The Media's Representation of the Ideal Male Body: A Cause for Muscle Dysmorphia? -
Richard A. Leit, James J. Gray, and Harrison Pope, Jr.

This article is being summarized by Krystal Snell.

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Research Question

     The researchers in this study were interested in examining the effect that the idealized male physique portrayed in the media has on men’s body image.


     A sample of 82 male undergraduates was selected from a “private university in the middle-Atlantic states (Let, Grey, and Pope, Jr. 335).”  Participants in both conditions were allowed to view 30 slides showing ads from popular catalogs and magazines. Participants in the control condition were shown images which either featured no humans or human images which were not body-focused.  In the experimental condition, participants viewed 20 advertisements featuring idealized representations of the male physique and 10 “neutral” images, as determined by independent raters prior to the experiment (335).

     Participants’ body image perceptions were assessed using the Somatomorphic Matrix. As a computer-administrated measure of body image perception, the Somatomorphic Matrix allows participants to visually modify images of men on two dimensions simultaneously—obesity and muscularity. The participants are asked to modify the image to represent what they believe to be “their current body shape, their ideal body shape, the average body shape of men their age, and the body shape most desired by women (336).”

     Participants were told that they would be participating in a study about the memorability of print advertisements. After being shown the slides, the participants were told that they would be completing the Somatomorphic Matrix as a distracter task to inhibit rehearsal of the ads they has seen. Following completion of the Somatomorphic Matrix, they were asked to recollect as many of the ads as they could.


     The researchers predicted that the experimental group would exhibit greater body dissatisfaction than would the control group, as evidenced by greater inconsistencies between their ideal body shapes and their current perceived body shapes. The results of the study supported this prediction. To assess the effect of the ads on body perception, the discrepancy between the participants’ current perceived body shape and their ideal body shape, their estimated average male body shape, and the shape they believed to be most attractive to women, respectively, was measured. These discrepancies were compared for the control and experimental groups. No significant differences were observed between the two groups for the current shape/estimated average male shape comparison or for the current shape/shape most desired by women comparison.  However, the experimental group showed significantly greater discrepancy between current body shape and ideal body shape than did the control group. Additionally, a greater discrepancy was observed between current body shape and estimated average male shape, within the control group.

     While much of the research on the media’s effects on body-image has focused on women, this study provides evidence that body-focused ads featuring idealized male images have a similarly negative effect on men. The researchers note that this body dissatisfaction seems to be related to “musculature” rather than body fat, a distinction that has been substantiated by other research.

     It is also important to mention that the ads seemed to have no significant effect on men’s perceptions about which body women found attractive. The researchers reason that this is due to the ads’ low rating on sexual provocativeness and the relative lack of female interaction exhibited in the ads, a feature which is typical of male-oriented idealized ads. Due to these features, cognitive connections were not made between these idealized images and sexual attractiveness to women. Instead, the ads seemed to invoke thoughts of “[men’s] own ideals and other men’s ideals” (337).