. Thus, we continue to work toward the ideal body shape reinforced by the magazine images.
What is particularly interesting about the men’s approach to fitness is their emphasis on functionality for either everyday life or in sport. This could also be a noteworthy strategy for promoting women’s fitness in a healthier manner. Why could not women focus on moving well through their everyday lives or excelling in sport, fitness, or dance activities? Such a concern could emphasize individual exercise needs instead of building a narrowly defined, socially reinforced, impossible body shape. Functional bodies could make both men and women appreciate, instead of dislike, themselves as healthy, successful individuals.
Arbour, K. P., & Martin Ginis, K. A. (2006). Effects of exposure to muscular and hypermuscular media images on young men’s muscularity dissatisfaction and body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 3, 153-161.
Hervik, S. E., & Fasting, K. (2016). ‘It is passable, I suppose’ – Adult Norwegian men’s notions of their own bodies. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 5(7), 800-816.
Labre, M. P. (2005a). Burn Fat, Build Muscle: A Content Analysis of Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness. International Journal of Men’s Health, 4(2), 187-200.
Labre, M. P. (2005b). The male body ideal: perspectives of readers and non-readers of fitness magazines. Journal of Men’s Health and Gender, 2(2), 223-229.
Lawrence, S. (2016). Racialising the ‘great man’: A critical race study of idealized male athletic bodies in Men’s Health magazine. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 5(7), 777-799.
Ricciardelli, R., Clow, K. A., & White, P. (2010). Investigating hegemonic masculinity: Portrayals of masculinity in men’s lifestyle magazines. Sex Roles, 63, 64–78.