The influence of the media on men’s body image and the effects on their health

Published: 2019/12/06 Number of words: 2026

There is an increasing concern regarding men’s health in the Western world (Smith & Robertson, 2008). Although men have higher rates of morbidity and mortality than women, they are less likely to seek medical care (Gannon et al., 2004). Connell (1995) has drawn on the social construction of hegemonic masculinity to justify such gender differences (cited in Gannon et al., 2004). Gough (2006) recognises that discourse in relation to men’s health has only become visible in academic-, policy- and media texts within the last ten years. In view of this, this paper will discuss the influence that the media (television and magazines targeting men) is having upon the health, wellbeing and body image of men in the Western world.

Agliata and Tantleff-Dunn (2004) argue that magazines promoting health use certain body types which are perceived to be ideal and socially desirable. Richins (1996, cited in Sohn, 2009:19) recognises ‘…the level of beauty and physical attractiveness possessed by nearly all actors and models is characteristic of an extremely small segment of the population’ with the result, therefore, that there are negative consequences for the majority of males regarding their own body perception and satisfaction (Leit et al., 2002). In support of this, Morrison et al. (2003) studied men’s exposure to media influence; they found that magazines that include idealistic images of the male body have a positive correlation with men’s determination to become more muscular and leaner. Men regard images portrayed in the media as being realistic and achievable (Festinger, 1954, cited in Sohn, 2009) and, consequently, some men can become obsessed with trying to achieve this, frequently unrealistic, muscularity. They can feel compelled to turn to performance enhancing steroids, with the possible negative and damaging effects on their health and wellbeing (Pope et al., 1997, cited in Courtenay, 2003).

Furthermore, Federick, Fessler and Heselton (2005) found that magazines which target men contain more muscular body images than magazines for women; hence men are more likely to be influenced by these images, further causing an underpinning of the notion of the ideal body type. This has produced an increased dissatisfaction among men with regard to their overall appearance. Garner (1997, cited in Farquhar & Walylkiw, 2007) found that the level of dissatisfaction in 1972 was 15 percent; by 1997, this had almost tripled to 43 percent. Olivardia et al., (2004) claim this dissatisfaction gives rise to psychological disorders such as low self-esteem and depression. Potter (2000–10) argues that, as men get more conscious of their bodies and advertisers continue to objectify the male torso, men are experiencing problems that were formally experienced almost exclusively by women. The American Psychiatric Association (2000) claims that the number of men suffering from eating disorders has increased and that men now account for 10 percent of those suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia (cited in Farquhar & Walylkiw, 2007). Moreover, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP, 2009) deems that this can provoke more severe consequences; statistics indicate that 75 percent of people who kill themselves and 73 percent of adults who go missing are men and furthermore, one in eight men become alcohol dependent.
Morry and Staska (2001) argue that fitness magazines can influence society’s perception of the ideal body image and that of those who read these magazines, thus increasing the incidence of eating disorders. Botta (2003) expresses the view that men who are exposed to such magazines become obsessive in their behaviour which in turn gives rise to the consumption of pills or steroids to help gain a muscular body. Further to this, Klein et al. (1993, cited in Courtenay, 2003) found that commercials relating to alcoholic beverages and cigarettes are cleverly positioned in magazines that predominantly target a male readership. For example, beer commercials, often using scantily dressed women and depicting men in high risk activities, (Harris et al., 2007) have been found to have a significant correlation with men’s alcohol consumption, risk-taking and the facing of hazardous situations without apprehension (Signorielli 1993, cited in Courtenay, 2003). Additionally, the United Kingdom Institute of Cancer Research (2005, cited in Smith & Robertson, 2008) believed its ‘Everyman’ campaign, using seductive images of a well-known female celebrity, would promote awareness of the need for self-inspection of the testicles. However, it had the opposite effect and was criticised for perpetuating the stereotyping of women. It seems to have added to the concerns men have regarding their health and is perpetuated by inequitable gender relations (Smith & Robertson, 2008).

Courtenay (2000) explored the consequences of primetime television programmes on men’s health; he found that, compared with women, men have a 75 percent chance of being shown as obese. Courtenay (2000) also found that men are shown smoking significantly more often their female counterparts and over 66 percent of all the characters that drink in primetime television programmes are men. Furthermore, while masculinity is linked to high risk and unhealthy behaviour in the media, men are also depicted as outliving women. (Courtenay 2000). These media representations of gender and health have been found to perpetuate the harmful health consequences in the real world (Courtenay 2000). For example, men viewing alcohol consumption on TV have been found to be more disposed to drinking (Signorielli, 1993, cited in Courtenay, 2003). Hence, advertising, indirectly through characters on popular TV programmes, reinforces unhealthy and stereotypical gender behaviour (cited in Courtenay, 2003). Further, there is evidence to suggest that men are socially disadvantaged with regard to their health; Courtenay (2000, cited in Melby, 2010) proposes a six-point plan to promote men’s health. He claims the first step is to humanise, as at present, notions of masculinity prevent them from admitting to any health problems and seeking help (Fleming, 1999, cited in Sixsmith & Boneham, 2003). Moynihan (1998, cited in Sixsmith & Boneham, 2003:49) states ‘…they [men] constantly invent and reinvent themselves with a “stiff upper lip” as “boys who don’t cry”’. This can, in turn, lead to damaging consequences with negative implications for men’s health (White & Johnson 2000, cited in Sixsmith & Boneham, 2003).

In conclusion, this paper highlights stereotypical aspects of masculinity, such as risk-taking, which are perpetuated by the media, and which can be counterproductive within the wider spectrum of men’s health, (Robertson & Williamson, 2005, cited in Smith & Robertson, 2008). Through the media, men find comparison targets which provide them with a negative self-evaluation (Agliata & Tantleff-Dunn, 2004). Since the images of men portrayed in the media have become more muscular and toned than ever known in history (Leit et al 2000), it seems reasonable to presume that the media is responsible for raising concerns among men with regards to their body image. As this paper suggests, such concerns have physical and psychological implications on men’s health and wellbeing (Farquhar & Walylkiw, 2007). The media is creating unrealistic standards of comparison, causing men to turn to performance enhancing steroids in their attempts to achieve such standards (Pope et al., 1997, cited in Courtenay, 2003). They can also develop problems such as anorexia or depression, which are traditionally associated more with women (Potter 2000–10).

Despite the persuasive evidence presented in this paper, it cannot be certain whether the media can be held solely responsible for the effects on men. It is evident that cultural factors are also important; gender is a central feature in the awareness of men’s health. There is a tendency to revert to the concept of masculinity and define it by a set of qualities that all men share, which, as highlighted, usually have negative implications for men’s health (Wilkins & Baker, 2004). Due to the concept of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1995, in Gannon et al., 2004) many issues surrounding men’s health are pushed aside and quite often ignored, as there is a stigma attached to men who admit to- and seek help for health problems (Davidson & Lloyd, 2001). Therefore validating, legitimising and normalising men’s health problems through the media is vital in order for society to obtain an empirical understanding of men’s health issues (Courtenay, 2002).

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