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Do representations of male muscularity differ in
David A. Frederick , Daniel M.T. Fessler, Martie G. Haselton
1285 Franz Hall, Department of Psychology, 3rd Floor Mailroom, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA
Received 1 October 2004; received in revised form 20 December 2004; accepted 21 December 2004
Men overestimate the degree of muscularity that is attractive to women, and women overestimate the degree of thinness that
is most attractive to men. Consistent with the thesis that sociocultural input influences such body type preferences and beliefs, wepostulated that magazines aimed at a male audience would portray a more muscular male body ideal than would magazinesaimed at a female audience. Systematic comparison of popular magazines (Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, andMuscle & Fitness) revealed that the ideal male body marketed to men is more muscular than the ideal male body marketed towomen. We introduce the Physical Trait Overvaluation Hypothesis, which proposes that gender-specific media fuel emphasis oncertain body parts in within-gender prestige competitions. The resulting competitive escalation creates a disconnect between thepreferences of one gender and the personal aspirations of the other.
# 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Body image; Muscularity; Male body ideal; Mass media; Physical Trait Overvaluation Hypothesis; Prestige competition
People assess themselves on a variety of criteria,
ing images of the idealized male physique, men’s body
including their physical attractiveness, by comparing
themselves to gender-specific ideals communicated to
fitness magazines is correlated with higher levels of
body image dissatisfaction and more frequent con-
media images of muscular men that exemplify the
templation of the use of steroids (e.g., ;
contemporary American vision of the ideal male body
Media representations of the ideal male body as
muscular may influence the body shapes men desireand strive to achieve. Studies have assessed men’s
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 310 665 0784.
body type preferences by presenting participants with
firstname.lastname@example.org (D.A. Frederick).
an array of male bodies that vary in percentage
1740-1445/$ – see front matter # 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
D.A. Frederick et al. / Body Image 2 (2005) 81–86
of muscularity and asking men to indicate their
Do magazines present different ideals to male and
current and ideal body. In these studies, men chose as
ideal a body that was more muscular than their currentbody
We compared male bodies presented in three types
of magazines: Female-Audience (Cosmopolitan),
Male-Audience (Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness),
and Body-Builder Audience (Muscle & Fitness).
Women in the contemporary West find male bodies
Given that men overestimate the level of muscularity
that are more muscular than average most attractive,
women desire, we predicted that men represented in
and men recognize that women prefer these body
the Female-Audience magazine would be less
muscular than those in the Male-Audience magazines.
The Body-Builder Audience magazine was included
advertisements in leading US women’s magazines
to establish that the Male-Audience magazines portray
(Cosmopolitan and Glamour) observed that images of
an ideal that is less muscular than those marketed
undressed men increased from 3% in the 1950s to
towards individuals interested in muscularity per se,
35% in the 1990s, suggesting that male physiques are
and to demonstrate that the rating instrument used in
becoming more important to women over time (
this study can discriminate between the levels of
muscularity ranging from non-muscular to extremelymuscular.
Overestimating the importance and attractiveness of
Publications were selected because they have a
wide circulation and/or are marketed to our targetaudiences of interest. Cosmopolitan magazine has a
Past research has asked women to indicate the level
readership of 16 million women, and 89% of them are
of female thinness desired by men, and then separately
measured men’s preferences for female thinness.
). The majority of Men’s Health’s readers are men
Some results indicate that women overestimate the
(85%), and the majority (71%) are between the ages of
level of female thinness desired by men (e.g.,
litan ranked 14th in revenue among all U.S.
although other research suggests that women
magazines, Men’s Health ranked 42nd, and Muscle
and Fitness and Men’s Fitness did not rank in the top
designed for men has shown that men desire a level
impression based on the advertisements in these
of muscularity that is greater than the level found
magazines that Men’s Fitness is marketed to a
population similar to that of Men’s Health, whereas
Muscle & Fitness is marketed to body-builders.
