Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Male Body and its Image

A new article for PULSE magazine

The intense interest in the physiology and sociology of men’s bodies is something quite recent. Until the 1980’s any discussion about ‘Body Image’ would almost exclusively refer to women. Historically, the female body is reproduced frequently in drawing, sculpture, cinema and advertising while in most novels the description of female body -in contrast to the male body- tends to be detailed and particular. During the last twenty years, however, and as a result of the greater exposition of the male body by the mass media and the fashion industry, this situation has started to change: our gaze is gradually turning to the male body.

The recent preoccupation of art, fashion, and mass media with the male body forces men to became more aware of their physical appearance, as well as of the feelings and thoughts connected to it. It is not a coincidence that social scientists have observed a worrying increase in certain types of food disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, conditions that are believed to be directly related to the image adolescents and young men have about their bodies. It is worth noting that until recently, that sort of disorders were almost exclusively linked to women.

In their responses to psychology questionnaires, distributed at major British Universities, male students admit of thinking about their body image on a daily basis. In case they are not happy with what they see in the mirror, they spend a lot of time planning how they are going to improve their appearance through smart clothing, sports, the right choice of food, or working out in the gym. Young men also admit that they often have feelings of admiration, as well as envy for fellow students who happen to be well-built or who look fit, because they believe that those men are more popular in their student group.

Moreover, the most important finding of this kind of research is students’ own acknowledgement that the way they feel and think about their body, influences to a large degree their bond with their lovers, their overall performance during sex, and even the very possibility of enjoying the sexual act. It is worth stressing that on this issue, the answers given were very similar by both heterosexual and gay participants.

An important outcome of the research is that for young male British students, being thin and fit has become a a status symbol, a mark of social success. Participants believe that having a flat stomach is one of the hardest things to achieve in our days, certainly more difficult than acquiring a fancy laptop or a cool smart-phone. A flat stomach proves to others not just that you are strong, but also that you are ‘in control’, and as a consequence ensures the approval of other men and the interest of prospective partners.

Many students -both gay and heterosexual- assert that they avoid having sex or simply flirting with new partners before they can get rid of their extra weight, or that feelings of embarrassment and anxiety about their body image do not really allow them to enjoy sex. Finally, they believe that the more attractive their partner, the lower their own sexual performance, as well as the possibility to satisfy the other person.

It would certainly be interesting to conduct a similar research on men that are over twenty five years of age, or even better, on middle aged men. I am under the impression that -although time is not their friend- older men are more self-assured and confident about both their appearance and their sexual performance. This might be due to the fact that they are not as easily influenced by the fashion icons that are currently promoted by pop-culture and the advertising industries - but most importantly because they have a stable image of who they are, and what they want to achieve in life -and that image does not seem to alter dramatically with a few ups and downs in body weight!


Michael C. said...

Great article, and I appreciate the concerns you raise, but so many people are obese and unhealthy there must be positive benefits to being conscious of physical appearance. Acceptance is the cry of our times, but perhaps it takes a little external pressure to change ones diet and exercise, which in my view is not all bad.

Eva Stamou said...

Hello Michael, I would definitely agree that it is important to feel at ease in your self and to maintain a fit body when this is not done at the expense of one's physical or psychological health. Social pressure is always there whether we like or not and a mature approach is not to ignore social reality but to base our decisions on our personal needs, relative to our age and body shape.

Michael C. said...

You are probably right here is an unhealthy focus on looks, but imho the social epidemic is obesity, poor nutrition and unhealthy diet. I suspect the "accept yourself" perspective contributes to the problem.