Grogan, S. and Richards, H. (2002) 'Body Image. Focus Groups with Boys and Men', in Men and Masculinities, Vol 4, No 3: 219 - 32.
There is renewed interest in men's health, but little is known about how they perceive their bodies, compared to the work on women. Some work suggests that men are more interested in their bodies and their image, partly because of the way male bodies are represented on popular TV. There may be pressure to conform to 'this cultural ideal of the lean, well-toned, muscular build... [and concern for]... weight and body image' (220). Male toys too have become increasingly muscular.
This new concern could affect health both positively (exercise) and negatively (anabolic steroids and human growth hormones). There could be lowered self-esteem for those not conforming, and there is some evidence of a rise in anorexia nervosa among men (details of a study on page 220). There seems to be growing dissatisfaction with actual bodies compared to ideals, represented by 'broad shoulders and a well muscled chest and arms' (221).
Questionnaire based studies are limited, though, hence the decision to use focus groups with a sample of men, who were asked how they felt about their bodies and to describe attempts they might make to change body shape and weight. Focus groups have a number of advantages:
(1) They generate interactive data with collective discussion [is that always what you want, though? Men act as individuals as well?]
(2) Talking to each other generates normal speech and natural language [big assumptions here -- the talk itself might generate an artificial interest in certain topics, or produce socially acceptable ways of discussing them?]
(3) Focus groups lead to more self disclosure and the sharing of personal experiences --'We had also found in pilot work the boys and men talk more freely in a group rather than individually' (221).
(4) Focus groups help in discussing sensitive issues, and talking about anxieties about body image was seen as a sensitive matter.
(5) As feminists, the authors 'wanted to use a method that has characterised by non- hierarchical relations between researchers and those researched ... While focus groups do not eliminate the power differential... [the]... methodology would enable us to shift the balance of power away from the researcher and toward the research participants, relative to one-to-one interviews' (222).
Pilots were conducted first, with both male and female facilitators, and generally males preferred females as less threatening. Matches were made between facilitators in groups 'in terms of regional accent, ethnicity, and social class' (222). Focus groups consisted of four participants, chosen as the number after piloting. Boys were chosen according to different age ranges, which helped to focus on male adolescents as being particularly vulnerable. [Further details of this and a larger study are provided on page 223]. The speech was submitted to 'a close reading that separates the transcripts into coherent stories or "themes"' (224).
[considerable detail occupies pages 224 to 230 -- I summarise the main themes].
(1)' Muscle tone and muscle mass were important to all' the subjects. All the subject has similar ride deals for the male body 'toned, muscular and "looked fit"' (224). Muscularity was seen as the same as being physically fit. However, all subjects condemned body-building -- bodybuilders were seen as too obsessed with their appearance, and there's a feeling that muscle would turn to fat as people aged. Thus men can be too muscular, muscularity associated with fitness and athleticism was preferred.
(2) All the subjects were afraid of becoming overweight: 'Becoming fat was linked with losing control of the body and with a weakness of will' (226). Fat people were seen as deserving blame and ridicule, often in the form of teasing. Fat subjects tended to laugh at and tease themselves, and accepted the blame for teasing from others: two of the subjects managed to insist that at least they weren't obsessed with their bodies.
(3) All subjects saw exercise as the main way of avoiding getting fat, rather than dieting, despite some more quantitative data which suggest that exercise is not common (227). At the same time, it was important not to be 'bothered'about your body, and working too hard to change its shape: 'bodily concern is a stereotypically feminine concern and runs contrary to prevailing ideals of masculinity where body function (rather than aesthetics) is valued' (228). It is important not to try too hard to look good. The fear of getting fat was a much more powerful motivator.
(4) All participants had experienced peer pressure towards their being slim and muscular, sometimes via implicit comparisons with peers, friends, or siblings. This is one way of legitimating concern with the body, by turning it into a more appropriate competition between men. This was apparent particularly with the 16 year-olds.
(5) Self-esteem was affected by how they felt about their bodies, usually in the form of feeling more confident and powerful in social situations. Adolescents also mentioned 'happiness and self-confidence' (229). [The actual example refers back to the anxieties about being too fat]. Generally, confidence and power were more related to the look of the body rather than its function, which does go beyond the 'socially acceptable male concern to be fit and healthy' (229).
Thus complex stories appeared about body images. Muscularity had to be achieved but of the right type and in the right way. Being fat was to be avoided, but so was being obsessed about your body for cosmetic reasons. Despite stressing the functionality argument, there was a concern for the aesthetics of male bodies in social interactions. This goes beyond the usual published work as above.
The focus group methodology was helpful, although a wider sample is needed. There is no way of knowing whether female facilitators distorted the conversation, although pilot work suggests that they may have helped.
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