How much man muscle do women really want?
According to a study carried out in France, Austria and the United States, men would like to be more muscular and they’re convinced that woman are into the total bodybuilder look. However, women seem to prefer men... without all that excess muscle.
Do you consider yourself a bit of a weakling? Would you like an Arnold Schwarzenegger body, but feel you look more like Woody Allen? There’s no need to worry, you're just like any other man.
According to a study1 led by Professor Harrison G. Pope at Massachusetts’ McLean Hospital in the United States, men are feeling worse and worse about their body image.
And they're getting it completely wrong when it comes to what women actually like and want!
Men aim for 13 kilos of extra muscle
According to the study, men don’t think they are muscular enough, a fact derived from a survey of about 200 men: 65 Frenchmen, 54 Austrians and 81 Americans. They were asked to choose, on a computer screen, amongst several male body images of differing muscle and fat proportions. They were then asked several questions:
- Which image best represents your body?
- Which image resembles the body you would like to have?
Almost all the men chose an image that correctly represented their body shape. Unlike women, none of the men considered himself more muscular or fatter than he really was.
However, when it came to choosing the ideal body shape, all the men wanted a more “muscular” physique. In fact, the majority of men surveyed chose a body that indicated that they wanted to have about 13 kilos worth of extra muscle.
So, just how much man muscle do women want?
As part of the American study, the researchers did not content themselves with just looking at what type of body men wanted. They also asked them to point out the body that, according to them, would most appeal to women. Faithful to their notion of the ideal man, these men chose a body image with 14 kilos more muscle than their own. In their opinion, any bodybuilder automatically becomes irresistible to women.
The researchers, of course, wanted to find out if these men knew women’s desires as well as they thought. They therefore gave the same computer test to 40 women.
These women were asked to choose which body they found most appealing: they preferred men of average proportions. In their opinion, bodybuilders only offer limited appeal. It is important to note that the women surveyed were American and Austrian; who knows which way their UK female counterparts would have swung the balance...
Steroids and unrealistic muscle expectations...
According to Prof Pope: “Men have always wanted to be more muscular. However, two things have changed over the last few decades: the first being the discovery of steroids. Before the 1960s and 70s, it was just not possible to be as muscular as one can be now. These days, men are constantly bombarded by images of bodies created by steroids. Any child born in the 1980s has seen hundreds of images of bodybuilders considered to be ‘ideal men’”.
“A second change could also be related and that is that women have become more assertive and independent over the last 40 years. Today, men are no longer the head of the family, a woman can become Prime Minister... and for some, the only thing a man feels he has to distinguish and assert his masculinity is his body. Of course, from a scientific point of view, these theories are difficult to prove,” explains Pope.
Male muscle as a marketing tool
While it's difficult to pinpoint the actual cause of this ill ease, the researchers do feel it’s clear that men’s image of themselves is being put into question, in a similar way to that of women. According to them, you only need to look at magazine advertisements over the last forty years - "Glamour” and “Cosmopolitan” for example - to see that the percentage of undressed female images has not changed while images of sparingly-clothed-sculpted-body men has increased from 3% to over 30%.
"This rise demonstrates the increasing value our society accords to the male body. Its power to sell objects has increased showing just how important the image of the male body has now become,” Pope states.
Male insecurity and the Adonis complex
According to Prof Pope, over-representation of the "perfect" male body can be a cause for anxiety in men, which he qualifies as the Adonis complex... He has even authored a book on the subject - The Adonis Complex : The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession.
“For some men this complex concerns their weight, for others hair, but the main obsession is muscle. This preoccupation is very widespread in Europe and the United States, you only have to look at the boom in gym and bodybuilding clubs. English-speaking countries seem more affected than Continental Europe,” he adds.
According to Harrison Pope, men's obsession with their bodies is on the rise. “This obsession will disappear once man will have acquired sufficient wisdom to understand that “muscular” does not mean “masculine”. Perhaps realising that muscles are not what appeal to women will help men to banish this obsession!
Or perhaps it’s men’s turn to suffer the dictatorship of the perfect body as women have for decades, with the incessant bombarding of images of top models and apparently ‘perfect figured’ actresses. Sharing body image complexes: a new victory in the search for male-female equality?
1 - American Journal of Psychiatry, August 2000, 157: 1297-1301
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