Could the way men are portrayed in movies and other media make them feel bad about their bodies? A new study by psychologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says it’s not only possible, but likely.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Campus Rec Center, rock music pumps through the loud speakers as close to 20 guys pump iron. Some are using free weights, others machines. One watches his arms in a mirror as he lifts a dumb bell over his head again and again.
Research has shown working out and exercising are vital to a healthy life-style, but a new study by UNL’s psychology department shows a growing number of men are spending an unhealthy amount of time focusing on their bodies.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Cole
Brian Cole is a doctoral candidate in the psychology department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He co-authored a recent study which shows more males are feeling the effects of male objectification in the media, which could lead to body shame.
“Men are becoming more objectified, and men are starting to have very different values around what their body should look like, rather than how they feel or how they should function,” study co-author Brian Cole said.
Cole is a doctoral candidate at UNL. He said he got the idea for the study after he noticed a change in how media and pop culture are portraying masculinity—opting for what some call excessively muscular men to play leading roles in movies or adorn magazine covers.
For the study, Cole partnered with two UNL psychology professors and surveyed 277 male students, most of whom were white and heterosexual. The study asked participants about their own personal experiences of objectification, or how they perceive their body.
“So how much do they survey their body? How aware are they of how their body looks? What are the things they’re proud of? What are their trouble spots? And how much shame do they have about their body type?” Cole said as he explained some of the questions asked in the study.
The results showed on a scale of 1 to 5, the average body surveillance is 4.34, meaning the study participants were thinking about their bodies a significant amount of time. Also, the more a participant focused on their body, the more likely they were to feel bad about it.
Psychologist Sarah Gervais is one of the study’s co-authors. She said if you want to see an example of this male objectification, just go to a toy store.
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Study co-author Sarah Gervais is an assistant professor of psychology at UNL. She said what surprised her most about the study's findings is when men fixated on their body appearance, their level of hope in regards to social and romantic relationships also declined.
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Meghan Davidson is the third co-author of the study and an assistant professor of educational psychology. Davidson said she was surprised how many conclusions on female body shame issues are equally applicable to males. Davidson said examples of male objectification in the media and pop culture are prevalent almost everywhere.
“If you look at content analysis from the 70s, GI Joe still represents a pretty typical guy--still muscular and tough. But if you look at analysis from the 90s and the 2000s, you could not attain that [level of muscle development]. Men could not attain that. Not even if you were taking the most steroids and exercising eight hours a day, it’s just not possible,” Gervais said.
Gervais’ assessment is backed up by a study out of Harvard Medical School. That study showed if you were to extrapolate a G.I. Joe action figure into a life-sized man, G.I. Joe would have bigger biceps than any body builder in history.
Researchers have long known women experience body shame issues as a result of media and pop culture portrayals, but the UNL study is one of the first to focus on male experiences with body shame. Even with the gender differences, many of the same conclusions about women can apply to men as well.
For example, not only can fixating on your body lead to body shame, but it can also affect your relationships with other people.
“What we found was that for men that are very self-aware of their appearance, they experience more body shame and less hope. Specifically, for men that experience high level of body shame, they’re reporting they’re less hopeful about maintaining social friendships. More importantly, they’re very aware and less hopeful to engage in and maintain romantic relationships,” Cole explained.
While the authors of the UNL study say men focusing more on their bodies could have some negative outcomes, not everyone is so convinced it’s altogether bad.
Stuart Schweitz, a personal trainer in Kearney, said, “If you look good, you’re more apt to be healthier. Obviously if you’re healthier, that leads to a healthier you and a healthier country as well, so that’s a good thing.”
Schweitz is in the process of becoming a certified strength and conditioning specialist. He’s also a manager at Complete Nutrition, a store which sells vitamin and protein supplements.
He said in a country where two-thirds of the population is overweight, people focusing a little more on their bodies would actually benefit society as a whole.
Schweitz said men with too much visceral fat, or belly fat, can suffer from lower testosterone, higher cholesterol and have an increased risk for heart problems. He added if more men worked out, not only would they be better off physically, but perhaps financially as well.
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Stuart Schweitz is a personal trainer in Kearney and manager of Complete Nutrition. While Schweitz acknowledged fixating on your body has plenty of negative drawbacks, he asserted it's actually a good thing more men are taking notice of their bodies. Schweitz said if more men worked out at the gym and cared about their appearance, society could be better off. He said levels of obesity would decline, and the nation would spend less money on common health issues associated with an unhealthy population.
“Studies have shown this, people who work out three or more times a week, who look better and have a better body weight—they make more money, have better jobs, and live longer,” Schweitz said.
A study by Cleveland State University showed employees who exercise frequently earn 9% more on average than employees who do not work out.
But even Schweitz acknowledged there’s a negative side to constantly worrying about your body.
“When it comes to this obsession, this addiction, that can be very unhealthy like anything else because you’re constantly fixated on it, constantly worried about it,” Schweitz said.
So what is a man to do? On the one hand, if you think about your body too much, you might lose hope about your future and your relationships could suffer. On the other, if you disengage and don’t care about your body at all, a slew of health problems could be just around the corner.
Sarah Gervais noted it could be tricky finding that healthy balance.
“From a social-psychological perspective, it’s almost impossible not to think about your appearance. We know that appearance matters in terms of first impressions. Appearance predicts salary. Appearance predicts so many things in so many different realms,” Gervais said.
While it may be impossible for both men and women to not think about how they look, both Gervais and Cole said it’s important to recognize the difference between wanting to be healthy and feeling bad about yourself for not looking like what the media and pop culture say you should.
Because after all, there’s no airbrushing in real life.