Stonehill College, Undergraduate
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Stonehill College, Associate Professor of Sociology
Ashley Garland, BA.
In this article we investigate heterosexual college-age women’s and men’s body image development and overall body concept within the context of their sexual-gender identities and attraction ideals. We conducted in-depth interviews with 38 women and men. We situate our analysis within feminist constructionist scholarship, socio-cultural body image research, and social science research on body image and sexuality. This research extends the current body of knowledge by comparing body image satisfaction and dissatisfaction across gender, via descriptive qualitative data with a focus on how attraction ideals affect body image. Moreover, through a holistic analytical process, we examine female body concept within the context of male peer culture. We suggest that heterosexual female body image is directly related to the awareness of male attraction ideals, whereas female attraction ideals have no such impact on the development of body image in heterosexual males.
Heterosexual Male and Female Body Image
Heterosexual males have been largely overlooked in socio-cultural research on body image. The primary focus of body image scholarship has centered on women across sexual orientations and homosexual men. Specifically, the majority of research on body image has concluded that gay men and heterosexual women experience the most body dissatisfaction (Brand, Rothblum, & Soloman, 1991; Conner, Johnson, & Grogan, 2004; Feingold & Mazzella, 1998; French, Story, Remafedi, Resnick, & Blum, 1994; Muth & Cash, 1997; Siever, 1994). Similarly, Morrison, Morrison, and Sager (2004) conducted a meta-analysis, synthesizing the research on body image and sexuality. Their analysis also found that gay men experience less body satisfaction than heterosexual men and heterosexual women experience slightly less body satisfaction than lesbian women. Furthermore, in the instances where heterosexual male body appears in the literature, it is placed in opposition to research about homosexual men (Lakkis, Ricciardelli, & William, 1999; Silberstein, Mishkind, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1989).
Despite the dominance of women and homosexual men in the body image literature, there are studies that focus on heterosexual male body image. Much of this research focuses on the increased importance of muscularity within the context of hegemonic masculinity. Many suggest that the influence of the media has exponentially increased body dissatisfaction among men. The increased cultural focus on muscularity has subsequently driven some men to self-objectify; this self-objectification has lead to body image disorders such as muscle dysmorphia (Baird & Grieve, 2006; Grieve & Helmick, 2008; Mussap, 2008; Walker, 2009; Wienke, 1998).
Although the study of heterosexual male body image in and of itself is significant, we are focusing on it in the context of heterosexual female body image. Our research is intended to fill a gap in the literature and explore the relationship between heterosexual female body image and heterosexual male body image. In particular, we explore how perceptions of opposite-sex attraction ideals impact male and female body image differently. We also consider the social context in which these ideals emerge and are communicated to males and females. Our research suggests that larger issues of gender and power are at play in the differing embodiments men and women experience.
The Social Construction of Hegemonic Femininity and Masculinity
Drawing on sociological constructionist scholarship we contend that masculinity and femininity are contingent, mass-mediated constructs enacted by men and women. Pfohl (2008) theorizes the core of constructionism as follows:
“Things are… partially shaped and provisionally organized by the complex ways in which we are ritually positioned in relation to each other and to the objects we behold materially, symbolically, and in the imaginary realm. The ritual historical positioning of humans in relation to cultural objects and stories that we both make and are made over by—this, perhaps, is the elementary form of an effective social construction. This elementary form casts a circle of believability around artificially constructed accounts of the world. At the same time, the believability of the social constructions that lie inside the circle depends on what the circle expels to the outside. In this sense, social constructions are, at once, constituted and haunted by what they exclude” (2008, pp. 645-646).
We apply this conception to the study of masculinity and femininity as sets of rules for “doing gender” (Lorber, 1994; West & Zimmerman, 1987) that are defined as “feminine” and contrasted with the “masculine,” and vice versa. Lorber (1994, 2008) contends gender is a culturally and historically specific organizing principle for creating a gendered (and hierarchical) social order.
