Boys, Body Image and Sexualization: An Equal Opportunity Destroyer

boys body image 2016 ukAug. 8, 2016 Update More new research shows marketing is responsible for creating body image issues with boys, which I’ve written about here, and certainly here devoted to the impact of ‘bigorexia’ on children’s health for a decade, so no surprise there.

BBC News reports the survey was conducted by advertising think tank Credos…Ironically, this excellent NYT think piece on think tanks shows countless vested interests, validating why we always need to “research the researchers” as well. Media Smarts has even created a helpful resource hub to help parents and educators ‘beef up’ the topic. In sum, not a ‘new topic’ but many more reasons why this headline holds true now more than ever…Boys and body image: An equal opportunity destroyer. 

Original Post June 5, 2012 “Carve Your Core!” “Big Arms Made Easy!” “Double your muscle in 28 days!” “17-day Abs” “Stronger, Leaner, Faster” (Men’s Health UK, upcoming July ’12)

Increasingly, boys’ body image has gotten hammered by PhotoShop assists, iconic “Taylor Lautner abs” and muscular physiques resembling The Incredible Hulk more than healthy fitness, so it’s no surprise that teen boys are joining girls in socio-emotional sidewinders impacting their health at ever-earlier ages in adolescence.

Bigorexia. Muscle dysmorphia. Roid rage. Manorexia. Obsessive workouts as “Exorexia.”

We’ve all heard the body dissatisfaction stats for boys climbing from 15% to 43% over the last thirty years, but I wish kids health pros would capture a tighter snapshot, say maybe in the last 15 to 43 WEEKS, as the recent escalation ramping up to summer “swimsuit season” is negatively impacting boys as well as girls with not close to ‘equal’ but disconcerting fervor.

If The Atlantic’s April 2012 piece The Silent Victims, More Men Have Eating Disorders Than Ever Before  doesn’t give you pause, then perhaps the June 2012 back from the brink GQ profile of talented artist D’Angelo about objectification impacting his mental health interwoven with pop culture pressures derailing his music career for a decade might raise an eyebrow or two.

D’Angelo’s interview could be a helpful ‘teaching moment’ and wake-up call to the harm that has been amply doled out to females in walloping dollops of hyper-sexualization for years. This smart, provocative article by Alyssa Rosenberg views the unraveling of singer D’Angelo through the gender lens “What Happens When Men Get Treated Like Women” and hopefully serves as a sentinel that our societal stupidity needs to come to a halt for the well-being of humankind not just any one gender.

D’Angelo’s GQ magazine comeback is a headturner for all the right reasons this time, not the smoldering sexploitation of a talented singer turned into a marketplace persona, but the emergence of a powerful message about the raw, real take down of an emerging young star, and the complicit role objectification played in the media and marketing mix.

Could D’Angelo’s struggle serve as a helpful engine warning light in our over-revved culture of teen heartthrobs turned hyper-sexualized poster boys?

Twilight film star Taylor Lautner’s shirtless pin-up poses are almost iconic, as he vaulted into aspirational perfection, fetishized to the point of ‘wolf’ packs of girls howling for his ‘hottie’ factor, and teen boys working out relentlessly for his physique.

Like D’Angelo, Lautner’s ‘exotic’  objectification comes with a slew of stereotypes, race, and culture clashes.

This piece on Twilight’s race and class stereotypes from Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture speaks to this well, subtitled Those Hot Indians, “Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner, may be a teenage heartthrob, but his continual depiction without a shirt shows how over sexualized, exoticized, and macho the fictional Quileute wolfpack is.”

I wish D’Angelo would meet Taylor Lautner in the green room and swap stories about industry practices highlighted in Packaging Boyhood or the new book The Achilles Effect (Crystal Smith’s riff on The Lolita Effect, about What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys about Masculinity (radio show here) because frankly, the feedback loop in my daily dose of youth culture shows boys’ body image is becoming exponentially MORE of a problem than when I first wrote this piece on the Harvard “Growing Up Today Study” (GUTS) in “Buffed Boy Body Image and the Teen Scene Hottie Factor.”

