More and more, there is a growing awareness around the ways in which media messages negatively impact the body image and self-esteem of women and girls. But what about men and boys? Though the dialogue around it may not be as robust, the way that men and boys see themselves is certainly shaped by the media.
As is the case with girls, boys are taught from a young age to buy into certain cultural ideas about what it means to “be a man.” Cartoons and action figures marketed to boys often depict superheroes, soldiers, and sports stars. The “benefit” of this, as discussed in our blog on women, body image, and the media, is that boys are encouraged to actively participate in society in a way that girls sometimes are not. However, there is a downside to this as well, when it comes to boys’ self esteem.
Clearly, the primary message delivered by much of the merchandise geared towards boys is that to be masculine, men and boys must have a toned, muscular physique. The more subtle message is that some of the activities that girls’ toys tend to center around—like homemaking and child rearing—are not masculine, and that “real men” aren’t interested in them.
Children’s television and movies reinforce the same idea. The male heroes are usually very action-oriented, frequently taking charge in order to “save the day.” The result is that many boys begin to internalize a caricature of masculinity. What makes a man “masculine,” boys are taught, is to have large muscles, and to appear strong at all times. Showing emotion and being introspective are also seen as less masculine.
As boys grow up, the depictions of masculinity they’re presented with don’t improve much. Male models are typically very slender and handsome. Male characters in movies are usually depicted as being very strong physically, and often use that strength in violent ways to solve their conflicts.
Just as women are told they need to be beautiful to be considered valuable, men are told they must be physically appealing as well—and a large part of that is having an unrealistically toned physique, and the mentality that goes along with it. The message men receive is that they must be muscular “alpha males,” who display strength, but not emotion.
The negative impacts of this are twofold. First, men are taught to ignore any impulses that may not be seen as traditionally masculine. This can make it difficult for them to learn to open up emotionally, or to pursue careers or interests that may be viewed as “less manly.”
Secondly, this compounds the issue of body image for men. It is understandable how men can develop insecurities around their physical appearance—and by extension, their masculinity—when they’re constantly being fed messages that tell them they must meet an unrealistic standard. But because part of the media’s portrayal of ideal masculinity entails not talking about emotions, they are often reluctant to discuss their fears and concerns with others. What’s more, worrying about one’s appearance is typically seen as the domain of women, and some men fear the reaction they’ll get from others if they attempt to talk through their insecurities about their bodies.
One important way for men to minimize the effects of negative media messages is to take media diets. Whenever possible, it is a good idea to disconnect—turn off phones and stay away from computers and televisions for an afternoon. And instead, spend the time with loved ones or doing something more enjoyable or meaningful. In addition, it is important to consciously choose to watch, read, and listen to media sources that promote a more holistic, positive ideal of masculinity whenever possible. We may not be able to shut out all the unhealthy and unhelpful messages about what men’s bodies should look like, but we can choose to give our attention to the images that uplift us and inspire us to be our best selves!
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