A Man's Drive for Muscularity and His Views about Women

The surprising ways that a man's body image reflects his attitudes toward women

Posted May 07, 2013

The ideal of the perfect physique molds the attitudes that many of us have toward our own bodies. Without consciously realizing it, your inner beliefs about your body’s appearance, known as your body image, are a vital part of your overall identity. Although many people are comfortable in their own skin and accept their bodies without shame or disappointment, the experience of body image dissatisfaction is highly prevalent.  As many as 29% of college students are preoccupied with concerns about their body image, and 14% meet the diagnostic criteria for the psychological condition known as body dysmorphic disorder. 

People express the inner anguish that they feel about their outer selves in many different ways.  Some engage in a punishing combination of diet and exercise. Others simply despair of being able to change their body’s shape and instead succumb to feelings that can lead them to disordered eating habits.  The experience of body image dissatisfaction can have many unfortunate consequences on an individual’s mental and physical health.  Those who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder have a rate of completed suicides that is 45 times that of the general population (Phillips et al., 2005).  

Body image dissatisfaction in men and women comes from many sources, but perhaps the greatest influences are cultural forces that define male and female images of beauty. Throughout history and across societies,body image ideals have vacillated greatly. However, the current standards in many cultures seem to be placing more emphasis than ever on the importance of fitting into the mold of the "perfect" form. Walk by any newsstand and it’s almost impossible not to notice the highly stylized portrayals of the male and female body, ranging from that of the muscle-bound body builder to the lithe and lanky swimsuit model. Yearly contests to decide on the most beautiful people in the world consistently reward adherence to these ideal body types for men and women. Photoshop's ability to create virtually perfect newsstand images only accentuates the striving to meet these ideals in the unsuspecting public.

We typically associate body image issues with women. However, men too can suffer from perceived deficiencies in the way that they see their appearance. Women with body image issues are more likely to see themselves as too heavy, focusing particularly on their hips and thighs. For men, the problem is exactly the opposite, as men with body image dissatisfaction are more likely that they see themselves as the proverbial “98 pound weakling.”

The greater likelihood that women are the target of objectification (being treated as sex objects) in a male-dominated society is seen by many scholars as the cause of women’s greater body image dissatisfaction. However, women aren’t the only victims of sexist views about beauty. Beliefs in male dominance can lead men to feel that their bodies don’t make the grade. After all, if men are supposed to be physically powerful figures according to a world view that sees men as dominant, then those men who aren’t will question their own body images. Ironically, then, the men who ascribe to the most sexist views about women can become those who feel the least secure about their own bodies.

In a 2013 article in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, British psychologist Viren Swami teamed up with University of Vienna psychologist Martin Voracek to examine the connections among masculinity and sexism with the desire to have a more muscular physique. Sampling a group of 327 adult British men self-described as slightly overweight, Swami and Voracek administered questionnaires to assess the drive for muscularity and several measures of attitudes toward women. The Drive for Muscularity scale tapped the extent to which participants felt that their bodies were not muscular enough with items to rate such as “I wish that I were more muscular,” “I feel guilty if I miss a weight training session,” “I think that I would look better if I gained 10 pounds or more,” and “I think that my chest is not muscular enough.” The attitudes toward women scale included measures of ambivalent sexism (treating women as in need of men’s protection), overt hostility toward women (e.g. “I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them”), attitudes toward women (e.g. “Intoxication among women is worse than intoxication among men”), and objectification of women (valuing their appearance more than their competence).

As they predicted, Swami and Voracek observed that men harboring more negative attitudes toward women and a greater tendency to objectify them also scored higher on dissatisfaction with their own bodies and a desire to be more muscular. The findings held even when the researchers controlled for the age of the men and the extent to which they were overweight. This study, then, was the first to show that men’s negative body images actually correlated with the extent to which they subscribed to the views that men are, and should be, dominant. In addition, the men most likely to feel that they weren’t husky enough also were more likely to view women as sex objects. We knew that objectifying women is bad for women, but it appears that these attitudes are also bad for the self-esteem of the men who hold these attitudes.

This, of course, is a correlational study, so we don’t know whether the men inclined toward negative views of women got this way by feeling that they are inadequate. It’s possible that then men who feel the least satisfied with their bodies turn their self-deprecatory feelings onto women. However, the authors believe that men come to arrive at the need to bulk up as well as the view that women are the inferior sex by identifying with the cultural view that men are, and should be, dominant.

It’s an interesting theory, but with the usual proviso that more research is needed, it seems clear that the men with the most negative body images are victims of the same prevailing attitudes that cause women to feel, and be treated as, inferior.

The upshot of this study is that you can learn to be more of accepting your own body for what it is, regardless of its shape, size, or strength, once you start to question society’s expectations for males and females. The next time you find yourself looking critically at yourself in the mirror, it’s worth asking yourself whether your dissatisfaction comes from the way your definition of the perfect body type comes from the social roles into which we feel we should fit. As long as you’re eating and exercising in ways that maximize your health, all that should matter is how your body feels, not how it looks either to others or -more importantly- yourself.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

References:

Phillips, K. A., Menard, W., Fay, C., & Pagano, M. E. (2005). Psychosocial functioning and quality of life in body dysmorphic disorder. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 46(4), 254-260.

Swami, V., & Voracek, M. (2013). Associations among men's sexist attitudes, objectification of women, and their own drive for muscularity. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(2), 168-174. doi:10.1037/a0028437