Muscling Up: Australian men, sexualisation and body image enhancement

A muscular man lifting weights.

IDEAS ABOUT MEN AND MASCULINITY MAY BE SHIFTING

The research describes masculine journeys of self-improvement and self-discovery.

Dr Duane Duncan
Psychology, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Have you noticed a shift in the priorities and interests of the men around you? In every town, and on every city block, supplement stores abound. Images of tanned, toned, athletic male bodies populate movies, magazines, Instagram and Facebook threads. Fashion, skin care, dieting – such things are no longer just the preserve of women. Men are freer to engage in practices related to modifying their bodies, with the aim of simply looking good, than they were just a generation ago; and not just athletes, actors and models – it is ‘ordinary blokes’ too.

UNE researcher Dr Duane Duncan suggests that our ideas about men, and masculinity may be shifting. Whilst it is fair to say that men have always cared about how they look – appearing not to care is still caring about your appearance! – the speed and visibility of these changes raise important questions not only for researchers, but for anyone interested in the meanings of gendered social change in their own lives.

Duane and his colleagues from the Centre in Sex, Health and Society at Latrobe University believe it’s a mistake to understand these transformations just in terms of personal choice, or individual psychology. Men are more concerned with their appearance, but dissatisfaction with how they look is only one aspect driving this change. The researchers are interested in what other experiences, motivations, and effects are implicated in the opportunity for men to care about how they look.

Researchers have talked with young men who work out, and who take an interest in how they look. Dr Duncan says that, even in these early stages of the research it is already clear that there are important insights for men’s health and service providers, as well as gender and sexuality researchers.

The men we interviewed rejected the notion that they were chasing some external body image ideal. And, whilst many wanted to be more muscular, this wasn’t driven by some deep-seated anxiety about masculinity and strength. Indeed, there was a strong stigma attached to being too big. Their own motivations for caring about their bodies’ appearance were much more contextual and social – shaped by the practice of working out, learning, and the excitement of discovering new capacities.

Dr Duncan believes the research describes masculine journeys of self-improvement and self-discovery, and that working out provides an important escape from external life pressures such as work, family and study. These motivations were framed by their experience of coming to the male body as a site of failure – a consequence of the ways in which boys’ bodies are set up in relation to masculinity and sport, in adolescence, in particular.

Working out in the gym provided men with positive ways of talking about experiences and feelings, particularly related to their health and the management of stress. Being susceptible to unrealistic images of men in the media, or being preoccupied with being ‘hot’ were described as weaknesses. The men interviewed rejected the suggestion that their own behaviour was irrational, excessively self-interested, or vain. They were motivated by wanting to appear sexually attractive and were interested to know whether they were attractive to women, but were embarrassed or uncomfortable discussing such motivations, suggesting that older ideas about self-effacement remain influential in men’s lives.

The research team also talked with women about the visibility of men’s sexual bodies. Women were surprised that men were concerned about whether their bodies were attractive, and how perceptions of attractiveness affected intimate relationships. Women supported men working out for the ‘right reasons’ (i.e. for health and self-improvement), and described an increased freedom to enjoy the bodies of men as sexual ‘objects’. However, the women interviewed acknowledged that this created tensions with their commitment to challenge oppressive media ideals that perpetuate the objectification of women’s bodies. Women were concerned that men were being duped into painful beauty practices like those that discipline women’s bodies.

As a sociologist, Dr Duncan remains fascinated by the diversity of men’s motivations, the effects of these practices in men’s lives, and the lives of those around them. Working out is not just a commitment to physical health, but also one to self-improvement and well-being, and the order and structure such practices bring to men’s daily lives. The pleasures of working out and of being admired and thought attractive by others, additionally meant that many were committed to maintaining their lifestyle well into the future. The indications are that this research, as yet in the early stages, will paint a provocative picture of the influences and investments shaping men’s lives in the early twenty-first century.

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