Whose Body Is This? Society's Ideal Male Body.

Men today are facing a quandary regarding masculine identity. Society has put together an image of what you should and should not look like. How does one let society decide how they should look?

Men today are facing a quandary regarding masculine identity. This quandary hinges on Western Society's increasing objectification of the male body and its predominant cultural messages regarding masculine physique. Increasingly, depictions of the male body in cartoons, through action figures, and in the general media, have come to propagate and glorify images that emphasize physical appearance as a central criterion for assessing masculine worth. This situation is no different, some might argue, from the way women have faced longstanding societal pressures to aspire to unrealistic expectations of beauty.

What Makes A Man?

This is largely accurate; however what's strikingly dissimilar here is that men, unlike women, are inculcated in a system that equates maleness with stoicism. Men are subtly pressured to be increasingly concerned about body image yet, because of masculine societal constructs, they seek to deny or keep private the degree to which these insecurities erode their feelings of self-worth. The result is psychological framework of isolation, secrecy, competition, and shame.

Within Western society there exist powerful codes of conduct that enshroud and dictate accepted forms of masculine behavior. In his book Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Manhood, William Pollock refers to these stereotyped injunctions of male behavior as "Boy Code." Though the phrase itself undermines the cogency of the points it elucidates, the behavioral system "Boy Code" encapsulates is equally sensible, and equally real.

Boy Code emphasizes, among other things, the myths of masculine self-reliance; dominance over women; stoic individualism; competitive mistrust of other menâ€"who are conceptualized within a framework of interpersonal power dynamics; and a fear of appearing weak, or feminine. Pollock outlines four predominant injunctions of masculinity.

To summarize the four points:

  1. Men should be stoic, stable, and independent.

  2. [Men should cultivate] a stance based on a false self, of extreme daring, bravado, and attraction to violence.

  3. [Men are taught to] achieve status, dominance, and power ... to avoid shame at all costs, to wear the mask of coolness, to act as though everything is going all right, as though everything is under control, even if it isn't.

  4. [Boys and men experience] a literal gender straightjacket that prohibits boys from expressing feelings or urges seen (mistakenly) as "feminine"â€"dependence, warmth, empathy (Pollock 24).

Because of these stereotypical definitions and expectations our society superimposes, when faced with the increased commodification of the masculine body, men are caught in a painful double bind in which they are severely reluctant to admit or discuss their insecurities. More disturbing, a large percentage of these men are so enveloped in this prevailing ideological construct that they are not even cognizant, on a conscious level, of the ways in which these pressures are informing their habits of being.

Does Society Portray What A Man Is?

In his pioneering analysis of this phenomenon, The Adonis Complex, Harrison G. Pope discusses the dilemma that results when masculine behavioral expectations meet society's increasing fixation on the male body. He says:

    Real men aren't supposed to whine about their looks; they're not even supposed to worry about such things. And so this "feeling and talking taboo" adds insult to injury: to a degree unprecedented in history, men are being made to feel more and more inadequate about how they lookâ€"while simultaneously being prohibited from talking about it or even admitting it to themselves (Pope 5).

Men are taught by their environment to be emotionally repressive, that to be a man is to face adversity and hardship in grim silence. As a result, when confronted with the propagation of unattainable body images and the feelings of inadequacy those images generate, young men are frequently deprived the emotional space to negotiate their pain. More troubling, many young men have so absorbed the myth of the unfeeling, invulnerable, and impenetrable man that they cannot even identify (even internally) how these pressures are affecting their feelings of self-worth and general psyche. The result is often generalized, directionless, seemingly random and dangerous feelings of anger. Anger, as you may recall, is the only universally accepted and encouraged male emotion.

Whereas there is no "feeling and talking" taboo associated with femininity, men are supposed to "toughen up" and face the pain with a stern jaw, silent and alone. Pope puts it differently: "Not only does society forbid men to talk about their feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy, but it also indoctrinates them with the idea that only women are supposed to worry about their looks" (Pope 17). Because it is the "essence" of masculinity that these men long to cultivate through their body's appearance, these same men often do not risk being construed as openly worrying about something "only woman do." To do so would counteract the imposed societal constructs of masculinity, the same constructs that they are struggling to uphold, and concurrently feel insecure about, in the first place.

In The Adonis Complex, Pope focuses on the ways that secrecy and shame permeate men's self-concept and body image. On the one hand, men are under extreme pressure to look a certain way, to cultivate an arguably unrealistic image (or at the very least one that is extremely difficult to attain), and yet at the same time are expected to do so somewhat effortlessly. How many of men on the forums, for instance, have been chastised for being obsessive or self-involved in our training and dietary regimens?