We begin with a review of dominant femininity. Hegemonic femininity prescribes both appearance and behavior. Research shows significant socio-cultural pressures on women to be thin (Ehrenreich & English, 1979; Ewen, 1976; Hansen, Reed, & Waters, 1986; Hartmann, 1976; Hesse-Biber, 1996, 2006; Hesse-Biber et al., 2004; Silverstein, 1984; Wolf, 1991). Women attempt to achieve this ideal through self-imposed body-based rituals (Hesse-Biber et al., 2004). In contemporary American society fat is equated with “a devaluation of the feminine” (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004, p. 611). Dworkin and Wachs (2004) found the pressure to be thin and “fit” has increased so dramatically in recent years that even women’s bodies pre, post and during pregnancy are now judged based on the appearance of “fitness” (which is associated with femininity). Thus, women are constantly engaged in a process of “bodywork” (Dworkin & Wachs, p. 618). The importance of “body type” with respect to achieving femininity cultivates appearance-driven attitudes and behaviors in some females.
This dominant, appearance-based version of femininity prescribes a range of behaviors with which women must comply in order to signal their femininity. These behaviors, which all feed capitalist interests by promoting consumerism, include: cosmetics, fashion, hair dyes, fitness clubs, cosmetic surgery and special or restrictive diets (Hesse-Biber 2006; Hesse-Biber et al., 2004). As social constructionist literature proposes, constructions of femininity and masculinity can only be properly understood in relation to each other. The relationship between dominant femininity and masculinity is one of polarization and exclusion. Akin to all social constructions, femininity and masculinity are partially defined by what they exclude (Pfohl 2008). In the case of gender, a dichotomous conception dominates, one that posits femininity is inclusive of traits deemed “feminine” and exclusive of traits deemed “masculine” (with the converse true for masculinity).
Thomas (2002) asserts that when studying masculinity it is necessary to consider “[the] effect of masculinity construction on women” (p. 62). For example, male projections of ideal femininity onto women are important when understanding both male and female body image. Modleski (1991) argues that “male subjectivity works to appropriate ‘femininity’ while [simultaneously] oppressing women” (p. 62). Power is consequently an integral part of hegemonic masculinity. Dominant masculine ideology is built upon and sustained by power, whether it is power in a physical or non-physical sense. Thus, being physically powerful and “bigger” (taking up more space) is symbolically powerful (Connell, 1987; Katz 1999; Kimmel, 2007; Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000; Wolf, 1991).
Past research on heterosexual male body image has identified dissatisfaction with physical size as the greatest source of body dissatisfaction among men (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996). Men most often report a desire to be larger with respect to muscle size (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996; Corson & Anderson, 2002; McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2004; Mishkind et al., 1986). Borchert and Heinberg (1996) contend that “men—and particularly young men—may be pressured not just to increase their size (e.g., the football player physique) but also to attain a muscular, yet lean, body” (p. 555). Maine (2000) proposes that “the hard, athletic, lean physique, not easily attained, is the new prototype for [men of] all ages” (p. 283). The physical prowess attained by reaching such an ideal serves as a vehicle for males to maintain power in the social sphere. Connell (1987) notes that this physical authority is significant for “allowing [the] belief in the superiority of men and the oppressive practices that flow from it” (p. 85). In other words, body size is not only a physical attribute, but an aspect of masculine social power.
Media Portrayals of Hegemonic Femininity and Masculinity
Kimmel (2007) observes that the media is a gendered institution which effects gender socialization. Thus, the media “reflects, constitutes, and reproduces” what is and is not considered to be feminine and masculine (Kimmel, 2007). According to the media, normative femininity is directly linked to physical size, with particular emphasis on thinness (Borchert & Heinberg, 1996; Cash & Henry, 1995; Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998). As a result “femaleness” is directly connected to physicality, whereas the link between “maleness” and size is inextricably connected to power. Wolf (1991) and Hesse-Biber (2006) explain this obsession with thinness as a backlash against the political, social, and economic power that women have gained throughout the years. Furthermore, Katz (1999) notes a direct link between the media’s portrayal of female size, their political, social and economic power, and the media’s portrayal of the size of men. He suggests that as women have gained more social power, their idealized bodies have shrunk in size, whereas the idealized male body has grown significantly.
Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory states that humans have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities. They first evaluate themselves through nonsocial means. However, if such means are unavailable, they evaluate themselves, through comparisons, with the opinions or abilities of other people. Thus, in contemporary America, the media is a significant means by which to evaluate and compare one’s self. Media images are crucial vehicles for creating appearance standards for both men and women (Field et al., 1999; Jones, Vigfusdottir, & Lee 2004; Levine, Smolak, & Hayden, 1994). These constructed media images can have a significant impact on conceptions of self when individuals internalize them (Jones et al., 2004). Furthermore, Jones et al. (2004) establish that women more regularly engage with appearance magazines, report more appearance conversations, endorse greater internalization of appearance ideals, and are more dissatisfied with their bodies than males. Significantly, Aruguete, Yates, and Edman (2006) contend that, although both men and women are affected by media images, women internalize images of ideal femininity (i.e., thinness and specific body shape/size) and men externalize those same images and messages onto women.
For this study we conducted in-depth interviews (Berg, 2001; Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2005; Weiss, 1994) with 38 college-age women and men in the northeast in order to learn about their body image within the context of their sexual and gender identities. We interviewed 22 women and 16 men that self-identified as heterosexual. We employed convenience sampling, soliciting local college students on their campuses and seeking participants via personal networks. We obtained IRB approval for this study. All of the interviewees signed informed consent forms indicating that their participation was voluntary, confidential, could be stopped at any time, and would be published for scholarly purposes only. Identifying information was removed from the transcripts and each participant was assigned a number.
Prior to the in-depth interviews we constructed an interview guide with broad categories or “lines of inquiry” (Weiss, 1994) to cover in each interview as well as specific open-ended questions listed under each category. Weiss (1994) refers to “lines of inquiry” as general lists of topics the researcher would like to learn about and pursue with the participant (pp. 46-47). The main categories were: Personal Background and Personal Relationships, Sexual Identity, Body Image Issues and Appearance Issues, Attraction Ideals, Body Concept Development, and Health Routines. An open-ended, unstructured approach was initially employed. The intent was to make certain that all of the major categories within the interview guide were covered in any order that flowed in a particular interview. However, after the initial five interviews we noticed specific themes that we did not anticipate. As such, we refined our interview guide and interview approach. At this point we created a new interview guide (see Appendix A) and moved to a semi-structured interview process. For these interviews, we asked all of the participants the same questions; however, we still asked additional open-ended questions as relevant to each interview and left time for participants to add additional information of their choosing.
After transcribing the in-depth interviews verbatim we coded the interview data. This process leads directly to developing theoretical categories and eventually to theory generation (Hesse-Biber, Howling, Leavy, & Lovejoy, 2004). The second and third authors thematically coded the data by hand, conceptualizing the analysis and interpretation process as a craft (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998). This approach views analysis and interpretation as an iterative, back-and-forth, process (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2005). As analysis occurred, interpretations of the coded data emerged, which were followed by further cycles of analysis and interpretation.
Overall, our female participants were significantly dissatisfied with various aspects of their bodies and viewed physical smallness as highly desirable. The male participants, in comparison, exhibited no significant common areas of body dissatisfaction. They did, however, often note a desire to be “bigger,” taller, and more muscular.
It is important to note that throughout our findings and conclusions we link our participants’ understanding of femininity and masculinity to dominant media portrayals. Although our participants do not explicitly talk about the influence of media on appearance ideals (and were not asked to), we suggest their attitudes implicitly reflect the media’s representation of femininity and masculinity. Our participants’ statements regarding appearance ideals are also consistent with the literature in this area (reviewed earlier).
Heterosexual Female Body Image in a Male Context
When prompted with the question: “what do you dislike about your body?” the female participants were quick to respond with specific examples. They uniformly expressed dissatisfaction with numerous parts of their bodies. Almost all of the participants shared the common frustrations encompassed in the following excerpt:
“Well my midsection is one and I think that’s a lot, I think a lot of females have that problem with their midsection. Definitely my thighs and my butt and my abs are definitely areas I would improve if possible, if at all possible.”
Nearly all of the participants stressed frustrations with specific parts of their bodies that they identified as areas of concern, dissatisfaction, and insecurity. Each body part the participants noted were the same parts that they continuously attempt to make smaller.
“Ugh…My thighs! Because I have fat thighs! I hate it! And I think, I feel like no matter how long I go to the gym, I’m never going to have skinny thighs. That just pisses me off.”
Another participant noted:
“If I’m going to be wearing a shirt that shows my stomach or something I should exercise a little or work on my abs.”
Even participants who did not point out specific parts of their bodies admitted to the desirability of being thinner and smaller:
“We have a thin mirror in our room and my roommate and I stare at ourselves and analyze ourselves in the mirror, and I definitely love it when I can look in the mirror and like what I see... when I can it makes me feel like everything I’ve done is totally worth it and like it doesn’t even matter that I haven’t eaten macaroni and cheese in months.”
Another participant contributed:
“And I mean I still... like being thin, I do it (work out) to stay in shape and to look decent.”
However, there is only one area in which some of the participants wanted to be bigger—their breasts. Seven participants reported that larger breasts are more desirable and, consequently, five participants noted dissatisfaction with their breast size:
“And my boobs, I wish my boobs were bigger!”
Another participant communicated this smaller/bigger ideal when describing her “ideal female”:
“…you know, tall and thin…not too flabby. Big boobs! Small thighs! Small hips!”
The female participants recounted extensive body dissatisfaction corroborating previous literature; however, we suggest the deeper significance lies in their responses to why they feel distressed and preoccupied with these particular body parts. Many participants commented that the pressures they face to achieve the ideal physique is a result of male attraction ideals:
“I don’t know. That’s a good question! I guess because that is what is seen as attractive by guys. And who doesn’t want to be seen as attractive by guys?"
Another participant noted:
“The only reason I notice it (her buttocks) is because guys have mentioned it to me… but I never would have noticed, until some guys started mentioning it.”
Furthermore, their body dissatisfaction is directly linked to what they perceive is attractive to males. As a result, these perceptions partly shape the female participants’ body concepts. The following participant became preoccupied with her legs because of a negative male cue.
“I don’t know. My big issue is my legs because when I was a freshman in college there was a boy that said I had shapely legs and I got really mad at him and that’s just kind of been one part of my body that I just don’t love I guess, you know I don’t love it, so I compare legs I think. I don’t know I just look at legs and think oh there’s a lot of cellulite on there or oh, there’s none on that, you know?”
One participant ironically noted the impracticality of larger breasts while simultaneously remarking on their appeal.
“Well, I’ve got to say, probably, man’s portrayal of what they like, because I’d say women, if they had to say what they like, they’d like smaller boobs, because bigger ones cause problems, you know, when you exercise they are all jiggly or what not. So I would have to say it’s definitely a male want.”
Moreover, another participant identified her internalization of male cues as the reason for her breast dissatisfaction:
“I felt like my boobs weren’t big enough, I would try to show my boobs off and they weren’t... it didn’t look good, because that’s not a good part, like the best part of my body. I would try to keep up with the girls that did have that...like my roommate, she was really, you know, she’s a small dancer but she has huge boobs and she would wear stuff that showed that off and I saw guys responding to that and I thought that’s the way my body was supposed to look like.”
Given the predominance of these kinds of responses in our female sample, our question became whether or not males in fact hold the ideal of attractiveness perceived by the females. Put simply, do males project these body standards onto females?