But wait, there’s always been sexualization of heartthrobs, pop culture pin-ups as eye-candy and summer salivation over ‘hotties’ among both genders, right? Here’s a quick look at the “then and now” through a 2011 study by SUNY-Buffalo published in Sexuality and Culture,Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone (PDF) Synopsis?

Comparing Rolling Stone magazine covers from 1967-2009:

“In the 1960s, 11% of men and 44% of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized, in the 2000s, 17% of men were sexualized (a 55% increase), and 83% of women were sexualized (an 89% increase).” In short, women still bear the brunt of objectification, but in just the last decade, the coarseness of our culture has devolved with shock schlock hitting new levels of low.

How low can we go? Welcome to the pornification of pop culture.

Marc Jacobs “Bang!” cologne, for example, says it all.

Jacobs not only objectifies himself as the model, with the bottle between his legs, mirroring countless poses of female models degraded into hollow, detached vessels for product and profiteering…He positions the campaign in this video more as personal “art,” which hipsters love to trot out as the catch-all phrase for why the rest of us in the parent realm are all pearl-clutching prudes who simply don’t understand fashion. The cologne is housed in an unusually eye-catching crushed container design sending a narrow message about how masculinity is perceived at its most base-level.

Violence, volatility and virility. (I’ll add vapid.)

As we battle against sexualization of girls and women, I dare say the societal reverb of reducing boys and men to prop-tastic plastic action figures falls into the ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ camp of objectification.

I have an entire “part two” on the consequences and repercussions of objectification surfacing in health studies, but first, here’s 22-year old SPARK writer Bailey Shoemaker Richards to add her views on the fame monster of celebrification from a youthful generational lens.

As I’ve said before, “Houston we’ve got a problem…”

And not just Houston…London. And Milan. And Manila. And Brazil. And…

D’Angelo and GQ: On Comebacks, Candor And Communication

By Bailey Shoemaker Richards

Pop culture requires specific things of those it brings to fame, and a marketable physique is almost always near the top of that list. For women, this is undeniably the case: the thin-white-blonde trio is a mold that it’s nearly impossible to break out of for most actresses and artists. Men have a much wider range of “acceptable” body types, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to objectification and sexualization. Men who fit the Ken doll mold are going to be sold on that, and the public can be demanding in its desire to see flesh displayed.

When women raise justified complaints about objectification, a common retort by men is that they’d love to have that kind of attention (and therefore women should just shut up and be grateful for it already). But being valued for your body over your talents is not all it’s cracked up to be. Michael “D’Angelo” Archer found that out in a big way – and it ruined his career for more than a decade.

Following the release of the music video “Untitled,” D’Angelo found that fans were paying more attention to his torso than his talent, and he hated it.

It would be incredibly facile and blatantly untrue to say that D’Angelo’s spiral into drug abuse was entirely caused by this, but it would be equally untrue to say that it didn’t play a role.

The objectification that D’Angelo dealt with was inextricably linked to the historical fetishizing of black men’s bodies as excessively virile and animalistic; for a performer already highly aware of what it means to be a famous person of color, the combination was too much.

The GQ profile on D’Angelo contains a number of quotes from fellow stars talking about the pressure and responsibility of being famous and black. Chris Rock says, “I always say Tom Hanks is an amazing actor and Denzel Washington is a god to his people. If you’re a black ballerina, you represent the race, and you have responsibilities that go beyond your art. How dare you just be excellent?” D’Angelo’s hyper-awareness of all of these intersecting issues sent him spiraling into a haze of drugs, alcohol and failed rehab attempts, and it took him 11 years to find his way back out.

The heckling, catcalls and screams of “Take it off,” the overwhelming focus on muscle over vocal tone, and the sudden feeling that his fans were no longer his fans for his voice – none of this is much different from what most young famous women deal with constantly. Entire magazines and articles are devoted to looking for the flaws of celebrity women while simultaneously showcasing how beautiful they are, often leaving to the side (or not mentioning at all) the talents that made them famous to begin with. Men might say they want the objectification that women get, but D’Angelo found that being a sex object was just another in a long line of dominoes falling towards the edge of a cliff.