Men are expected to just "appear" a model of male perfection while suppressing or hiding the extreme degree of energy (both physical and emotional) requisite to such a task. With regard to men who feel inadequate in the face of cultural messages about their bodies, Pope says: "Tragically, they often think that their preoccupations are rare or unique; they have trouble believing that other men around them in the gym could possibly be victims of similar concerns" (Pope 19). Silence results in isolation and inner suffering, increasing the likelihood of anger, depression and more.

The objectification of the male body has thus engendered a scenario in which men who cannot achieve the "ideal" are increasingly at risk for depression, self-imposed isolation, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and alienation, eating disorders or drug use. The recent invasion of hyper-masculine bodies in popular culture poses an epidemic to masculine self-esteem, made all the more treacherous in that its victims are often pushed to suffer in silence. The silent aspect of this crisis should not be underestimated, for it is this element of the problem that most notably differentiates issues around male body image from those which plague women.

Conveniently, the societal construct of masculine stoicism is conducive to the continued exploitation by advertisers, who seek to maintain the illusion that those who do not meet the idealized images they see in magazines or in film are inherently inferior. The silent sufferer is often unaware that others feel as he does, or are experiencing what he is, and is thus more likely to construe the messages as yet another testament to his personal inadequacies.

Such feelings of inadequacy may further exacerbate individual isolation and a competitive atmosphere among men.

Pope points out that:

    Many boys are embarrassed and ashamed of their appearance concerns, and keep them a secret. They may feel it "wimpy" or "girlish" to worry about their looks ... [they're] increasingly vulnerable to the advertising messages of the supplement industry and other body image industries eager to capitalize on their anxieties (Pope 193-94).

The commodification of the male body further isolates the men who are falling prey to its marketing ploys. Again, the danger here lies in the potential long-term ramifications such images may have on its victims, many of whom will suffer from self-esteem issues and may become depressed, develop an eating disorder, or grow dependent on, and even addicted to, pharmacological assistance.

Some may become so possessed with the burden of fulfilling the societal demands that they isolate themselves in a way that affects their relationships and life experiences. Dr. Kramlinger, a psychiatrist at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, points out that: "The preoccupation to beef up may lead to the exclusion of other activities and relationships that are so important to a healthy, balanced life" (CNN 2). The threat to those who fall victim to our culture's increasingly skewed images is the erosion of a self-cultivated identity and the paralysis that accompanies the drive to fulfill external demands.

Of interest to us to may also be the manner in which Anabolic Androgenic Steroids have acted as an intermediary in widening the gap between the masculine archetype put forth by the media and what the average male can realistically aspire to. What's more troubling about this chasm is that many young men absorbed these unrealistic images at a very young age, at a time when they were unable to discern the role of steroids in body-alteration.

Pope sums up this process of inculcation nicely:

    Men have been indoctrinated by such images since early childhood: through action toys, comic strips, television, and moviesâ€"long before they were old enough to stop and question whether these images were realistic or reasonable goals for a man's body (Pope 46).

It is important to point out that not all media presentations of masculine ideals are steroid-induced. Indeed, genetic propensities, diligent training regimens, and healthy eating habits can take an individual quite far in the project of body transformation. Regardless, it is clear that the spread of steroid-use has increased since the development of AAS earlier this century, and that the increased presence of chemically-enhanced men in the media has distorted the messages that impressionable young men are receiving.

How Times Have Changed Things...

Putting steroid-use aside for the moment, one needn't even reference the use of AAS or their pertinence when comparing the male action stars of Hollywood from the 1960s to the present-day. Take John Wayne or Marlon Brando, and compare either with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even our emaciated friend Brad Pitt. The media images conveyed today are not only far more fixated on the male physique, those physiques are far more developed and extra-ordinary than those of even the recent past.

Compare the physiques of a young Marlon Brando vs a young Brad Pitt.

The marketing of nude men has likewise skyrocketed in recent years, putting the male body in the spotlight in a manner once exclusive to women. Researchers at Harvard Medical School conducted a study on this increase by reviewing advertisements in Glamour and Cosmopolitanâ€"prominent beauty magazines for womenâ€"over the last 40 years.

What they found was "Over that time ... the women shown in a "state of undress" stayed roughly constant, but the percentage of men showing skin "rose from virtually zero, until it surpassed the number of undressed women by the 1990s" (Swift 4). These findings reinforce the dramatic increase in the objectification of the male body, and reflect the origins of a process that has generated the increasedâ€"and increasingly unrealisticâ€"expectations of masculine appearance.

More disturbing, the evolution of cartoon and comic strip heroes has followed a similar process of supernatural bulking-up. Marketed to appeal to children and young men, these images leave a long-lasting impression on the malleable minds of those looking outward for models of what it means to be a man. One need only compare the fairly normal physique of Adam West as "Batman" from the 1960s to the muscled bat-suit donned by his modern-day successors to see how drastically these masculine icons have changed.

