Boys and body image

Is Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino and his fabulous abs really all that? Maybe not, according to the teenage boys who were interviewed extensively for a newly published study on young men and male body images in popular culture.

What the teens in the study mostly wanted was a normal-looking physique – not too tall, not too short, not too heavy, not too skinny, not too muscular and not too scrawny.

Not all boys aspire to the lean, muscular body that’s idealized in so much of popular culture, study author Moss E. Norman said in an accompanying news release.

“In many cases, boys who took part in our study were staunchly critical of idealized male images,” he said. “They found it problematic, feminine or vain to be overly concerned with appearances. Sculpted bodies were seen as unnatural, the products of steroids or zealous weight-lifting.”

The study appears in the current issue of the Men and Masculinities journal. It involved 32 boys, ages 13 to 15, who were recruited from a community center and private school in the Toronto area. Although this is a very small sample group which limits the ability to draw any broad or sweeping conclusions, it may have made up in depth for what it lacked in breadth. The study took place over nine months and consisted of four in-depth interviews and 19 focus groups.

Topics of discussion ranged from health to diet and physical activity. The participants were asked to comment on male images from popular culture, such as Homer Simpson, the shirtless models who appear in ads for Bowflex home gym equipment, and athletes from Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Interestingly, the boys in the study clearly noticed how other guys look, and they had opinions about it. They reported feeling pressure to be physically fit, and they viewed being overweight as undesirable.

They also saw sports as an acceptable way to achieve the “right” kind of male body. “They felt sports could naturally produce a healthier, fitter and more attractive man,” said Norman, a professor at the University of Manitoba. “Sports are used to deflect, obscure and erase their bodily anxieties and desires.”

In other words, they wanted to look fit and attractive – but without the appearance of working too hard at it or caring too much.

Body image among adolescent girls has been extensively studied. It’s only in recent years that more attention has been focused on how boys deal with issues related to their physical appearance. Boys may talk about it less than girls do, but as the interviews with the participants in Norman’s study demonstrate, they do think about body image, and the study adds another layer to what’s being learned. Where teen boys and body image are concerned, looking buff doesn’t seem to matter as much as simply looking normal and fit.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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