This says something about the way we regard youth and fame and bodies in our culture. When a man is made to endure the same type of harassment that any famous woman has to expect as her everyday existence, and it contributes to the destruction of his career and nearly his life, that is no longer “some Kate Moss shit” as his former bandleader Questlove called it. The fact that this was the last straw for D’Angelo before he began his downward spiral makes it no less poignant or important. The toxic mélange of sexualization, being young and famous and black, and the glittering lure of a drugged escape drove D’Angelo to rock bottom.

Stories like this show some of the problems of objectification in a very clear way.

D’Angelo found himself treated like a woman and couldn’t handle it – this should give men pause when they want to dismiss the idea that objectification is damaging, or something they would want themselves. Combined with a society that already makes a fetish of black men’s bodies, and the racism that makes fame not just individual fame for a person of color but also adds “a lot of pressure just to be responsible for other people’s lives,” according to Rock, as well as D’Angelo’s fear that he would burn out and die like so many of his heroes – it’s little wonder that he had the problems he did, and makes it that much more impressive that he’s recording and touring again.

We need to take a long look at what it takes to be famous, and what that means for the young people who strive for that. In a time when surveys of young girls reveal that they’d rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than the president of Harvard or a U.S. Senator, and when more boys and girls would choose fame than intelligence, we should think very hard indeed about the value we give to celebrity – and the price it can end up demanding.

Bailey Shoemaker Richards, 22, is a recent graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, a feminist activist, and a member of the SPARKteam.

She spends her free time writing, reading, playing video games and watching Doctor Who. Bailey is passionate about grassroots activism, media critique and giving a voice to young women. Follow Bailey at SPARK and on Twitter 

What IS Sexualization? The APA Task Force Explains…

“There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality.

Sexualization occurs when:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.”

What Can You DO?

Tips, Sites, Resources to Debrief/Inform About Boys’ Body Image:

National Eating Disorders Assn (NEDA) Tips For Kids on Feeling Good About Yourself

Boys and Body Image Tips (Common Sense Media)

Help Teens Develop a Healthy Body Image (WebMD)

BodiMojo: A Health Community for Teens (new/worthy site that I love!) (also new/worthy w/NEDA ties to impt female convos; needs a male forum offshoot!)

The Development of Ideal Body Image Perceptions in the U.S. (Nursing Center: great overview of then/now)

Reflections on Body Image/U.K. (newly released 80pp Parliamentary report released last week)

How to Help Kids Like Their Looks: (Family Anatomy-Body Image Series)

More research updates, 2012 health articles and ‘solutions-based’ interventions in part two. Stay tuned…

Boys/Gender Articles By Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

The Bro Code: Media, Masculinity and Misogynistic Misfires

Buffed Boy, Body Image and Tween Scene, the  ‘Hottie’ Factor

Gender, Race & Sexism: Shaping Youth Through Pop Culture Cues

Packaging Boyhood Authors/Interview: What ABOUT the Boys?

Packaging Boyhood: Corporate Pirates Raid Boys’ Souls

Predatory Practices As Sport? Boys to Men & Swaggerfests

Dear Media, Please Change Your Channel of Influence

Get Boys to Participate in GirlCaught to Dial Down Disrespect

Man Down? Girl Up, Rihanna. Own Your Influence.

Turning Boys Into Monsters: Energy Drink/A Foul Taste

Attention KMart Shoppers, Dating Violence on Aisle 3

Depravity Gone Viral: A Thin Line For Humanity

What Does A 13-Year Old Boy Know About Dating Violence? Plenty.

Backdraft: DV=Differing Views on Dating/Domestic Violence

Girls As Boy Toys Takes an Even More Toxic Turn

GirlCaught! New Moon Girls Slams Sexualization!

Using Media With Mindfulness: Tell SnoopDogg NO to Alcopops!

