Saturday, March 15, 2008

Men and dieting part 1

A couple of years ago I was explaining my area of research at a job interview. After I had given what I considered a clear and full account of my work, the only man in the room said 'There is an obvious logical error in your work'. I was totally taken aback and meekly asked what it was. 'What about men?' he said. I had never really considered men in relation to dieting before. My interest in the area stems from being a woman myself, and I always felt that it was nice to work on something that men hadn't managed to monopolise yet. This post is a concession to that male interviewer, and to the many other men who have told me 'it's just as bad for men'.

Men also have role models and heroes. Over the centuries, literature has been full of ever changing images of the ideal man. In 1813 Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice:

Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.

Attractive men were tall, straight and rich.

In the 1950s Charles Atlas used to be the ideal man. Men were sold work-out kits and body-building equipment. They had to be large, powerful and strong. They were men of few words and lots of muscles. But what is the message now? Do men have an image that they have to conform to?

Diet Start

It is often assumed that the media focus only on women's bodies in their attempts to sell a wide variety of products. Most adverts still have women modelling anything from clothes to cars

to cleaning fluid. I asked several men if they felt there were pressures on men to look a certain way.

One 25-year-old NHS manager immediately replied: 'Definitely' and proceeded to provide a detailed description of the ideal man:

You have to be tall, in a sharp suit (casual but smart), exuding money. The ideal body is well built, wide shoulders, a v-shaped back tapering to a firm bottom with dimples and a flat stomach.

He felt that men used to be proud of their beer guts but now they were ashamed and hid them.

Another 25-year-old man said that the ideal man was summed up by the actor Richard Gere: 'Not over-muscular, fit and at fighting weight. So that you don't really notice his body, but it is capable of doing what it's supposed to do without impairing itself' He felt that the ideal body was to do with fitness and health. He felt that the ideal body was one that was not noticeable because it was 'how a man's body should be'. Another felt that the ideal man was 'lithe, fit, stubbly and dark haired'.

I also asked several men what these images meant to them. The most common answer was that being tall, thin and fit meant that you were in control, and control was central to the 1990s' image of the ideal man. It also meant that you were healthy and confident and therefore capable of being a success in all other areas of life.

With the rise of the 1980s' work ethic, men in the media have become leaner; they look hard working and healthy. The ideal man does not self-indulge, he is in control and in command of his life. Hedonism seems to be becoming a thing of the past and this is illustrated by the contemporary ideal man.

So where do these images come from? These pressures seem to come from three sources: other men, women and the media.

One man said: 'Other men joke about putting on weight. They say "you're letting yourself go a bit" or suggest that you should take up squash at lunchtime.'

Another said, 'You overhear women talking about firm bottoms and flat stomachs and you realise that that's what they expect.' He also said: 'You know that women find certain film stars attractive. You also realise that they know nothing about them apart from how they look and what their bodies are like, so you realise that it is their bodies that make them attractive.'

The pressure also comes from the media. Over recent years there has been an increase in men used in advertising, all of whom are thin and stereotypically attractive. Media men have become less hedonistic and increasingly in control and reserved. In a recent television advert, a young man is used to advertise healthy pre-cooked meals. He is thin, healthy and represents clean living and self-control. He looks sensible. Male heroes of the 1960s and 1970s had an air of excess and debauchery about them. Now men are tame and controlled. The only media man that any of the men I interviewed could think of who was outside this image was Jack Nicholson who personifies total hedonism, self- indulgence and pleasure. Perhaps his attractiveness comes from his obvious rejection of social norms, and his ability not to conform, not to use tricks and not to be influenced by what other people expect.

Women tend to assume that men can get away with a greater variety of looks, sizes and shapes than women. It is believed that the male personality can compensate for many (but not all) physical characteristics. Woody Allen is a sex symbol; the female equivalent would never have even made it through the studio door. However, the media do seem to present an image of the ideal man of the 1980s and 1990s. How do men respond to these images? Do men feel dissatisfied with their bodies?

In 1968 Diabiase and Hjelle carried out a study to evaluate men's idea of the ideal body size. Groups of fat, average and thin men were shown silhouettes of male bodies which were also fat, thin and of average weight. The men were then asked to say which size they preferred and why. All the male subjects regardless of their own size preferred the average weight. They felt that both the thin and fat bodies represented qualities such as being shy, dependent and withdrawn, whereas the average-size body represented being active, energetic and dominant.

The men in the study showed a preference for a particular size. But was this reflected in a dissatisfaction with their own size?

Men and women were asked to rate their ideal size and their actual size. All the women subjects showed a large discrepancy between how they felt they looked and how they wanted to look, but the young men in the study did not. Regardless of their actual size, they felt satisfied with their weight.

Although men may report an ideal size and a preference for a particular body size this does not seem to be reflected in a dissatisfaction with their own size. It would seem that men are not directly affected with worries about their weight.

... andjoyohoxing