estimate the level of muscularity women find ideal() and the level women desire ina short-term sexual partner (
We examined whether the contrast between men’s
perceptions of women’s preferences and women’sactual preferences is reflected in differences in the
We located 100% of the issues of Cosmopolitan
images presented by gender-specific media. To
magazine published between June 2002 and Septem-
explore whether the ideal level of male muscularity
ber 2004 (28 issues), 100% of the issues of Men’s
presented in media aimed at men differs from that
Health from January 2001 to August 2004 (36 issues),
which is presented in media aimed at women, we
93% of the issues of Men’s Fitness from January 2002
compared images of men taken from the covers or
to August 2004 (27 of 29 issues), and 81% of the issues
centerfolds of magazines marketed to each gender.
of Muscle & Fitness from January 2002 to August
D.A. Frederick et al. / Body Image 2 (2005) 81–86
Fig. 1. The Muscle Silhouette Measure presents a series of eight images that increase linearly in percentage of muscularity ().
2004 (22 of 27 issues). We made color photocopies of
was half way between images 4 and 5, they could
the front covers of Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and
Muscle & Fitness, and the monthly ‘‘Hunk of theMonth with His Shirt Off’’ centerfold in Cosmopo-litan. We selected the covers rather than advertise-
ments because of the widespread visibility of thecovers; even non-subscribers are exposed to the covers
Four of the Muscle & Fitness covers featured only
at stores and newsstands, hence the covers presumably
women on the cover, and two of the Men’s Health
covers presented only a man’s face; these issues were
Five undergraduate research assistants (two males,
treated as missing data. The coders showed high inter-
three females) were coders. Ignorant of the hypothesis,
rater reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = .96) and a pattern
each coder rated the muscularity level of all images.
of high inter-correlations between coders (rangingfrom r = .80 to .90), suggesting that the coders were
highly similar in their proportional ordering of images.
A three-way ANOVA was conducted to determine
The coders employed the Muscle-Based Silhouette
if the magazines differed from each other in terms of
Measure (see consisting of eight male images
muscularity level, with the following independent
ranging from a slender and non-muscular individual
variables: Magazine (Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health,
(Image 1) up to a slender and very muscular individual
Men’s Fitness, and Muscle and Fitness), Rater, and
(Image 8). The images were drawn from photographs,
Image (nested within magazines). There was a
representing different levels of mesomorphy, in
Sheldon’s The Atlas of Men (1954). The scale has
33) = 57.3, p < .001, partial eta-squared = .840, when
good test–retest reliability when used to assess men’s
controlling for the effects of Coder, Image nested
perceptions of their current level (r = .83) and ideal
within Magazine, the interaction of Coder with
level of muscularity (r = .89). The validity of the scale
was previously confirmed by comparing participants’self-ratings to ratings of each participant’s muscularity
by three independent judges using the same form. The
ratings made by judges showed acceptable inter-rater
Coders were instructed to rate the muscularity level
of the man portrayed in each picture using intervals of
.25. For example, if they perceived that the
Note: Pairwise comparisons revealed that the four magazines dif-
muscularity level of the man pictured in the magazine
fered from each other at the p < .001 level.
D.A. Frederick et al. / Body Image 2 (2005) 81–86
factor contributing to men’s overestimation of thelevel of muscularity desired by women may be related
to the level of muscularity represented as ideal inMale-Audience magazines.
These results indicate that, as predicted, Female-
Audience magazines present representations of the
The Physical Trait Overvaluation Hypothesis
ideal male body that are less muscular than Male-Audience
Research to date has documented that exposure to
were also less muscular than magazines specifically
media representations of same-sex bodies affects
viewers’ personal body ideals and their level of bodyimage satisfaction (see
Ideal body forms presented in Western media havechanged over time, with declines in female body fat
The images displayed in the Male-Audience
and increases in male muscularity; correspondingly,
magazines may not be typical of all Male-Audience
there have been increases in levels of body dis-
magazines. Our initial intention was to also code
shirtless male images in other Male-Audience
). In making sense of these patterns, many
magazines (e.g., Details, GQ, Maxim, etc.). However,
review of these magazines revealed that they did not
) argue that individuals assess themselves on a
routinely feature shirtless men, with the exception of
variety of criteria, including their physical attractive-
advertisements for ‘‘muscle enhancement supple-
ness, by comparing themselves to gender-specific
ments.’’ This led us to evaluate only Men’s Health
ideals communicated to them by society. While some
and Men’s Fitness. Nevertheless, we believe these
version of this explanation is likely correct, it leaves
findings are informative given that the covers of these
unanswered the question of why the body form held as
and similar magazines are the principal source of the
ideal by one sex should diverge from the other sex’s
images of shirtless men to which large numbers of men
ideal for those individuals. Given the often-explicit
are exposed in supermarkets, bookstores, and news-
linkage between body form and sex appeal, why do
stands. Lastly, we cannot rule out the possibility that,
women overestimate the level of female thinness
because the coders were not blind to the magazine
titles, these titles influenced ratings. However, because
the coders were not aware of the hypothesized
differences between the magazines, we presume the
findings are not due to such influence.
