A Sociological Perspective of the Media Portrays Gender

To address the central thesis of this paper, the findings of Frederick, Fessler and Haselton are going to form the basis from which an analysis by other contributors will be made. The three carried out groundbreaking investigations into this issue by surveying material from popular magazines targeted to men which included; Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and

Muscle & Fitness. The other area of investigation which aims to establish the impact of this portrayal to sexuality today is grounded on investigations by various researchers, notably, Alexander, S.M. In his publication, “Stylish hard bodies: Branded masculinity in men’s health magazine” he explores the evolution of masculinity and how marketing has influenced the appearance of man. This study makes contribution to the issues related to the changing representations of the male gender and the implications for this change.

Presentations of physical attractiveness

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The media communicates various gender-specific ideals to both genders that are used as benchmarks by men and women to assess themselves. The wider society also tends to judge the attractiveness of individuals application of physical attractiveness criterion presented by media. The masculine man is portrayed by contemporary American media as the ideal male body (Frederick, Fessler & Haselton, 2003). Frederick et al, illustrate that this presentation has direct impact to the self image satisfaction of an audience such as men’s magazine reader. Frederick et al present findings indicating that men who read magazines that idealize masculine bodies as the ideal body type are less satisfied with their body images and are more likely to use steroids to enhance their body image. Buss, (1998) is in agreement with these findings as he asserts that magazines targeted to men have a huge influence on the readers’ desires to achieve certain body types. He carried out a research in which men were asked to point out images that presented their current body type and the body type they would want to achieve. It was found that men desire to have a body type that is It is a well known fact that women in the west find men who are more masculine than average to be more attractive than those that are less masculine. How this idea is sold in magazines targeted to men, and its impacts on the representation of the male gender is the central focus of Cohn & Adler’s research. On studying the advertisements in Cosmopolitan and Glamour, two leading women magazines in the US, Cohn & Adler’s (1998) find that there has been a 35% increase in the number of images of undressed men in the last 40 years. This implies that, over time, women have become more interested and conscious of the male physique.

Attractiveness of an attribute the other sex

Gender specific media have been found to display marked difference between the images shown for the ideal body type. For instance the ideal male body shown in magazines targeted for women is less masculine than that shown in magazines targeted for men. To illustrate this, Frederick, Fessler and Haselton compared male bodies presented in three magazines: Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness. The audiences for the three magazines were female audience, male audience and body builder audience, respectively. They compared the male bodies shown in the three magazines to find out whether they reflected the contrasts between women’s actual preferences in men and men’s perceptions towards women’s preferences.

It was expected that men would overestimate the level of masculinity that is attractive to women. Due to this expectation, the researchers predicted that male bodies shown in magazines targeted to men would be more masculine that those shown in magazines targeted to women. The magazine targeted to the body builder audience was included in the investigation as a control to illustrate that individual interested in masculinity per se, had the desire to have an ideal body size that is more masculine than those targeted by magazines targeted to a male audience. The three publications were appropriate since they have a wide readership among a varied audience. Front cover photographs were selected since they were widely visible even to non buyers at newsstands, hence had a huge impact on a huge market. The muscularity levels of all images were code rated by coders who were not aware of the research hypothesis.


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The findings of Frederick, Fessler and Haselton were in line with their predictions. The ideal male body images presented in female magazines were less masculine than those shown in male targeted magazines which were less masculine than those targeted at a body builder audience. This investigation has limitations as the researchers found that the bodies images found in Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness were not typical of all magazines targeted at male audiences. Male audience magazines did not always have images of shirtless men except in advertisements featuring muscle enhancers. In addition, the ratings given by the coders might have been influenced by the title of the magazines since they could see the titles. However, the findings were informative enough since these magazines are major influencers of the ideal male body size to the three types of audiences.

Analysis of findings

The findings of this research can be explained using the Physical Train Overvaluation Hypothesis explains that “exposure to media representations of same sex bodies affects a viewer’s personal body ideals and their body image satisfaction levels” (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). Over time, western media has undergone significant change in its presentations of ideal body forms. To be precise, the ideal body form presented by the media has declined body fat and increased masculinity (Thompson et al, 1999). For women, this has significantly led to high levels of body image dissatisfaction. Thompson et al pose the question, “why has body image dissatisfaction increased with the change in body image representation by the media?’ The most obvious and plausible conclusion is that individuals use gender specific ideals communicate by gender specific media to assess themselves on a variety of criteria, including physical attractiveness (Thompson et al, 1999).

Despite having such an obvious conclusion as illustrated above, the quest of this investigation is not totally reached. There are further questions seeking to explain the disparity between the body-forms held ideal by the two genders. Various researchers (Cohn & Adler, 1992; Jacobi & Cash, 1994) have posed the question, why does one gender overestimate the level of attributes attractive to the other gender? Findings for these investigations converge at the conclusion that the media plays a huge role in faulty construction of the ideal body types creating a misfit between the perception of one gender of the ideal body type and the actual body type deemed ideal by the other gender.

            Further, there are questions pertaining to the source of disparities between ideal body image presentations by media targeted at audience of one gender to that of media targeted at the audience of the other gender. To explain this pattern, (Jacobi & Cash, 1994) examined how gender-specific ideals are acquired. They present the concept of prestige competition. The competition for prestige is an inherent human characteristic that is exhibited in many aspects such as clothes, cars, keeping trends up with trends etc. Body form is no exception and it forms a strong basis for prestige competition. While criteria for prestige competition might be arbitrary in aspects such as fashion, this is not so in the aspect of body form (Jacobi & Cash, 1994). The process of natural selection and sexual selection has endowed human beings with the propensity to form judgment based on particular attributes both of the opposite sex’s body and the preferences displayed by members of one’s own sex (Morry & Staska, 2001). The fat distribution in females has connections to fertility and hence is such one feature that forms a basis for mate selection. On the other hand, male masculinity was considered vital in determining the hunting prowess of our ancestors and is therefore bound to impact psychologically on the female gender’s choice of mate. By this observation, (Morry & Staska, 2001) assert that fixation to some aspect of the opposite gender’s body by one gender might be as a result of selection, to some extent. Taking this salience as criteria for prestige competition leads to an overestimation of the ideal form to the opposite gender by one gender. 

Prestige competitions lead to a situation where a certain attribute at play gradually becomes exaggerated as competitors try to outdo each other. Since these competitions involves comparison and discussions about bodily attributes between members of the same sex, it is possible that the discussion and comparisons unfold as a runaway process that leads to divergence of views of what one gender think is the ideal form of a certain attribute and what the actual preferences of the opposite gender (Morry & Staska, 2001). This might be the process that has led to women overestimating the thinness deemed attractive by men and an exaggerated view by men of the masculinity deemed attractive by women. The size of breast, penis, height, foot size among others is some of the attributes that may be overestimated by either gender.


This study has given insight on the power of the media to influence the views of either gender on the ideal bodily attribute of the opposite gender and their own bodies. As such, the media has generated considerably high level of body dissatisfaction from the presentations displayed. By showing images of individual with body attributes that border on the extreme side, the media has fuelled high levels of prestige competition which has led to many individuals striving hard to develop even more exaggerated versions of the attributes at issue. In conclusion, today’s media portrayal of gender has led to an overestimation by men of the degree of muscularity attractive to women and overestimation by women of the level of femininity that is attractive to men.

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