Masculine Norms and Internalization of Body Ideals on Body Image

Masculine Norms and Internalization of Body Ideals on Body Image

Lina Ricciardelli, School of PsychologyScreen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.25.12 AM
Deakin University, Australia

Increasingly during the last 10 years, researchers and clinicians have noted the importance that men place on their body image. While many view this as a new phenomenon, the evidence shows that body ideals for men have been valued throughout the centuries and since ancient times (Ricciardelli & Williams, 2012). The main and current body ideal for men in Western cultures is leanness and muscularity but thinness, attractiveness, youthfulness, and fitness are also valued. On the other hand, Eastern cultures traditionally place less importance on the physical body and a higher value on the pursuit of intelligence, justice, purity and celibacy, integrity, and courage. However, there is some evidence that this is changing as studies have shown that non-European men living in Western countries are more at risk of body image problems, disordered eating, and other related health risks behaviors (Ricciardelli, McCabe, Williams, & Thompson, 2007). These differences may in part reflect the changing status quo and power relations for men and/or the higher level of social isolation of men in minority groups when compared to the dominant cultural group(s).

Masculine norms and the internalization of body ideals in the media are central sociocultural factors for understanding the importance of body image among men (De Jesus et al., 2015). Masculine norms reflect and reinforce social and cultural expectations for men to conform to particular behaviors and attitudes. In the words of Thompson and Pleck (1986, p. 53) “they prescribe and proscribe what men should feel and do”. Some of the main masculine norms found among men from Western countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, are the pursuit of winning, power over women, and heterosexual self-presentation.  These masculine norms have been found to be related to the internalization of body ideals among men, and typically mirror the content of television and films, where there is an overemphasis on competition and winning, the objectification of women, and an underrepresentation of gay men (De Jesus et al., 2015). Many men internalize these ideals and values, which have then been found to be associated with a higher drive for muscularity and leanness. The drive for muscularity involves a preoccupation with attaining large muscles, whereas the drive for leanness places the focus on attaining a body with well-defined muscles and low fat.

More research is now needed to understand the direction of the above relationships. All the research to date has been cross-sectional so we can not determine whether masculine norms precede or follow internalization of body ideals and body image concerns. Additionally, the majority of studies have been conducted with men who identify as White/European, thus the generalizability of the findings to other ethnic and cultural backgrounds is not possible.

Prevention work is also needed to assist men reject rigid notions of masculinity which highlight the need for power and dominance. The development of broader and healthier notions of masculinity that connect men with other men, family and intimate partners, and that promote rationality, integrity, and free thought, is essential for well-being (de visser & Smith, 2007).

About the Author –

Lina Ricciardelli is a Professor of Health Psychology and Developmental Psychology at Deakin where she has been for over twenty years. Currently based at the Burwood campus she is involved in the studies of health risk behaviors among adolescents and children as they relate to body image and eating patterns.

Along with her colleagues, Lina is working on projects to change the current focus from negative body image, to one that fosters positive dimensions and physical activity. The impact of social media has become a key component in how adolescents and children see themselves, and so Lina seeks to find ways to promote well-being and healthy lifestyles.  

As well as creating positive change, Lina and her 4th year students branched out into looking at culture and body image. In their studies of men from an Indian and Chinese background they showed that males from a cultural minority are indeed more susceptible to negative body image influences. In her other work with researchers from Sweden, Britain, and the United States, Lina found gender role stereotypes and masculine norms are consistent across the four countries.

An important aspect of her research is finding ways to address body image and eating problems. Lina has been working nationally and internationally to develop prevention programs for adolescent eating disorders. These early intervention procedures can even be a part of just visiting a GP.

Her recent book is a fitting culmination of her decades of hard work – ‘Adolescents and Body Image: From Development to Preventing Dissatisfaction’ is now out (2016).

References –

De Jesus, A., Ricciardelli, L.A. et al. (2015). Media internalization and conformity to traditional masculine norms in relation to body Image concerns among men. Eating Behaviors, 18, 137-142.

De Visser, R.O., & Smith, J.A. (2007). Alcohol consumption and identity among young men. Psychology and Health, 22, 595-614.

Ricciardelli, L.A, McCabe, M.P., Williams, R.J., & Thompson, J.K. (2007). The role of ethnicity and culture in body image and disordered eating among males. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 582-606.

Ricciardelli, L.A., & Williams, R.J. (2012). Beauty over the centuries- Male. In T. Cash (Ed), Encyclopedia of body image and human appearance (pp. 50-57). Academic Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Thompson, E.H., & Pleck, J.H. (1986). The structure of the male role norms. American Behavioral Scientist, 29, 531-543.

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