The appearance potency of men’s magazines

My first PhD study analysed how appearance potent (focused on narrow appearance ideals) men’s magazines were. Basically we found (and unsurprisingly) there is a vast amount of content in men’s media that highlights narrow and unrealistic appearance ideals and promotes the idea that changing appearance is easy and important. The magazines do some great things (particularly the gay ones). But the need to sell and reliance on advertising means they promote narrow unrealistic ideals so men feel bad and buy, buy, buy (their magazine, the advertiser’s products etc). It sucks.



This was published here and I am happy to send anyone the full paper.


Aim of study: To explore the extent to which men’s magazines promote the appearance ideal and focus on appearance change (i.e., are ‘appearance potent’).
8 issues of the two most read gay men’s magazines (i.e., Attitude and Gay Times) as well as 8 issues of the two most read heterosexual men’s magazines (i.e., Men’s Health and FHM) from 2011 and 2012 were analyzed. 4,949 images of men and 999 women were coded on their physical characteristics (e.g., age and ethnicity) as well as their degree of sexualisation (e.g., model in sexually suggestive pose) and nudity. 1,233 adverts and 844 articles were also coded.


Magazine title
Content Code Gay (Attitude and Gay Times) Straight (Men’s Health and FHM) Total
Images of men Young, mesomorphic, White, with full heads of hair and no chest hair 68% 65% 64%
Nude 56% 18% 37%
Sexualised 54% 2% 30%
Images of women Young, slim, & White 60% 91% 75%
Nude 4% 58% 30%
Sexualised 14% 67% 40%
Types of advert Appearance product (e.g., fashion, cosmetics and protein supplements etc.) 23% 66% 45%
Sex (e.g., porn website or porn film etc.) 25% 0% 12%
Other (e.g., travel, entertainment etc.) 41% 33% 37%
Types of article Appearance (e.g., about weight loss, muscle gain, fashion tips etc.) 29% 36% 32%
Sex (e.g., sex tips, porn reviews etc.) 5% 7% 5%
Other (e.g., health, entertainment, politics etc.) 62% 57% 60%

1. Most of the images of men fit the appearance ideal (66%) meaning they were muscular, had little body fat, were young (under 40 years old), and had symmetrical and unblemished faces, full heads of hair as well as no visible chest hair. Many were also sexualised (30%) and nude (37%).

2. These images are unrepresentative of the general population in a few ways. For example, through their portrayal of:

  • Head hair amount: Just 5% of the images of men had some hair loss and only 4% were bald. This is unrepresentative of the general population as around 30% of men will experience some hair loss by the time they are 30. This increases to 50% of men by the age of 50 and by the age of 70 most men will have some hairloss(1,2).
  • Age: Just 4% of the images of men appeared to be older than 60 (87% were aged between 18 and 40). In contrast, 16.4% of the UK’s population was aged 65 and over in 2011.
  • Other physical aspects: Two thirds of the images of men are mesomorphic (little body fat and prominent muscles) Although there is no specific data that tells us how many men actually share these physical characteristics it is likely to be very few given the variety of bodyshapes and sizes people have.

3. The majority of the images of women were also appearance ideal (75%), and many were nude (40%) and sexualized (30%). These images are unrepresentative of women.

4. Many of the adverts (45%) were for appearance products such as cosmetic surgery, perfumes, protein supplements and steroids.

5. A third of the articles across the magazines focused on changing appearance (32%). Articles would commonly encourage readers to lose weight, gain muscle, prevent hair loss and prevent the physical effects of ageing. Some of these articles were framed to look as if they were promoting health but were actually about changing appearance.

These magazines and websites promote two ideas relating to appearance that are problematic:

1) Appearance is controllable
Part of what determines the levels of muscularity and body fat an individual has is down to genes, hormones and biological factors. These are all factors beyond an individual’s control. Other aspects of appearance such as symmetry of facial features, amount of hair on head, ethnicity and body hair amount are largely out of an individual’s control. Likewise, the physical effects of ageing on appearance may be delayed but they cannot be stopped altogether.

2) Fitting the appearance ideal is the same as being healthy, happy and successful
It is tempting to believe that seeing images of ‘appearance ideal’ men and women motivates us to be healthy (e.g., by going to the gym regularly) but this isn’t the case. For example, the level of muscularity and body fat that these models have, is often so extreme that achieving this can only be done via unhealthy means like taking steroids or through dehydrating the body (3–5). Body size, symmetry of facial features and head hair amount are not indicators of physical health. Nor are they indicators of success, happiness or sexual attractiveness.

The consequences of appearance potent content
Many men describe these aspects of the media as causes of their body shame (6,7). Studies have shown that more and more media images of men fit the appearance ideal and are sexualised (8) and that this ideal is becoming progressively more muscular and leaner (3,5). Alongside these changes, many men report today that they are unhappy with appearance (9) and the proportion of men having cosmetic surgery has also risen steadily increased in the last 10 years (10). This suggests men are increasingly feeling under pressure to change their appearances and that ‘appearance potent’ media is one source of this.

1. Choices, N. H. S. Hair loss (alopecia) – NHS Choices. (2013). at <;
2. Kenny, T. & Knott, L. Male Pattern Baldness | Health | (2010). at <;
3. Leit, R. A., Pope, H. G. & Gray, J. J. Cultural expectations of muscularity in men: The evolution of playgirl centrefolds. Int. J. Eat. Disord. 29, 90–93 (2001).
4. Probert, A. & Leberman, S. The Value of the Dark Side: An Insight into the Risks and Benefits of Engaging in Health-compromising Practices from the Perspective of Competitive Bodybuilders. Eur. Sport Manag. Q. 9, 353–373 (2009).
5. Pope Jr, H. G., Olivardia, R., Gruber, A. & Borowiecki, J. Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. Int. J. Eat. Disord. 26, 65–72 (1999).
6. Diedrichs, P. C., Lee, C. & Kelly, M. Seeing the beauty in everyday people: A qualitative study of young Australians’ opinions on body image, the mass media and models. Body Image 8, 259–266 (2011).
7. Jankowski, G. & Diedrichs, P. C. What do UK gay and straight men consider to be causes of men’s body dissatisfaction? (2011).
8. