Research illuminates positive body image in heterosexual and sexual minority men
In recent years, the body-positive movement has seen a rise in popularity and visibility. An overarching aim of the movement is to promote respect for all body types, regardless of characteristics like body shape, weight, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or gender.
Although the body-positive movement is for every body, the most notable faces of the movement are women, like Megan Crabbe (aka bodyposipanda). Similarly, with the parallel rise of scientific research on positive body image, most studies have investigated positive body image among women only. This makes sense, of course, considering that negative body image is more common among women, and that society has typically placed greater appearance pressures on women than men. There’s simply more work to be done in achieving respect and appreciation for women’s bodies compared to men’s.
However, a sizeable number of men are unhappy with their body, too (about 30%), and there are certainly appearance pressures that affect men (think of all of those media images that portray the “ideal man” as extremely lean and muscular). Therefore, it will also be valuable to see more men promoting positive body image, and to see more research on positive body image in men as well.
A recent study that I conducted with my colleagues Dr. Nicole Paraskeva, Drs. Nadia Craddock, and Prof. Phillippa Diedrichs from the Centre for Appearance Research (Bristol, UK) took one step in that direction. Namely, we wanted to learn more about positive body image in men. We also wanted to learn whether levels of positive body image differed between heterosexual men vs. sexual minority men and, if so, why.
In our research, 440 British men between 18 and 85 years old completed questionnaires to assess their levels of positive body image and other characteristics.
On average, the men in our sample felt moderately positively about their body, scoring about 3.50 on a scale from 1.00 to 5.00 (with higher scores reflecting a more positive body image). When looking at the relationships between positive body image and other characteristics, we discovered that men with a more positive body image reported higher well-being compared to men with a less positive body image.
For example, men with a more positive body image reported a lower tendency to compare their appearance with other men. Appearance comparisons have been found to play a key role in causing negative body image and eating disorders. Men with a more positive body image also reported being more physically active and had lower levels of eating disorder symptoms.
With regard to sexual orientation, 301 men identified as heterosexual and 131 identified as a sexual minority (e.g., gay, bisexual). We found that heterosexual men reported having a more positive body image compared to sexual minority men.
Interestingly, the relationship between sexual orientation and positive body image was explained by appearance comparisons and the extent to which men “buy into” society’s ideas about how the “ideal” man should look. Sexual minority men reported higher levels of appearance comparisons and endorsement of appearance ideals compared to heterosexual men, which in turn was related to a less positive body image.
The take-home message
The findings are important because they suggest that when men feel positively about their body, they are also likely to experience greater well-being. Confirming other research more broadly, feeling good about our own body – not feeling negatively or ashamed – is related to better health.
The findings also show that sexual minority men feel less positively about their body than heterosexual men. Prior research has shown that sexual minority men have higher levels of negative body image than heterosexual men. Researchers have theorised that this may be because sexual minority men live in a more “appearance-potent” subculture. For example, research has shown that gay male media more often feature unrealistically lean and muscular men, and male partners place a greater emphasis on their partner’s looks. Living in this appearance-potent subculture could encourage men to compare their appearance to other men, and to buy into unrealistic appearance ideals. This, in turn, could increase negative body image. Our research supports these ideas as applied to positive body image: The relationship between sexual orientation and positive body image may be explained by appearance comparisons and endorsement of appearance ideals.
This may not be all, however. Research on the minority stress model has shown that minority groups – including sexual minorities – experience stress as a result of their marginalised position in society. In turn, this stress can worsen their well-being, including body image. We did not assess minority stress in our research, but it is an important area to explore in the future.
It will also be important to explore differences among sexual minorities. For example, research has shown that attitudes towards bisexual men are more negative than toward gay men, and bisexual men experience prejudice from both heterosexual men and gay men. So, it could be that positive body image is even lower among bisexual men compared to gay men.
Last, it is important to note that this research is correlational: We measured the relationships between positive body image and other characteristics at one point in time, so we cannot say what causes what. Future research measuring participants over time will be needed. Nevertheless, the present research provides a valuable step in shedding more light on positive body image among men.