Men have body image worries too

Updated: 2006-10-07 15:59

NEW YORK - That guy in the Abercrombie & Fitch ad doesn't have a head, but does it really matter? His upper body is as sculpted as Michelangelo's David, all chiseled muscle, washboard abs and not a follicle of chest hair.

You don't just see him in the provocative ads for Abercrombie, the youth-oriented clothing chain: On billboards and in magazines everywhere, it seems, there's a male Adonis - buff, sleek, hairless. Like that famous 500-year-old statue, it's nice to look at. But how does it make the average guy feel?

Maybe not so great. With all the attention these days on the effect paper-thin models and actresses can have on girls and women, it's worth noting that men can suffer from body image problems, too.

"Body image is not just a concern for women," says researcher Deborah Schooler, who's looked into the adverse effects such media images can have on male self-esteem. "It affects men, too, and it demands attention."

In the past, research has understandably focused mostly on women, and the dangerous eating disorders that can stem from body-related emotional issues. And when looking at men, researchers asked the wrong questions, Schooler argues.

"Asking men about just weight or size misses the boat," Schooler, a research associate at Brown University, said in a telephone interview. What men are more concerned about, she says, are other "real-body" factors, like sweat, body hair and body odor.

In a study published last spring and recently featured in Seed magazine, Schooler, then at San Francisco State University, and a colleague looked at 184 male college students. The more media these young men "consumed", especially music videos and prime-time TV, the worse they felt about those "real" aspects of their bodies, the researchers found.

Further, they found that such negative feelings impacted their sexual well-being, in some cases leading to more aggressive and risky sexual behavior. (The study appeared in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.)

Does all this mean it's unhealthy for "Average Joes," as the researchers titled their study, to aspire to the lean, muscular body idealized by Michelangelo and Abercrombie alike? One prominent promoter of men's fitness argues no - unless, of course, it's an obsession.

"What's good about that image is that it's the picture of health," says David Zinczenko, editor of Men's Health magazine and a best-selling diet author. "With diabetes rates skyrocketing over the past 70 years, a little more 'lean' wouldn't hurt us."

Zinczenko points to all the role models with healthy and realistic bodies that have graced magazine covers: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman.

Indeed, the very concept of the male ideal appears to change with the seasons. "We seem to go from rugged to smooth, rugged to smooth," says the longtime fitness personality Richard Simmons, of "Sweatin' to the Oldies" fame. "You're either the Marlboro Man or you're the Surfer Boy. You're a cowboy, or you're a lean, mean swimming machine."

Body image, says Simmons, who now has a show on satellite radio, "is a very personal, private thing for guys, something they don't want to talk about." But make no mistake, he says: "Getting into a pair of jeans is just as important for a man as a woman. He wants to look good."

Years ago, Simmons says, when he was overweight, he would turn off the TV when he saw the ultrafit exercise guru Jack LaLanne, because it depressed him. Now, he says, at age 58, 148 pounds and "cute as a button," he spends his time trying to convince people to appreciate the bodies they have.

However complicated body-image issues are for men, it seems they will always be more fraught for women.

"For boys and men, engaging with these media images is more of a choice," says Deborah Tolman of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality in San Francisco. "There's just not the same requirement for a man in our society to look a particular way. As a man, you can look terrible and still be very well respected."

As a girl, "you can be the best debater at school," Tolman says. "But if you're fat, you don't get people's admiration, despite your skill. That's not true with boys."

And what of LaLanne, now 92, who so depressed the young Simmons decades ago that he turned off the TV?

Of the incessant media images, the still-avid exerciser says, "Maybe at least that'll get 'em out doing something!" Aspiring to today's ideal body is fine, he says, as long as it's what you want. He deplores, though, the overly muscular type that "looks like they use steroids. Once you start fooling with Mother Nature, you're in trouble."

As for his own image issues, LaLanne, who still works out two hours every morning, says they're solely focused on sticking around a while longer.

"I can't afford to die," LaLanne explains. "It would wreck my image."