In the 1970s, a typical advertisement for men's fragrance showed a male model spritzing cologne. Today, such an ad might feature only a chiseled male torso, says Jamie Farquhar, PhD, a psychology graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. This trend doesn't just leave some consumers baffled-a new study by Farquhar, in the July Men and Masculinity (Vol. 8, No. 3), finds that depictions of the male body as a decorative object may also harm boys' self-esteem.
While many studies have focused on the male models changing body types-and found that they are steadily becoming leaner and more muscular-Farquhar analyzed the way advertisers make use of the models. He and his research assistants gathered 332 full-page ads published in Sports Illustrated between 1975 and 2005. The researchers then rated whether advertisers showed the men as people in action or as aesthetic objects- for example, the raters labeled ads with only fragments of a nude body as objectifying men. They found a steady increase in the use of the men as objects rather than product demonstrators.
In a follow-up study, the researchers created 20 ads. Half depicted male models as people engaged in various activities, while the others used images such as disembodied biceps. The researchers then showed the ads to 107 grade-school boys and surveyed them about their self-esteem. Boys who looked at posed models showed diminished self-esteem, while those who looked at models playing tennis, for instance, experienced a self-esteem boost, even though both sets of models were equally muscular. The rise in self-esteem surprised Farquhar, because he expected the boys would compare themselves unfavorably to all the models.
"I was really shocked by that because...both types of images contain an ideal male," says Farquhar. It's possible that by focusing on a skills-such as tennis-the boys were distracted from thinking critically about their bodies, he adds.
Researchers have long known that rail-thin models can make girls feel bad about themselves; Farquhars research is part of a movement toward exploring the media's affect on males' body image. And while advertisements showing fragments of idealized male bodies may be bad for boys, they are probably good at moving cologne, says Farquhar.
"When someone feels dissatisfied with some aspect of themselves, it may be easier to market a product to them," he notes.