When prompted with the question “what are you physically attracted to in females?” nearly all of the male participants noted the value that they place on physicality and the role it plays in their overall attraction to females:
“Ok, I’ll start with physicalities. We all like that! Ha-ha. I say, it definitely has to start with the physical level, because if it doesn’t then it can’t go beyond that. Because uh, if you’re not attracted to somebody physically you can investigate as much as you want, but you’re still going to be missing like half the puzzle. So, the first thing you look at is someone’s physical attractiveness and then you explore more into that, so if you’re attracted to someone physically…I think for most people and myself the physical comes first.”
The following participant mandated a certain physical size a prerequisite for his attraction:
“I’m not a huge guy... girls have to be shorter than I am. I don’t know. It’s just a thing.”
When prompted with more general questions about attraction, the following participant prioritized his attraction ideals:
"Physically, she had nice breasts. She was really sweet and kind-hearted but I don’t know."
As a result of emphasizing the role of physical attractiveness, these male participants noted seeking specific physical qualities in females in order to ensure physical attraction. Significantly, these attraction ideals are the very same ideals about which our female participants are insecure as noted in the following male response:
“Um…right of the bat, I think it would have to go with physical. Face, body, hair, eyes…rear end…legs, you know that type of stuff.”
Five male participants placed particular stress on the areas of females that make them “smaller” and “petite.” These are the same areas about which females expressed dissatisfaction:
“I mean my like number one. I guess it’s kind of weird…but the things that I like in girls are like abs. I guess that’s kind of weird? But…ha-ha….ya, you have to have good abs.”
Another male participant asserted:
“I look for uh, someone who’s fit because I’m fairly skinny, so I don’t want to date a girl who’s ah…like chunky or something like that… I tend to go for short skinny girls.”
Furthermore, most of the male participants commented on the importance of breast size as they described their female ideal:
“A lot of guys look at breasts and…they’re nice, I’m not going to lie, they’re nice…Um, not too big, because then they just, I don’t know…waste. Not too small…just like medium.”
Significantly, the men’s responses regarding their attractiveness ideals for women contain great specificity. Our comparative data suggest that the female participants experienced feelings of inadequacy and routine distress about their bodies.
Heterosexual Male Body Image in a Female Context
When asked to discuss their own physical appearance, the male participants most often spoke about physical size in terms of height, weight and muscularity. They reported being dissatisfied with these aspects of their bodies and in ten instances wished to be bigger than they were. Three males noted a desire to be taller:
“I’d prefer to be taller but that’s just a “man thing”…Because, every guy wants to be taller, I mean I feel really bad for short guys, because…They suffer from like small man syndrome, people may think, oh small guy, small penis. And, you know that whole thing in society, like oh got to be the guy with the bigger dick. And stuff like that. I think you get more respect if you’re taller, in general, in different situations, I’ve just noticed that one of my friends in my whole crew, happens to be the tallest, and it seems like people really look, literally and figuratively, they look up to him! Ha-ha. I think part of it is definitely because of his personality and who he is as a person, but also I think it has to do with his height.”
This participant explains why it is important for a man to possess “the height advantage” so that he may garner respect. To be admired further, our participants revealed that it helps to be bigger in their muscle size and overall build. In response to the question “What don’t you like about yourself?” one participant responded by saying that he was dissatisfied with his current size and would like to improve upon that to be seen as more attractive:
“Well, again, there is…it gets back to the whole size, muscular issue, I think I could always stand to put on more muscle, gain weight, get bigger, so that I can fit that more attractive body type, I think that would be the main thing. For a while I was comfortable with myself, but then I sort of…You know, that would be the main thing, if I could change anything that would be it.”
When our male participants reported negative body issues, no general themes outside of the category of physical size emerged. Besides dissatisfaction with height, weight and muscularity, there were only admissions of problems unique to the individual. For example, participant six discussed being insecure about his freckles, and participant twelve showed concern over a receding hairline. This is considerably different than our findings with female participants, in that the women’s dissatisfactions were rarely ever unique to the individual, and were most often shared by at least one, if not more, female participants.
Despite accounts of dissatisfaction with aspects of their physical size, our male participants did not report being significantly affected by the consequences of such dissatisfaction—especially in comparison to the impact of body dissatisfaction on our female participants. Although the males expressed insecurities, they were not preoccupied with them, nor did they note pressure to change those aspects of their bodies which they disliked. One participant said the following:
“I’ve always…I feel like they’ve done studies that have shown that women are attracted to height almost. My own mother…she’s very honest with me…and she’s always like “Yeah, you’re too short for me…I even wouldn’t date you.” And like, I don’t take offense to that; I guess that’s just the way it is. So…”
Another male participant noted the following:
“Yeah, I mean I suppose I’m smaller than some of my guy friends but then I’m bigger than some of my guy friends too. Like…no I would say probably not that much pressure…at all, you know. I have like a picture of fitness in my head, and that might be impacted by some of my guy friends…but, yeah, it’s just my—it’s kind of like my own expectations of like fitness and stuff like that.”
We found a general lack of emphasis on male physical attractiveness when it came to the responses made by our participants—both female and male. The females were just as unconcerned about the physical appearance of males as the males themselves. One female participant revealed how little she focuses on the outward appearance of the opposite sex in the following interview excerpt:
“If I start talking to someone and I find him attractive in the personality, maybe then I start noticing his appearance, but not so much that I pursue a relationship just because of the way they look…I would just say that I mean, I don’t know, that’s just not the first thing I notice. Like Bob, I don’t think I really noticed that he was really good looking until I really looked at a picture and I was like ‘wow, he’s really cute,’ and I don’t know if I was initially attracted to him physically, just because it kind of passes my mind a lot of the time, but like I think that anyone you really like is gorgeous to you. And I don’t know whether I thought that to begin with or if it’s just because I like him so much.”
When the female participants were directly asked what attracts them to men, even the language used in their responses indicates how minimally they consider the physical aspects of the male body and how unnecessary male physicality is for a romantic connection to be made.
“Physically? I can’t really think of anything. I enjoy big lips but it’s not really a prerequisite. Good kissing is always fun, but I’m not going to like, I would never ditch someone just because they didn’t fill out these requirements…”
The responses speak more so to the functionality of a male’s physical appearance, rather than its power to physically attract women.
“Yeah, I think that it definitely, if you have a good smile, it means you can laugh a lot, and people with really intense eyes I think are more…they pay more attention to you, and listening and things like that and I don’t know if there is really a correlation there but I think there is.”
Also, the language used by the female participants suggests that they are not prescribing a specific standard for men to embody in terms of physical size—the aspect of the body about which our male participants expressed dissatisfaction. This stands in contrast to the highly specific standards that males project onto females. However, the female participants did note they are attracted to males who are taller than they are. Three participants noted the following: “I don’t know…I guess like taller than me, I guess that’s stereotypical…I don’t know.”
Another participant noted:
“Taller men, than me, like I think for me anyway I like taller people and more muscular and not necessarily body builder but not fatty.”
This participant also expressed the following:
“I know this sounds weird because I’m five feet tall but I like them tall, I don’t know why, because I feel like little compared to them and I kind of like that.”
Although these women never explicitly express physical attributes that they find attractive in males throughout the majority of the interviews, they do note height as the one physical feature to which they find themselves attracted. Height is the area that makes women feel smaller in contrast to their male counterparts; that is, seemingly, the only reason for its appeal.
With our female participants we found common areas of body dissatisfaction. The participants expressed similar insecurities about wanting to have smaller stomachs, thighs, and legs. Several desired a bigger breast size. Furthermore, the female participants expressed their perceived male attraction ideals as a primary reason for their body dissatisfaction. Moreover, we found that males not only hold these perceived attraction ideals, but also project, even if inadvertently, these standards onto females and initially place more value on their physical qualities than their non-physical qualities.
