Male body image
East doesn't meet West
By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office
Asian men show less dissatisfaction with their bodies than males in the United States and Europe, according to a Harvard study. This may explain why anabolic steroid abuse is much less prevalent in places like Taiwan than in the United States, Europe, and Australia, the researchers found.
"Disorders of body image, including a pathological preoccupation with muscularity, are growing increasingly common among Western males, notes Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, a Harvard senior. "By contrast, such male body-image problems appear to be rare in Asian societies."
"Our findings suggest that Western men have a distorted view of what they ideally should look like, whereas men in Taiwan don't seem to have this problem," says Harrison Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. When tested, Western men guessed that women prefer a "buff" body with 20-30 pounds more muscle than average. But when women were asked to choose their preferences, they picked male bodies much closer to average.
Pope also heads the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical affiliate in Belmont, Mass. A few years ago, he and several colleagues gave a computerized test to male college students in the United States, France, and Austria. The students could adjust images of male bodies through 10 layers of muscle and 10 levels of fat. Asked to build bodies they thought would attract women, the males consistently layered on a lot more muscle than females preferred when they looked at the images. The Leonardo DiCaprio types were judged more appealing than the Sylvester Stallones.
Yang and Peter Gray, a teaching fellow in a course Yang was taking, got to talking about this so-called "Adonis Complex," and Gray introduced Yang to Pope. It turned out that Yang, whose parents are from Taiwan, was headed there during a summer break. All agreed that it would be a good idea to test Asian students the same way to see how they reacted to muscles and machismo.
Chicken meat and muscles
Yang gave the computer tests to 55 students at a university, and he interviewed doctors at hospitals and trainers in large gyms. Because the Chinese word for "muscle" sounds the same as the word for "chicken meat," Yang had to explain to confused students, psychiatrists, and trainers that he was interested in pulchritude, not poultry.
When it came to measuring body fat, the Taiwanese were more reluctant than U.S. students to taking off their undershirts and having their skin gently pinched by a caliper-like instrument. "I'm not sure whether they thought it was 'fun' or 'funny,'" Yang says.
The tests revealed that Taiwanese men show less dissatisfaction with their bodies than Westerners. They did not add as much muscle to build an idealized body. And they added a scant five pounds to make a body they thought would be a woman's ideal.
To reach their ideal, more and more Western men are resorting to anabolic steroids. The Taiwanese men Yang talked with had heard of the drugs but did not know anyone who actually used them.
Neither did males in China. During a later trip to Beijing, Pope and Yang asked 125 college-aged men if they used body-building drugs or knew anyone who did. Only two said they knew someone who used steroids. But it was not clear that the two knew what kind of drugs the Americans were talking about. Asked to name the specific steroids used, one of the men answered "Viagra."
Pope and Yang also visited a large pharmacy in populous Beijing. Although anabolic steroids are freely available without prescription, the clerk told them the store only sells them to about one customer a month.
Mental vs. macho
What accounts for the difference in body images and drug use between East and West? Yang, Pope, and Gray propose a combination of three possible answers in their report, which appears in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Chinese culture places less emphasis on muscle as a measure of masculinity. Also, Asian men are less exposed to the unending images of pects, abs, biceps, and triceps common in Western media. Finally, Taiwanese men retain a tighter grip on the traditional roles of household and corporate masters than men in the United States and other Western countries.
Western societies have equated muscles with masculinity from Greek and Roman statuary to modern television and print ads. There has been no such emphasis in Asia. Although a macho tradition exists in China, Yang notes, "a cerebral male tradition is dominant. In this tradition, masculinity is composed both of wen, having core meanings centering around literacy and cultural attainment, and wu, having core meanings of martial, military, force, and power. Wen is more highly regarded."
Media displays add to such cultural differences. For example, Yang points out, in the United States, men's health and fitness magazines are often crowded with steroid-enhanced muscular images. In comparison, he found no comparable Taiwanese magazines in a search of some of that country's largest bookstores.
The researchers also checked all advertisements for the year 2001 in two U.S. women's magazines (Cosmopolitan and Glamour) and three comparable magazines in Taiwan. A comparison showed only modest differences in the number of undressed or underdressed Western models of both sexes. ("Undressed" was defined roughly as "you would not go out on the street dressed like that,") However, Asian women were shown undressed only about half as often as Western women in Taiwanese magazines. More striking, Asian men were almost never displayed this way.
Another possible factor centers on the importance of men's roles as breadwinners, soldiers, and business leaders. In the West, that image has plunged precipitously in the past few decades. Women now command spaceships and serve as CEOs of large corporations. Pope and Yang suggest that, to compensate, some Western men are fixating on muscularity as "the last bastion of masculinity."
Yang admits that "it's difficult to say which of these factors is most important. There will be disagreement among our colleagues about reasons for the contrast we found in male body image and anabolic steroid use in Asia and the U.S. and other Western countries. The difference has public health consequences, so hopefully more studies will be conducted."
Yang, Gray, and Pope also call attention to other research showing that Asian cultures are being invaded by Western patterns of body dissatisfaction among women. Two studies have shown that normal-weight women in Hong Kong and Polynesia want to be thinner. Another investigation in Fiji found striking increases in body dissatisfaction among adolescent girls in Fiji after television became widely available.