Body, Image, And, Sexualization, What, About, The, Boys, , Education, Gender and Sexuality, Lifestyle

Body Image And Sexualization: What About The Boys?

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Today, The Daily Telegraph is calling for children to be educated about online pornography. This comes in a midst of press, anger and speculation that media and online porn are sexualizing young children as well as warping their views about relationships and body image. You’d be forgiven for thinking that only females are affected by media and pornography. The Telegraph’s education plea quotes: “Girls think they have to act like ‘porn stars’ to be liked and valued by boys”, several times. The question of female affectation is usually the focus in these cases; but what about the boys? Are they simply unaffected by media and pornography?

Gender-appropriate toys have been shown to assert body ideals at early ages

Simply, the answer is no – they are not immune.  A fair amount of research shows how ideals of body image can be instilled at a young age, in both genders, by even seemingly harmless products. Gender-appropriate toys have been shown to assert body ideals at early ages; action men and G.I Joe for boys [1] and Barbie’s for girls [2]. These studies showed that perceptions and ideals of body types changed along with the toys. The more muscular action man was, the more ideal muscularity became; the bustier the Barbie was, the more ideal the busty-ness became.

Similar experiments have shown that children as young as six aspire to characters they identify with in television and film [3]. If you think about the portrayal of gender in Disney films, you could see where these trends and associations start. The Adonis-like hero male fights his way to the beautiful woman trophy. At age six you could be already are making associations about what’s desirable and what’s necessary to obtain that desired thing.

Essentially, these studies and many more, have shown that males and females have different ‘drives’ in what’s considered ideal. For males, it’s the drive for muscularity and for females, the drive for thinness [4].  Consider all of the above and then consider the shit that’s poured into magazines like Heat, Closer, Nuts and Zoo. They reinforce all these drives; both the desirable and the desired – male and female. Then consider television, advertising campaigns, fashion and even your classier magazines: Vogue and GQ.

Clearly, these ideals are shaped early on and it doesn’t help that they are ubiquitous and self-fulfilling. Peer-reinforcement is a powerful factor in regulating the desirability of body images. Further research has shown that children at pre-school age develop biases based around body image ideals [5]. These biases help decide what’s good and bad: it’s good to be thin; it’s also bad to be fat.

So imagine you have a room of thirty kids with ingrained biases about what’s beautiful and what’s not. You’ll have a weird network of kids collectively deciding who is beautiful and who isn’t. You don’t really have to imagine this because it happens in schools and playgrounds – as well as fucking everywhere. Now if you modernize the analogy and throw porn, social networking and omnipresent internet into the furnace, you’re left with a hot sticky mess.

Now imagine these same unmoulded minds are looking at porn. It’s essentially an unfiltered hyperbole of the Disney analogy. Except that it’s the after story and the God-sculpted man with the incredible sword is going to enjoy his woman-prize.  Trying not to sound too Freudian, there are obvious parallels between the characters idolized in youth and those seen in porn. A body-chiselled action man gets together with pneumatic-breast Barbie.

What I take from this, is that the girl has to feel that she is winnable and the boy has to feel that he can win her.

What I take from this, is that the girl has to feel that she is winnable and the boy has to feel that he can win her. It does sound a bit stone-age, that the man has to win a woman (or women) and that the woman should be worth winning; I think that’s what porn reinforces.

It is well documented that girls feel they have an image to live up to; pornographic, erotic or otherwise and that they have to be good sexual performers. It’s this factoid that’s often used in cohesion with sexualisation and body image stories, but how cannot it not be the same for males? Porn and media reinforce the drive for thinness for girls, why not boys and muscularity? Porn may be teaching boys to be the proverbial stallion with porn-level sexual prowess and the all-important unfeasibly-sized cock. It might be why penis size and musculature are often equated with masculinity, or why 45% of men want a bigger unit [6] and it might be why men’s magazines regularly offer tips on how to perform in the bedroom.

Ultimately, I’m trying to suggest that this isn’t a gynocentric problem; boys and girls are both affected, but in different ways and for different reasons. I’ll be explicit in using the following qualifier: “it’s my opinion”. It’s my opinion that young girls aren’t the only victims here, but all young people are. As such, everyone should be educated equally and interventions should implicate equally. After all, what’s more damaging: a magazine with airbrushed models or a magazine criticizing imperfect men and women? We shouldn’t be looking to side with or blame a particular gender. Both are affected, albeit differently, by the same content.



Image Credits

Title: Tinker*Tailor Loves Lalka

Barbie Mirror: Elena Lagaria



[1] Pope, H. G., Oliviardia, R., & Gruber, A. (1999). Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26, 65-72.

[2] Ditmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 283-92.

[3] Hoffner, C. (1996). Children’s wishful identification and parasocial interaction with favorite television characters. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 40, 389-402.

 [4] Brunet, J., Sabison, C. M., Dorsch, K. D., & McCreary, D. R. (2010). Exploring a model linking social physique anxiety, drive for muscularity, drive for thinness and self-esteem among adolescent boys and girls. Body Image, 7(2), 137-42.

 [5] Holub, S. C. (2008). Individual differences in the anti-fat attitudes of preschool-children: The importance of perceived body size. Body Image, 5, 317-321.