Heterosexual female and male body image and body concept in the context of attraction ideals.

Author:Stiman, Meaghan
Position:Report
 
FREE EXCERPT

Literature Review

Heterosexual Male and Female Body Image

Heterosexual males have been largely overlooked in socio-cultural research on body image. The primary focus of body image scholarship has centered on women across sexual orientations and homosexual men. Specifically, the majority of research on body image has concluded that gay men and heterosexual women experience the most body dissatisfaction (Brand, Rothblum, & Soloman, 1991; Conner, Johnson, & Grogan, 2004; Feingold & Mazzella, 1998; French, Story, Remafedi, Resnick, & Blum, 1994; Muth & Cash, 1997; Siever, 1994). Similarly, Morrison, Morrison, and Sager (2004) conducted a meta-analysis, synthesizing the research on body image and sexuality. Their analysis also found that gay men experience less body satisfaction than heterosexual men and heterosexual women experience slightly less body satisfaction than lesbian women. Furthermore, in the instances where heterosexual male body appears in the literature, it is placed in opposition to research about homosexual men (Lakkis, Ricciardelli, & William, 1999; Silberstein, Mishkind, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1989).

Despite the dominance of women and homosexual men in the body image literature, there are studies that focus on heterosexual male body image. Much of this research focuses on the increased importance of muscularity within the context of hegemonic masculinity. Many suggest that the influence of the media has exponentially increased body dissatisfaction among men. The increased cultural focus on muscularity has subsequently driven some men to self-objectify; this self-objectification has lead to body image disorders such as muscle dysmorphia (Baird & Grieve, 2006; Grieve & Helmick, 2008; Mussap, 2008; Walker, 2009; Wienke, 1998).

Although the study of heterosexual male body image in and of itself is significant, we are focusing on it in the context of heterosexual female body image. Our research is intended to fill a gap in the literature and explore the relationship between heterosexual female body image and heterosexual male body image. In particular, we explore how perceptions of opposite-sex attraction ideals impact male and female body image differently. We also consider the social context in which these ideals emerge and are communicated to males and females. Our research suggests that larger issues of gender and power are at play in the differing embodiments men and women experience.

The Social Construction of Hegemonic Femininity and Masculinity

Drawing on sociological constructionist scholarship we contend that masculinity and femininity are contingent, mass-mediated constructs enacted by men and women. Pfohl (2008) theorizes the core of constructionism as follows:

"Things are ... partially shaped and provisionally organized by the complex ways in which we are ritually positioned in relation to each other and to the objects we behold materially, symbolically, and in the imaginary realm. The ritual historical positioning of humans in relation to cultural objects and stories that we both make and are made over by--this, perhaps, is the elementary form of an effective social construction. This elementary form casts a circle of believability around artificially constructed accounts of the world. At the same time, the believability of the social constructions that lie inside the circle depends on what the circle expels to the outside. In this sense, social constructions are, at once, constituted and haunted by what they exclude" (2008, pp. 645-646).

We apply this conception to the study of masculinity and femininity as sets of rules for "doing gender" (Lorber, 1994; West & Zimmerman, 1987) that are defined as "feminine" and contrasted with the "masculine," and vice versa. Lorber (1994, 2008) contends gender is a culturally and historically specific organizing principle for creating a gendered (and hierarchical) social order.

We begin with a review of dominant femininity. Hegemonic femininity prescribes both appearance and behavior. Research shows significant socio-cultural pressures on women to be thin (Ehrenreich & English, 1979; Ewen, 1976; Hansen, Reed, & Waters, 1986; Hartmann, 1976; Hesse-Biber, 1996, 2006; Hesse-Biber et al., 2004; Silverstein, 1984; Wolf, 1991). Women attempt to achieve this ideal through self-imposed body-based rituals (Hesse-Biber et al., 2004). In contemporary American society fat is equated with "a devaluation of the feminine" (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004, p. 611). Dworkin and Wachs (2004) found the pressure to be thin and "fit" has increased so dramatically in recent years that even women's bodies pre, post and during pregnancy are now judged based on the appearance of "fitness" (which is associated with femininity). Thus, women are constantly engaged in a process of "bodywork" (Dworkin & Wachs, p. 618). The importance of "body type" with respect to achieving femininity cultivates appearance-driven attitudes and behaviors in some females.

This dominant, appearance-based version of femininity prescribes a range of behaviors with which women must comply in order to signal their femininity. These behaviors, which all feed capitalist interests by promoting consumerism, include: cosmetics, fashion, hair dyes, fitness clubs, cosmetic surgery and special or restrictive diets (Hesse-Biber 2006; Hesse-Biber et al., 2004). As social constructionist literature proposes, constructions of femininity and masculinity can only be properly understood in relation to each other. The relationship between dominant femininity and masculinity is one of polarization and exclusion. Akin to all social constructions, femininity and masculinity are partially defined by what they exclude (Pfohl 2008). In the case of gender, a dichotomous conception dominates, one that posits femininity is inclusive of traits deemed "feminine" and exclusive of traits deemed "masculine" (with the converse true for masculinity).

Thomas (2002) asserts that when studying masculinity it is necessary to consider "[the] effect of masculinity construction on women" (p. 62). For example, male projections of ideal femininity onto women are important when understanding both male and female body image. Modleski (1991) argues that "male subjectivity works to appropriate 'femininity' while [simultaneously] oppressing women" (p. 62). Power is consequently an integral part of hegemonic masculinity. Dominant masculine ideology is built upon and sustained by power, whether it is power in a physical or non-physical sense. Thus, being physically powerful and "bigger" (taking up more space) is symbolically powerful (Connell, 1987; Katz 1999; Kimmel, 2007; Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000; Wolf, 1991).

Past research on heterosexual male body image has identified dissatisfaction with physical size as the greatest source of body dissatisfaction among men (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996). Men most often report a desire to be larger with respect to muscle size (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996; Corson & Anderson, 2002; McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2004; Mishkind et al., 1986). Borchert and Heinberg (1996) contend that "men--and particularly young men--may be pressured not just to increase their size (e.g., the football player physique) but also to attain a muscular, yet lean, body" (p. 555). Maine (2000) proposes that "the hard, athletic, lean physique, not easily attained, is the new prototype for [men of] all ages" (p. 283). The physical prowess attained by reaching such an ideal serves as a vehicle for males to maintain power in the social sphere. Connell (1987) notes that this physical authority is significant for "allowing [the] belief in the superiority of men and the oppressive practices that flow from it" (p. 85). In other words, body size is not only a physical attribute, but an aspect of masculine social power.

Media Portrayals of Hegemonic Femininity and Masculinity

Kimmel (2007) observes that the media is a gendered institution which effects gender socialization. Thus, the media "reflects, constitutes, and reproduces" what is and is not considered to be feminine and masculine (Kimmel, 2007). According to the media, normative femininity is directly linked to physical size, with particular emphasis on thinness (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996; Cash & Henry, 1995; Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998). As a result "femaleness" is directly connected to physicality, whereas the link between "maleness" and size is inextricably connected to power. Wolf (1991) and Hesse-Biber (2006) explain this obsession with thinness as a backlash against the political, social, and economic power that women have gained throughout the years. Furthermore, Katz (1999) notes a direct link between the media's portrayal of female size, their political, social and economic power, and the media's portrayal of the size of men. He suggests that as women have gained more social power, their idealized bodies have shrunk in size, whereas the idealized male body has grown significantly.

Festinger's (1954) social comparison theory states that humans have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities. They first evaluate themselves through nonsocial means. However, if such means are unavailable, they evaluate themselves, through comparisons, with the opinions or abilities of other people...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP