Body Image: Men vs. Women


Browse through the magazines at the supermarket checkout line, and you’ll find that almost every one oriented to a female audience has some kind of a weight loss plan on the cover. Male-oriented magazines, meanwhile, are more likely to show an attractive woman instead of a guy showing off the results of his three-week miracle diet. While one might attribute the glut of diet articles to the overall rate of obesity in the U.S., new research shows that the magazine editors may be exploiting body image concerns that are “hardwired” into the brains of all women.

Mark Allen, a neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, used fMRI scans to show that the brains of healthy women reacted in the same way as the brains of bulemic women when confronted with the suggestion that they were overweight.

Allen and colleagues looked into hidden feelings about body image by using fMRI machines to scan the brains of 10 healthy women. The women were thin, but all had passed eating disorder screening tests with flying colors. So, theoretically, they felt just fine with their bodies.

While hooked up to brain scanners, the women looked at images of avatar-like models in skimpy bikinis: some overweight, some skinny. With each image, the women were told to imagine that someone else was saying the model looked like her.

When overweight images popped up, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up in all of the women, the scientists reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Simply imagining that they might be overweight seemed to make the women question their sense of self, even though they claimed afterward that the test was boring or meaningless. [From Discovery News – Body Image Concerns Hardwired Into Women’s Brains by Emily Sohn.]

Men Unaffected By Body Image Fears

In contrast, fMRI imaging showed that most men showed little reaction to photos of men in bathing suits, whether the images were of fat or thin men.

One question is how this “hardwiring” occurs, i.e., is it a human trait or does it occur because societal pressures to look attractive have trained even healthy women to be wary of gaining weight? It would be interesting to repeat this study in several different cultures to see if the results were consistent. Could there be a society where all of the pressure is on males to meet some standard of appearance, and where body image anxiety is a male trait?

In the US, though, it looks like magazine publishers will continue to meet with success by appealing to nearly universal body image fears among women with prominent diet articles. Meanwhile, these same publishers will put impossibly fit bikini-clad models on the covers of men’s magazines, stimulating sales of those magazines while also, perhaps, further raising body image fears among female viewers and selling more diet magazines as well.

  1. Verilliance says

    Roger, my guess is that it has to be at least somewhat due to societal pressures, ironically including all those magazine images, particularly the men’s magazines. When a girl or woman walks into a store and the magazine rack is filled with images of airbrushed, thin women, that’s a strong message in itself, but when you add that the men’s magazines also carry these images on the cover, the message is pretty clear — this is what men value.

    But more technically, my guess is that it is at least partially “learned response” because of the data on eating disorders across various cultures. Bulemia and anorexia are non-existent in pre-media and non-westernized cultures. Bring in westernized media and advertisements, and the eating disorders start showing up.

    As an interesting aside, I read a few months ago that France is trying to get warning labels onto photo-shopped body images in media since they recognize the health risks associated with the unrealistic images.

  2. Verilliance says

    Perhaps the same anxiety would show up in men’s brains if you used images of men with receding hair lines, crappy cars, and little money or power?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Now that would be an interesting study, Verilliance!


  3. The Flow says

    I believe that it is natural for people to subconsciously want to not be over weight. It is not naturally healthy. The subconscious body is all about self preservation.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure that’s true, TF, but the interesting fact was that women responded to the overweight images and men didn’t. The only exceptions on the male side were professional bodybuilders, who presumably spend a lot of time thinking about their body image.


  4. Mirjan says

    Hmm, I’m just reading Ceremonial chemistry by Thomas Szasz. There is a chapter in it about obesity and the medicalization of obesity. Definitely some very good insights in that book!

  5. Maggie says

    In the late 19th century, in America, robust figures were signs of affluence and good health — being skinny and tan were signs that you were lower class and had to work for your living. In the mid-20th century, in America, Marilyn Monroe was a sex symbol — today, in women’s magazines, she’s considered overweight.

    Social influence and expectations have a great deal to do with the details of what is considered a healthy appearance.

  6. DARBY says

    Can we step back from group thinking momentarily and apply some critical thinking skills? Is saying that this study may suggest media produced hypervigilant attention to body image factual or a popular notion that people are attempting to validate? Remember studies do not prove causality they only elucidate POSSIBLE Correlation. There is a very long list of fMRI studies that illuminate gender differences in brain region activation during most cognitive tasks including reading. “Females, but not males, showed bilateral IFG and STG activation. Further analyses revealed females had less diffuse left activation and greater right posterior temporal and insula region activation than males. Results support both an interhemispheric and an intrahemispheric model of sex differences in language…(Baxter et al (2003) Sex differences in semantic language processing: A functional MRI study)
    Have you read the study in entirety that you are commenting on? The study contains no baseline (control group) for women who have not been exposed to media images. At best this study may show some previously undisclosed gender differences in brain function. Or it may suggest a gender-based bias in allocating attentional resources on a conscious level. Or relating to spatial cognitive functioning it may show that during creative spatial tasks females draw upon a broader spectrum of brain regions. If these images were really causing stress or fear there would obviously be fear-induced basolateral amygdala activity. That is where anxiety activation is evident not in the MPFC.

  7. Pollynkorect says

    The MRI test measured women’s greater tendency to evaluate themselves by culturally-determined standards of beauty. Historically, women’s very survival has depended on their attractiveness to men. The external standard of beauty may differ from culture to culture. What stays the same is that women know (consciously or unconsciously) that they must please others in order to survive. Feminine beauty has always been highly prized and is related in some mysterious way to a woman’s perceived fertility. Beauty can lift a woman from abject poverty to privileged wealth, thereby ensuring her own survival and that of her children. Men also must measure up to certain standards, but those standards relate more to survival skills, wealth creation and the ability to protect women and children, than to beauty.

  8. Forum says

    The research findings quite contradict the concept of metrosexual men who are conscious of how they look and appear in public. Since, the above post does not indicate the age group of men on whom the research was conducted, I still believe that younger men in the age group of 20 – 35 years would perhaps react differently.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Quite true, Forum, although I suspect that the number of 20-35 year olds who fall into the “metrosexual” category is still quite limited, particularly outside the biggest cities.


  9. Forum says

    I agree with you Roger that the effect may be higher in bigger cities… but the way I see it in India, the country where I belong, the ‘Bollywood’ or glamour effect very well trickles down to many smaller cities and you see men being highly influenced to buying grooming products or enrolling in health clubs. The good thing for marketers in India is that we have a huge urban youth population that grows at 3.15% a year… Nevertheless, you have a great blog going here and I love reading it time and again.

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