Alpha Male: Ideal Images -- In-Depth Doctor's Interview
Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, Ph. D., explains how men are being affected by all of the media images portraying buffed, chiseled men as the ideal body types.
Ivanhoe Broadcast News Transcript with
Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, Ph. D., Clinical Psychologist,
University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida,
TOPIC: Alpha Male: Ideal Images
Tell me a little bit about your study. What did you set out to find?
Tantleff-Dunn: We were interested in looking at male body image. There’s a lot of research on how females are affected by the media and how it tends to make them feel badly about how they look. But there aren't very many studies looking at males' body image, yet we see an increase in advertising and so many more messages directed at men and how they can improve their appearance. So we looked to see whether or not watching these appearance-related commercials would influence men the same way it does for women.
What kind of commercials did they see?
Tantleff-Dunn: We separated the men into two separate groups. In one condition, they watched commercials that had a lot of focus on appearance. So they were watching very attractive males in their mid-20s, usually in athletic gear, often doing athletic kinds of things. And we had a pilot study where men rated how attractive they thought these men how or how closely they resembled the ideal male figure in our culture. And then in the other group, they watched a control video where it was commercials of fully dressed people selling insurance, very little emphasis on appearance, not selling any appearance-related products.
What difference did you find between the two groups?
Tantleff-Dunn: We found men who were exposed to images of the so-called "ideal" male became more depressed and significantly more dissatisfied with the size and shape of their own muscular build once they were exposed to those commercials. Whereas men who watched neutral commercials of insurance salesmen in suits experienced no effects.
Our study involved watching an episode of the Family Feud and the commercials in between the segments were either the appearance related ones or the others. They watched four commercials and four different segments, so a total of sixteen commercials. Whereas in the real world, we know that people see an average of at least 25 appearance-related commercials a day. So this was a very small sampling of what they’re exposed to, yet it had a fairly large impact.
How long after seeing the commercials did you interview them?
Tantleff-Dunn: Right after. So these effects were very short term.
Did you follow them at all?
Tantleff-Dunn: We did not have a long-term followup. Generally, these are somewhat short-term effects in terms of our ability to measure change. But we know that over time, they influence people in terms of how they feel about their bodies and what they’re willing to do to change their appearance.
How many males were involved?
Tantleff-Dunn: One hundred and fifty-eight males.
Did they know what they were taking part in?
Tantleff-Dunn: They knew it was a study about media and its effects, but they didn’t know that the study was specifically on body image.
Why do you think the effect of body image on men is so overlooked?
Tantleff-Dunn: Traditionally, females are the ones who are supposedly focused on appearance. It has always been important for women to look good, and they’re also coming to a lot of pressures, so we hear a lot about eating disorders, body image disturbance, and most recently cosmetic surgery. But through the years, it’s become more of an equal opportunity problem, where there’s more and more males who are dissatisfied with the way they look, experiencing greater pressure to look a certain way. And so now that we see the pressures are increasing, it was time to make sure the research also followed what kind of impact all of this exposure was having on them.
Why was this study important to you?
Tantleff-Dunn: My student, Dan Agliotta, is one of very few male students who joined our body image lab, and he was very interested in looking at the ways ,we measure body image in men. Traditionally, it was said that were not as concerned about their physical appearance. They were more satisfied with how they looked and less anxious. But what we were realizing was number one, we weren’t necessarily measuring it very accurately. When you look at measures of body dissatisfaction, they often ask how satisfied you are with your hips or your buttocks, and men's concerns are different. It’s not necessarily that men are less dissatisfied, it’s just that they’re more satisfied with the body parts we focus on when we ask. So we started attending to how we ask the questions. And so he started looking at developing measures to tap into the kinds of concerns men might have, like about their muscles.
What kind of concerns do men have that differ for women?
Tantleff-Dunn: They are very concerned about their muscular appearance and much less concerned about the areas where women tend to retain fat, like in their hips and their buttocks. They’re more interested in their chest. In fact, I did a study several years ago that showed the extent to which males are satisfied with their chest is more closely associated with their overall body image than women’s satisfaction with their breast size. So for males, the pectoral development packs a big punch.
That the men who were exposed to the attractive, muscular men were more likely to be depressed, what could that lead to potentially?
Tantleff-Dunn: Well, if you look at images and they make you feel more depressed and less satisfied with your physical appearance, you’re generally going to be motivated to do something to close that gap between how you look and how you want to look. For women, we think that has led to eating disorders. For men, we see more and more supplement usage. We see the use of anabolic steroids, lots of exercising, and most recently an increased number of cosmetic surgery, in terms of calf implants and pectoral implants.
What have you seen in regards to men using steroids and going to extreme measures to build their muscle?
Tantleff-Dunn: We know that males can’t get the results they want as fast as they would like. So they sometimes turn to anabolic steroids, which are much more easily attained now with the Internet. They don’t really recognize or appreciate how serious the side effects of those can be. So, we see them using these drugs to get more muscular, faster and stronger more quickly and then experiencing things like hair loss and acne and other side effects that might not really outweigh the benefit if they look at the long term.
What have you experienced in terms of men and undereating?
Tantleff-Dunn: We don’t see as much dieting and starvation in men because as many men want to gain weight as they do want to lose weight. But for those who are really feeling too heavy, extreme dieting in terms of crash diets or starvation is extremely unhealthy. Often it will result in weight losses that can’t be maintained. And so you end up starting a yo-yo process, which we know is very unhealthy for the body.