Likewise, G.I. JOE figures (arguably the most popular and enduring cartoon and toy marketed to boys) have undergone a similar and more startling metamorphosis. From the time of their development in the 1970s to their present-day counterparts, the average G.I. JOE figure has undergone a radical body transformation in which his physique has become (much like that of Barbie) grossly unrealistic.

In a recent study entitled "Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys," researchers discovered the scope of this muscular transformation. The results are startling: "Extrapolating the figures to a height of 5-foot-10 shows early [G.I. Joe] figures having chests of about 44 inches, compared with 46-to-62 today, and biceps of 12 inches, compared with 18-to-32 today" (Weight Net.1). So too have Star Wars figures released in the 1990s achieved proportions startlingly larger and more muscled than those originally released in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School interviewed a sampling of young men about their satisfaction with their physique. The findings reflect the manifestation of a growing dissatisfaction with how they feel about their bodies. "College-age men in the United States, Austria, and France indicated they want (and believe women to prefer) a body with at least 27 more pounds of muscle than they possess ..." (CNN 1).

Interestingly, these researchers also found through informal inquiry and anecdotal evidence that the average woman does not consider the ideal man to be as muscular as the men questioned believed they do (CNN 1). Due largely to manipulation by the media and its advertising syndicates, many men are being seduced into believing that their muscularity determines their success with women. The problem is that the men's assumption regarding what is "muscular" is exaggerated with respect to what "attracts" the typical. Men are fueled by an erroneous and socially propagated notion that such a body is what women want; that muscularity determines and almost exclusively reflects sexual potency.

In The Adonis Complex Pope cites a study in which young men were asked how satisfied they were with their own bodies. If dissatisfied, the young men were asked how they would like to be different. The results are startling, again confirming a growing trend: "... Boys of all ages, from eleven to seventeen, chose a body ideal that possessed about 35 pounds more muscle than they actually had themselves ... This means that the majority of boys chose a body ideal that most men could attain only with steroids" (Pope 174).

Due largely to the proliferation of AAS-induced images of masculinity, both in real men and in the inked heroes of the cartoons and comic books young men so adore, the benchmark of physical masculinity has increased to unrealistic proportions. Personal insecurity makes for lucrative business. The media's exploitation towards these ends has ensured the continued proliferation of the myth that physique is perhaps the predominant determiner of supremacy among fellow men and success with women; that how one looks is the foremost determiner of self-worth, power and success.


There is some speculation among researchers that the growing awareness around the male body may be a reaction to the feminist movement and its impact on initiating the slowly growing equality of the sexes in the workforce. "... Muscles are one of the few areas in which men can still clearly distinguish themselves from women or feel more powerful than other men. But muscles are a tenuous foundation on which to base all of one's sense of masculinity and self-esteem" (Pope 24). In the past, men could seek to define their masculine dominance and exclusivity through their role as breadwinners; however, women increasingly share this traditionally male role.

With the emerging gender equality in the workforce, the only avenue men have left to cultivate their distinctiveness from women in the socially constructed masculine scenario is their bodies. Pope points out that: "One of the few attributes left, one of the few grounds on which women can never match men, is muscularity" (Pope 50). Such a theory is largely speculative. The theory does however offer itself as a viable accomplice to, and adjunctive source of, the growing emphasis on the muscular aspects of the male physique.

It is getting harder and harder for Men to use muscles as a way of seperating them.

What is clear is that there is a growing fissure between media images of maleness and reality, a fissure that threatens men and their feelings of self-worth in much the same way it has women. Unchecked, this phenomenon and its deleterious effects on identity may prove tragic for the lives of many. The clear and disturbing trend toward the objectification of men's bodies is perpetuated by "boy code," male as commodity in a consumerist society, the evolving roles of men and women and the ensuing loss of emotional fluency.

We need to expose the societal and cultural forces that are inculcating new unattainable male body standards. Awareness of the psychological and emotional aspects of this archetypal male image is important in dismantling a dysfunctional masculine self-concept. The freedom to acquire and cultivate a healthy emotional life mandates that community, openness, collaboration and self-respect replace isolation, secrecy, competition and shame.

Be sure to also check out:
Bodybuilding: What It Is Really About!

This article appears courtesy of www.mindandmuscle.net


  1. "Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys." Healthy Weight Network. 19 April 2002. www.healthyweightnetwork.com/news1.htm
  2. Farache, Emily. "Arnold Makes Doctor Pay." Eonline News. Nov 30, 1999. 18 April 2002. www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,5673,00.html
  3. Pollock, William. Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Manhood. New York, Random House 1998.
  4. Pope, Harrison G. Jr.. The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession. New York, The Free Press 2000.
  5. Swint, Sean. "You've Come a Long Way, Bubba." MSN HealthWatch. 10/21/00. 18 April 2002. www.content.health.msn.com/content/article/1728.59692
  6. "Men, Muscles and Body Image." 10/27/02. CNN Online. 19 April 2002. www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/mayo/7/27/men.muscles/