In contrast, our male participants were relatively satisfied with their overall body image and how that image is perceived by the opposite sex. While the males did express dissatisfaction regarding height, weight and muscularity, their accounts were highly individualized and did not seem to result in overall body image disturbance. Our findings concerning the actual attraction ideals of college-age men were directly in line with the perceived male attraction ideals held by our female participants, demonstrating the very real pressure put on women to live up to a mass-mediated standard of beauty. Moreover, it became evident that male body dissatisfaction was not significantly associated with female attraction ideals. The female attraction ideals focused on non-physical attributes such as males’ personality as well as merged attributes such as smiles. (By “merged attributes” we mean those characteristics that are both physical and personality-based.) However, it is important to note that there was one particular physical attraction ideal which some females adamantly require in their male counterparts: height. Importantly, the sole reason for this prescription is to help make themselves feel smaller, more petite, and thus, more attractive. Therefore, both males and females are attempting to fit the ideal of what a heterosexual couple is supposed to look like. This is another way in which the process of coupling is connected to individual body image development.
For females, there is significant pressure placed on the cultural ideal: smallness and thinness; large breasts; and toned abdominals. This makes many of our participants feel inadequate, insecure, and undesirable. As a result, the emphasis placed on females’ physical attributes leaves them feeling as if their self worth is connected to the way in which men view their bodies. Female participants have been socialized to understand that their self-worth is linked to their body type/size/features and, more specifically, the way in which men view their body type/size/features.
Women did not stress any physical standard to ensure attraction to their male counterparts, other than height in some cases. Nor did men express any particular distress over obtaining a certain physical ideal to either appease females, other males, or themselves. This lack of preoccupation with the male body, with no common themes of routine dissatisfaction, allows males to develop a self-concept that is less body-based.
However, there was one recurring issue that emerged regarding ideal masculinity: height. Both our male and female participants discussed this issue. What is most revealing are the ways in which this area of dissatisfaction/attraction was discussed. For males, the desire to be taller was based on the process of coupling with women that they envisioned as attractive. As noted, this was described by one of our participants as “the height advantage.” Females, too, were interested in their male partners being taller than they are because it makes them, in comparison, feel smaller and more petite. Perhaps subconsciously this taller/smaller ideal reasserts the traditional power relationship within heterosexual couples. This would need to be investigated in future research.
There are potential limitations to our study which should be considered in relation to our findings as well as the design of future research. First, our sample was gender imbalanced with fewer males than females. This increases the possibility of anomalous data and makes comparisons and generalizations more difficult. Second, our interpretations of the data occurred within the context of certain bodies of literature. We therefore made connections between idealized femininity/masculinity and the media based, at times, on the implicit attitudes of our participants and not explicit statements. Readers may interpret the quoted transcripts differently. Third, it is possible that participants were “doing gender” during the interviews and thus responded as they felt was expected of their gender. This is particularly a concern with the male participants who were interviewed by female interviewers. It is possible the males minimized their body image issues in accord with the performance of societal gender roles.
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Please tell me about growing up. Can you describe your relationships with your friends and family members?
How would you describe your sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual)?
Can you tell me about a first crush or a first dating experience? What did you like about this person and how did he or she make you feel?
Are you currently dating anyone? If so, could you tell me about this person and your feelings about the relationship?
What are you attracted to in others?
What do you think is most attractive about yourself? Why?
What do you dislike or find unattractive about yourself? Why?
Do you worry about your weight or physical size?
In what ways, if any, do you want to change your body?
How would you describe yourself—who you are?
Can you describe the ideal female/ideal male? Where do you think your ideas come from, and how do you see yourself relative to the ideals you’ve described?
How do you think the media portrays femininity? Masculinity? Romantic relationships? Sexuality?
Do you compare yourself to females/males in the media, such as actors, athletes, or models?
What messages do you receive about appearance, hair, skin, body size, shape, and clothing?
Can you tell me about your eating habits?
Do you exercise or are you involved in athletic activities?
Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
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