So, men are mostly wanting to get bigger and women are wanting to become smaller. Do you think these problems are equally dangerous?
Tantleff-Dunn: If a male is getting bigger with anabolic steroids, it could be very dangerous. If it’s done naturally through weight lifting and healthy exercise, it’s not so much dangerous as it is a question of one’s psychological well being. When people are chronically dissatisfied with how they look or they don’t feel big enough or buff enough, it’s not going to lead to a very fulfilling, happy life. It could affect relationships and work productivity and a whole host of things in one's life if he is not happy with his appearance. So that’s why it seems to be an important area to study further.
Do you think this is an overlooked area of study?
Tantleff-Dunn: It has been very overlooked up until recently. It’s amazing how much attention this study is getting because we are finally recognizing that men are as vulnerable to some of these messages as women have been for so long.
How exciting is that for you to be able to get the word out about this study?
Tantleff-Dunn: What was really neat was to be able to do an experiment where we were actually manipulating men's body image and showing an impact with just very brief exposure. We really tried to use improved methods over the ones we’ve used with females. For example, we showed the commercials within an entire television show, whereas normally we just show commercial after commercial, which isn’t really how we watch television. It becomes very obvious to the participants what we’re after. So using these more naturalistic methods within the lab and getting a result the way we did to show that this does matter. This encourages people to take a second look at the media influences and challenge whether or not they’re just going to be sold an ideal image that they will spend a lot of their time and money pursuing or if they’re going to try to encourage things like healthy eating, dieting and self acceptance. I think that awareness helps people be less likely to fall prey to some of the negative influences.
After doing this study, who do you think has it worse? Do men or women have it worse?
Tantleff-Dunn: I think women still have it way worse. I can say that personally, but also from a research perspective. There still are far more commercials and products and areas of dissatisfaction for women. But that’s not to say that we won’t see a continued increase for men. It’s not a good thing for anybody to walk around feeling badly about themselves. So we’re just as concerned about the effects on men as we are women.
Do you think men are less likely to report these feelings of dissatisfaction?
Tantleff-Dunn: For sure. I think there’s a real taboo still that men are supposed to be concerned about their appearance, but not talk about it. Whereas women have their social support in talking with their friends about how they can’t stand their hair or that they want to lose a few pounds. It’s still uncommon for men to be very open about wanting to make a lot of changes, except maybe losing a few pounds and some concern about a beer belly. But an increased interest in cosmetic surgery and cosmetic products in general is still hush, hush.
How can men avoid letting themselves be influenced by the media?
Tantleff-Dunn: I think the best advice for men is very similar to what we tell women, which is to be really realistic about the images they’re viewing. It’s OK to focus on your health, focus on the functionality of your body. You should worry about if you are able to run? Are you able to participate in the activities that you want to? Do you have good health so that you’ll live a long life? You should be asking these rather than simply focusing on the body as a purely aesthetic object for other people to admire. It’s really important who you compare yourself to. If you look around at the other men you work with or the men in your family that might be a more realistic comparison group where you’ll measure up OK. But if you’re going to watch television or the movies and compare yourself to the latest beefcake, you’re probably not going to fair as well, and that’s what’s going to make you feel badly. So you have to have really realistic targets for comparison and a realistic image of how important your appearance is in your life.
Were you surprised at the results of this study you did?
Tantleff-Dunn: I was a little surprised. Men in our culture are taught that they’re valued for how much money they make or what level of success they have, not so much for how they look. But things really are changing. The results really showed us that nobody can escape the effects of these ideal images we’re exposed to in so many different media forms every day.
Is one type of media worse in imposing body images?
Tantleff-Dunn: I think commercials have a great impact. When somebody goes to the movies, they know they’re looking at movie stars. They know Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt and they’re not necessarily held to that standard. But commercials are very subtle, and we are exposed to so many of them. We were in a state of shock at how much television our male students reported watching. The average was seeing about 25 of these commercials every single day. So because of the amount that they’re exposed to and how subtle sometimes they are, I think those messages probably pack a bigger punch.
Are you going to do any more studies?
Tantleff-Dunn: Absolutely. We are working on developing a study, actually a measure. We’re collecting data to further polish our ability to get at what men are really concerned about, what about their muscles concerns them. We’re also doing a really interesting study as a result to the large number of messages I get every day asking me if I’d like to enlarge my penis, we’ve decided to study whether or not all of this attention to male penis size is a result of an actual dissatisfaction men have or if this is just another marketing scheme to create concern, where maybe there wasn’t any before. So we’re actually doing a study this semester, focusing on that particular body part.
Do men want to be more muscular because they think women prefer it?
Tantleff-Dunn: I did a study, and women don’t prefer men to be as muscular as men think they do. Just like in that same study males preferred a breast size that wasn’t quite as large as what women thought they preferred. Men also don’t prefer women to be as skinny as women think they do. So we have these really stereotypical views of what the other gender wants, or what people, women think women prefer skinnier.
Do men also get big as much to impress other men as much as they try to impress women?
Tantleff-Dunn: Absolutely. Much like peacocks compete with their feathers. I do think there’s some social comparison going on, and you just want to compare very positively so that you’re at least as big if not bigger than the guy standing next to you to feel good about yourself. But there are still some males who don’t think that muscles are terribly important and they focus on other aspects of themselves, like how smart they are or how much money they’re going to make. So it does seem to be a subculture that is really focused on getting as bulky as they possibly can.
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END OF INTERVIEW
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