Our results suggest that the media plays a role in the
misfit between the body form perceived by members
of one sex as attractive and that which is actually mostattractive to members of the other sex. While this is
In a previous study, 124 college-aged women were
congruent with existing explanations of the relation-
asked to rate their ideal short-term sexual partner
ship between media portrayals and body ideals, it
using the same Muscle Silhouette Measure employed
raises the question of the source of the disparities
between media aimed at one gender and media aimed
rating of the muscularity of the Cosmopolitan images
at the other. To explain these patterns, it is helpful to
closely resembles college women’s mean ratings of
examine the processes underlying the acquisition of
their ideal short-term sexual partner (M = 4.49,
SD = 1.05) but appears more muscular than women’sratings of the average male (M = 2.86, SD = 1.06). The
Cosmopolitan images appear less muscular than the
In all human societies, people compete for prestige
mean ratings of the ideal short-term sexual partner that
men believe women desire (M = 5.04, SD = 1.17). One
university, prestige competition includes such varied
D.A. Frederick et al. / Body Image 2 (2005) 81–86
aspects of the person as the clothes on one’s body or
may overestimate include breast and buttock size and
the automobile in one’s garage. In addition, around the
shape, penis size, foot size, and height (e.g.,
world, body form constitutes an arena for prestige
This account sheds light on the power of the media
to influence body ideals and generate body dissatis-
The body as an arena for prestige competition
faction. The media highlights high-status individuals
While some avenues for prestige competition are
who display extreme versions of the bodily traits at
arbitrary (e.g., fashions and fads), others originate
issue, fueling prestige competition. In order to
from aspects of life to which the human mind is
maintain their preeminence, celebrities must often
innately attuned. Given the importance of mate choice
work hard to manifest even more extreme versions of
for reproductive success, natural selection and sexual
the attributes at issue. Similarly, magazines, videos,
selection likely endowed the minds of our ancestors
and television programs frequently feature relatively
with propensities to attend both to particular attributes
unknown individuals who, because they display many
of the bodies of members of the opposite sex, and to
other prestigious attributes (attractive faces, posses-
the preferences displayed by such individuals with
sion of prestigious objects, an association with
regard to the bodies of members of one’s own sex (cf.
attractive members of the opposite sex, and a linkage
with themes of sexual success), communicate the
The degree and distribution of female body fat is
message that they possess a prestigious body form.
likely one such feature because of its role in female
The difference in the muscularity of male bodies
portrayed in magazines aimed at men and those aimed
determinant of male success in hunting and combat in
at women is consistent with a pattern in which the
ancestral populations, can be expected to have special
media fuels gender-specific prestige competition
involving body form, enhancing a runaway process
Note that we are not claiming that natural selection
through which male body ideals diverge from
crafted rigid criteria for the evaluation of bodies, a
position inconsistent with the evident historical andcross-cultural variation in body ideals. Rather,selection attached heightened salience to some aspects
of bodies, female adiposity and male muscularitybeing likely candidates; this salience enhances the
This research was supported by generous support
likelihood that these aspects will be seized upon as
awarded to David Frederick by the Center for Culture,
Brain, and Development and by the Edward A.
Many forms of prestige competition involve only
Dickson Fellowship awarded by the Communication
members of one gender. Given differences between
female and male bodies, this is probably intrinsicallytrue of prestige competition involving body form.
Prestige competitions often generate runaway pro-cesses in which the attribute at issue becomes
increasingly exaggerated over time as competitorsstrive to outdo one another. Because bodily prestige
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