Body Image: An Empirical Study on Why Men Exercise

 

I. Introduction

This is a really personal topic, not because I am overly obsessed with my body image, but as I grow older I felt the need strive for a good, toned masculine stature. A body that that matches the likes of Davey Wavey, Colby Melvin, and Brandon Robert Brown, as well as some of my friends. I felt the need to be built; I felt I was too thin and not as muscular as I should be. I didn’t change because some imbecile decided to make fun of me for my used- to- be thin stature, rather, I chose to change on my own terms. I wondered why I started to have the idea to go to the gym and get a toned body, and why for that matter men choose to go to the gym. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though men and women do different exercises, “Men were slightly more likely than women to participate in sports and exercise activities on an average day…” (bls.gov, 2008). Similarly, a recent Gallup Poll also confirms that, “men are much more likely than women to say they exercise or engage in vigorous sports or activities on a regular basis” (gallup.com, 2005). Furthermore, the Gallup poll stresses that 33 percent of men exercise intensively, compared to 26 percent of women (gallup.com).

II. Preliminary Data and Themes

As I mentioned prior, I wondered why this was the case. Why do men exercise more than women? I started to ask a few people. A person asked told me, “It helps me unwind and …feels good overall in my opinion.” Another informant added that he wanted “to live a healthy lifestyle…” Another feels exercise is a way to stay “healthy and in shape!” I saw some recurring themes such as: living a healthy lifestyle and feeling good. I felt that these are superb reasons to exercise; in fact, I exercise partly for those reasons.

III. Finding a Deeper Meaning and Data

I knew from my opinion, my desire to exercise extended farther than living healthy and feeling well. There was an emotional, more psychological reason to my desire to exercise. I really wanted to find the true reason as to why men want to exercise because I believe that there is a deeper meaning to exercise than lifestyle and feeling good. I believe there are two reasons. The first reason is because of body image, the mood, and the mind. The second reason is our notion to compare ourselves to others; this is otherwise known as ‘compare and despair’.

IV. Body Image, the Mood, and the Mind

First, I believe it had something to do with body image, the mood, and the mind; all of these reasons are interrelated. Informant number four shares my opinion. He explains:

1) You tend to feel good if you look good, so looking good makes me happy. 2) It’s healthy to exercise, not only for keeping your body active but also for your mind. It’s been shown that exercise improves your mood…

I believe that men are portrayed by society as a masculine, the big and buff. Any man being non- masculine, or being or acting feminine is the odd ball in society and often are ostracized by society. This phenomena is known as the study of gender roles specifically, “masculine ideology” (psychologyofmen.org, n.d.).

In fact, the organization called Psychology of Men agrees with us that, “These include prescriptions for ways to act (be tough, stay in control, etc), attitudes to hold (work is very important, women should be be {sic} primary caregivers to children, etc), and ways to look (wear pants and suits, wear hair short, etc). It also includes proscriptions for ways not to act (don’t cry, don’t be a wimp, etc)… and ways not to present oneself (don’t wear a dress, don’t have long hair, etc)” (psychologyofmen.org, n.d.). By exercising, and by looking good, you feel good, partly because you fit into the portrayal of men in society, a society where men are supposed to act big, buff, and tough. Once you feel good and are satisfied that you fit in, your mind will be healthy because is absent of negative thoughts on body image.

V. Case Study

For example, I believe the reason why homosexual men exercise is because of body image and how they are presented in society. Despite efforts to reverse society’s outlook on homosexuals, society still views homosexuals as feminine, as outlandish girly figures dressed in rainbow colors at pride parades. In fact, things are not getting better (gvsu.edu, n.d.). In order to break that stereotype, they become manly by becoming big and buff so they can overcome the body image stereotype.