Visual Credits: Men’s Health cover July 2012, D’Angelo photo from GQ magazine June 2012, Taylor Lautner “fan poster” 2009/everywhere



  1. What an insightful article. This is something I’ve been thinking about–the objectification of men and the effects. There are some women who feel that we have earned the right to objectify men. NO. This is equally bad. The way women are objectified have an effect on young girls (as someone who is plus sized, I’m still feeling the effects at twenty-six,) so why wouldn’t the objectification of men have an effect on young boys? It needs to be discussed more, especially as the attitude in some circles seems to be “oh, well, boys don’t need any more encouragement in our society. Boys aren’t going to be objectified, it’s fun for men.” It really isn’t.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kathleen. I’m with you 200%. It’s whiplash inducing when I hear ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ applied to sexism across all channels, because the converse is really true. It’s good for no one. Nada. Bupkiss. (Except the profiteers who could give a care about the person’s public health)

    In part two we’ll look at not only the impact of men’s objectification on young boys but some of the young boys being objectified themselves (tween scene/star factor etc) under the guise of it being ‘flattering’ or them being ‘fit’ or ‘cut’ and ‘showing off’…which has created a toxic ‘double standard’ imo.

    You’re 26? I should toss in an anecdote that even if folks don’t ‘see the harm’ of all these appearance fixations being bigger than life, if one fast forwards to any ‘big man on campus’ at a HS reunion who becomes the subject of whispers and gossip for simply (gasp) aging or going bald it’s a bracer.

    Suddenly when we begin to view the entire ‘once upon a time’ “persona” and contrast it with the very real PERSON in front of us, we get a clear lens of objectification on a smaller scale. “What happened to him” is a cruel, gut-wrenching slow leak on the psyche…just ask D’Angelo.

  3. Amy, what a great article! I couldn’t agree more that, in your words, “reducing boys and men to prop-tastic plastic action figures falls into the ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ camp of objectification.” It saddens me greatly to see women believing that it is okay to objectify men, since it’s been done to women for so long. It is wrong, period, no matter the gender. I am also greatly concerned about the body distortion being presented to young boys. I address this in my book and also wrote a guest post on Adios Barbie about it in terms of the influence of superheroes and action figures. Here is a link in case anyone is interested…

  4. Crystal, that’s an important piece that I’d missed on Adios Barbie (titled Adios Superman, clever 😉

    I love how you’ve contextualized the hugeness of the issue and still made it approachable through iconic superhero chat to balance out the academia, as one of my most frustrating things is having people try to ‘soundbite’ the probs into little data nuggets without context, which reduces the whole convo into trite “oh, she’s against macho action figure toys” or some ridiculously simplistic translation.

    Your paragraph here, “Adding to the problem is that most parents are unaware of body image issues in their sons. They may be attuned to similar problems in their daughters but many assume that body dissatisfaction does not affect boys. Cultural imperatives dictating that boys should not talk about their concerns exacerbate the problem. As boys get older, they often internalize their worries about their bodies and, “in the absence of feedback from their families … listen to other voices,” including television and other pop culture outlets that perpetuate the over-muscled masculine ideal.” —is exactly where I’m going in Part TWO of this piece…the “double standard” which I strongly feel flies under the radar in our culture when it comes to what boys ‘should’ feel.

    D’Angelo has done us all a great big whopping favor by bringing this to the forefront of the pop culture arena.

    Now we need to all sit up and pay attention on the MANY gender/masculinity cues being sent to kids about what constitutes “being a man” in our culture. (Esquire June 2012 has this on the cover right now w/Bruce Willis)

    Oh…also…I can’t wait to talk to Hugo Schwyzer on this, as I just watched his video on his site spkg about the “violence against women” aspects (like I wrote about in The Bro Code) and it’s a hand-clapping moment for sure, as a dad of a boy, he has much to say, and does so with eloquence…

    Thanks for taking time to comment…rocket fuel for the soul to speak in more than 140 characters with ya… 😉

  5. Heidi Jenkins says

    I couldn’t agree more with Crystal Smith’s observation. Boys nowadays too are becoming confused with their looks, something which used to affect only girls in the past. They tend to think that if they don’t have that hollywood look they are not good enough.

  6. It saddens me greatly to see women believing that it is okay to objectify men, since it’s been done to women for so long. It is wrong, period, no matter the gender. I am also greatly concerned about the body distortion being presented to young boys.

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