As noted above, during the hunter-gatherer phase of mankind, the desirable physical appearance of the male of the species would have been one that contributed to their ability to hunt and kill the large mega-fauna that roamed the land. By contrast, modern males may not be expected to be able to take down a wooly mammoth, but a healthy physique equates to good genes for reproduction and even modern women may therefore be more attracted to men who exhibit superior physical qualities. The studies of body image issues among modern women have typically focused on the impact played by various societal factors, most especially idealized role models as exemplified by ultra-thin fashion models (Rothblum, 1994). As noted above, although there remains a paucity of timely and relevant research in this area as it applies to men specifically, Lee and Owen (2002) suggest that it is not an unreasonable extension of these same processes to the perception of body image among males as well. According to Lee and Owens:
Men are presented with the concept that a real men is large, hard and strong. Physical role models for men are not as prevalent as for women, but they are just as unhealthy and unrealistic: from the Charles Atlas physiques of the 1940s and 1950s, through the massive bodies of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger to the hypermuscularity of present-day bodybuilders. With such images, men are presented with two clear messages as regards to physical appearance; a low percentage body fat is seen as good, and a low muscle bulk is seen as bad. (2002, p. 65)
As also noted above, although the prevalence of eating disorders and other psychological problems that are associated with body image issues is sufficiently significant to warrant further study, not all women develop such problems and so too is the case with men. Therefore, identifying what factors contribute to increased risk for such disorders as the result of societal expectations and self-perception among men represents a valuable addition to the body of knowledge concerning the male physique and body image issues. Modern views of what factors constitute a “real man” may be different from ancient times, but there are some interesting commonalities involved that indicate physical appearance remains an essential element in the manner in which people look at themselves in an effort to perceive how others perceive them. The difference between an idealized perspective and what people see in the mirror may be stark, but when the difference is reinforced by repeated messages from the media and peers, the impact may be more pronounced for some men than others. Unfortunately, such messages may assume a problematic status in ways that can result in health-related problems and, equally troubling, superficial assessments of personal qualities that might otherwise be regarded as a wholesome mix of personality and physique. In other words, individual perspectives regarded desirable physical appearance attributes may be sharply different and exaggerated compared to what others consider adequate and appropriate, but the extent to which people internalize the idealized body image messages they receive in modern society is also likely the extent to which the are at higher risk of developing a health-related or psychological problem as a result. By any measure, though, there are a number of factors that are taken into account in the “what-is-a-real-man?” equation. As Lee and Owens (2002) stated, “He is expected to compete with other men, not only in the formal sense of activities like sport and employment, but also informally for status within a social group. He is expected to be self-confident, at ease with himself” (p. 66). From this perspective, at least, Wally Cleaver would be well on his way to becoming a “real man,” but there are other factors involved in the equation as well. For example, Lee and Owens add that, “He is expected to be successful romantically, and in some social groups his status will be assessed at least in part by his success in attracting partners, whose social value is enhanced by their own level of attractiveness. Put most simply, a man should aim to be one who is envied by other men” (p. 66). This definition has the advantage of being appropriate for any given era in human history, because cavemen that were envied by their peers possessed certain desirable physical attributes that set them apart from others, just as they do today. In this regard, models of maleness that are culturally focused include factors such as a mesomorphic form (i.e., muscular or athletic type of body) with a low body fat ratio (Petersen, 1998). Clearly, being a “real man” is a tall order during any period of human history, and while modern man is typically not faced with the same threats to survival that Cro-Magnons experienced, it is apparent that concepts of body image have been important forces in the development of mankind, and although concepts of “a real man” differ from culture to culture, there are also some intergenerational differences that can create conflict between older and younger men as they seek to sort out their own thinking on this issue and these are discussed further below.
Developmental Factors in Male Body Image
Concepts about an ideal body shape tend to change as people grow older and mature, and researchers have examined what social factors tend to be more prevalent during a given period in the developmental order of humans. The research to date indicates that younger people are more concerned with what their peers perceive as a desirable body image rather than the larger society in which they live, and perceptions of young males concerning desirable body image are related to the period in life in which comparisons with peers are made. Although very young males are unlikely to develop a well-defined physicality and musculature, as they grow older, boys gain body mass and are able to acquire some of the physical features that their older counterparts possess (Wilcox, 1997). Over time, then, as boys grow into men, they are involved in an ongoing process of evaluating their own physical appearance with their peers and increasingly the idealized versions of a “real man” from the perspective of the larger society in which they live (Lee & Owens, 2002). While cultural factors differ according to time and geographic space, by and large, Lee and Owen suggest that for young children who engage in unfavorable comments concerning the physical appearance of their peers mostly involve overweight or obese children and there is therefore a corresponding perception of thinness as being related to a desirable physical appearance.
During adolescence, though, teenagers become more acutely aware of physical differences between themselves, their peers and the media images being presented. The phenomenon of the six-grade boy who grows a mustache and upper body musculature while his peers are still coping with prepubescent issues is a classic example of how young boys in particular are affected by perceptions of the relationship between physicality among others and themselves. Children who engage in this comparison and believe their physical appearance falls short compared to their peers will likely be more predisposed to also believing that their bodies are not satisfactory because they are insufficient in stature compared to their larger peers (Lee & Owens, 2002). As a result, as young boys grow through the developmental phases from pre-pubescence through puberty and young adulthood, their perceptions about a desirable body image shift from one of thinness to one that requires a large and well-defined physique (Lee & Owens, 2002). The research to date in this area tends to confirm this shift through these developmental phases as well. For instance, a study by Raudenbush and Zellner (1997) determined that although overweight men and women wanted to be thinner almost 42% of men with appropriate weight wanted to be heavier while the vast majority (almost 88%) of women who were of appropriate weight wanted to be thinner. Clearly, just as what behaviors are regarded as socially acceptable tend to change over time, so too do human perceptions of desirable body images among young people as they grow older. While it is apparent that women suffer from body image issues differently than men, it is also apparent that many men experience their fair share of body image issues as well, some of which translate into health-related problems and these…