VI. Compare and Despair

Furthermore, ‘compare and despair’ is where we compare ourselves to others, mainly to our peers; then find out we have some kind of fault and we are somehow less than our peers. We go into a cycle of depression (matthewjdempsey.com, 2013). This can happen any day, at school, work, or even at a social gathering. I wanted to find out why we, as individuals compare ourselves with our peers, knowing that it may lead to our own destruction. I believe that there are several reasons why this phenomenon happens. I will explain each of them later. First, we live in a materialistic and consumeristic world fueled by advertisements telling us to consume the latest things on the market. Second, we value the Darwinist idea of ‘survival of the fittest’. The social food chain is very much on our mind. Lastly, we are in love with fame and fortune; the thought of money means everything to us. All of these reasons are interrelated.

We live in a world of material goods and the more new things we have implies we have status. We want status because we want fame and fortune. That means that we want to compete with others to see who comes on top of the social food chain. Whoever has the most expensive thing comes out on top of the cultural hierarchy. How many times have we seen the phrase ‘NEW and Improved car’ and descriptions such as, ‘a class leading fuel economy and more room than before’ in stock? In order to understand compare and despair, we must understand people’s love for dichotomies- new vs. old, beauty vs. ugly. The companies who made the products we buy capitalize on this knowledge to engineer phrases to exploit our feelings because they know people prefer new things versus old things and beauty vs. ugliness. Those who have old and obsolete, or near obsolete goods are inferior.

This is even furthered by our own sense of identity; we are so aware of our social status in society. Anne Norton, a researcher on consumerism explained it best, we want to know “what the garment means” (Norton, 1993). Because we become aware of what our clothes we wear, and what society thinks of us, we tend to feel inferior to society if we don’t match up. For example, we have a preconceived notion that Polo Ralph Lauren is associated with the upper class ($$$) and status. If our friends have R. Lauren shirts and we don’t then we would feel inferior and depressed because we prize our image very much. In other words we are becoming more of a materialistic society and thus we experience enormous social pressure to come out on top, making us feeling less than others if we don’t.

Similarly, since we are so focused on our identity and how we fit into society; we value beauty over ugliness. The media imposing social norms and dictates how we ought to look fuels this sense of identity even more. In other words, we compare our bodies to how the media wants us to look. The media believes men should look muscular and intrudes that image into our daily lives (Vartanian, 2009). Sometimes the internalization and belief of these social norms makes those who do not look like poster children of the media feel inferior to society. No one wants to feel inferior to society’s standards or to others who are the media’s poster people. For example when we are bombarded with advertisements of Calvin Klein or Polo Ralph Lauren, we see fit and muscular men appear on magazines and television modeling for the brand, not fat ugly looking men. Again, we compare these images with our own bodies and fall into a cycle of despair because we look fat and ugly compared to the models. Once we don’t appreciate and respect our bodies for what they are worth, we find ways to make our bodies look fit, exercise being one of them (Homan and Tylka, 2013). In fact, it has been proven that “males appear to be dissatisfied with their stomach, chest and arms and would like to increase the size (e.g., muscular appearance) of these body parts” thus they exercise to solve this dissatisfaction (McCabe and Ricciardelli, 2004 and Ridgeway and Tylka, 2005)[1].

VII. Case Study

Case in point, gay men tend to be dissatisfied with their body and thus have low self- esteem compared to heterosexual men (Rad and McLaren, 2013). In fact, gay men score higher on self-report measures for weight and shape concerns (Hospers and Jansen, 2005). This is because gay men define physical attractiveness as physical strength, upper- body muscularity, and leanness (Yelland and Tiggemann, 2003). Placing a keen sense of this definition of attractiveness makes gay men prone to compare their body stature with other men. If they feel that they don’t match up to other men who are ‘poster- children’ of the definition of attractiveness, peer pressure kicks in and they will feel inferior and go into a cycle of depression. In order to ‘fit’ in to the stereotypical definition (social normals) of attractiveness they will do things such as exercise.

Interestingly enough, the definition of attractiveness that is widely used in the gay community is conjured up, not by they community itself, but by “the social environment in which gay men are raised” (psychology today.com). More simply, the media is dictating how men in general should look. The media is telling men that looking physically strong, muscular, and lean mean being a true man. Then why do men, especially gay men, drink the media’s ‘Cool-Aid’ and exercise? I have one explanation, since gay men are ostracized by mainstream society as feminine girly people and they have the notion that big and buff means masculine and by looking this way they will fit into the mainstream society. Thus, gay men exercise “stave off detection of one’s sexual orientation” (psychology today.com) or to compensate for the society’s stereotypes of them as girly creatures.

VIII. Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that there is a deeper meaning to exercise than lifestyle and feeling good; it had something to do with body image, the mood, and the mind as well as our constant notion to compare ourselves with others, otherwise known was ‘compare and despair’. Men are portrayed by society as a masculine, the big and buff. Any men being non- masculine men, or in other words, a male being or acting feminine is the odd ball in society and often are ostracized by society. However, as we progress through the twenty first century where the United States, and some parts of the world have slowly started to be inclusive and accepting of non- confirmative ways of living, gender roles are ideas of the past and should be abandoned. For example, we have seen some gender flopping in the United States. That is there are more and more stay at home dads and the mother is the breadwinner. In fact, the Pew Research Center finds that almost 2 million fathers are at home, up from 1.1 million in 1989 (npr.org, 2013). So what does all this have to do with exercise? Well, it is sad that exercise, a wonderful thing to do, has become more of a means to break hold stereotype that men are supposed to be masculine, big and buff, and men why don’t fit in are outsiders. Granted, we are slowly moving forward to becoming a more inclusive society in certain areas, but how were we supposed to move to be an more inclusive society in all areas of living if we still hold the that stereotype?

IX. References

Carroll, J. (2005, December 6). Regular Exercise: Who’s Getting It? Retrieved June 18, 2014, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/20314/regular-exercise-whos-getting-it.aspx

Dempsey, M. (2013, August 7). Matthew J Dempsey’s Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2014, from http://www.matthewjdempsey.com/blog/

Exercise Statistics All Over the Map. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2008/sports/

Ford, M. (n.d.). A Brief History of Homosexuality in America – Allies & Advocates – Grand Valley State University. Retrieved June 18, 2014, from http://www.gvsu.edu/allies/a-brief-history-of-homosexuality-in-america-30.htm

Homan, K., & Tylka, T. (2014). Appearance-based exercise motivation moderates the relationship between exercise frequency and positive body image. Body Image, 11(2), 101-108. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.drew.edu/science/article/pii/S1740144514000047

Hospers , H., & Jansen, A. (2005). Why homosexuality is a risk factor for eating disorders in males. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(8), 1188-1201. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.drew.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d2c131d2-106d-49bf-84a3-b7f364f8fc14%40sessionmgr198&vid=16&hid=122

Ludden, J. (2013, May). Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinner Moms And Making It All Work : NPR. Retrieved June 18, 2014, from http://www.npr.org/2013/05/15/180300236/stay-at-home-dads-breadwinner-moms-and-making-it-all-work

McLaren, S., & Rad, P. (2013). The relationships between sense of belonging to the gay community, body image dissatisfaction, and self-esteem among Australian gay men. Journal of Homosexuality, 60(6), 927-943. Retrieved from http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezproxy.drew.edu/Direct.asp?AccessToken=951IDIX8XKX5EMQMMQK91QMEU5P581Q4I&Show=Object

Mustanski, B. (2013, April). Why Do Young Gay Men Try to Be the Best? | Psychology Today. Retrieved June 18, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-sexual-continuum/201304/why-do-young-gay-men-try-be-the-best

Norton, A. (1993). The Signs of Shopping. In Republic of signs: Liberal theory and American popular culture. Chicago: University

Psychology of Men » Male Gender Role. (n.d.). Psychology of Men » Male Gender Role. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://www.psychologyofmen.org/item/male-gender-role

Vartanian, L. (2009). When the body defines the self: Self-concept clarity, internalization, and body image.. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(1), 94-126.

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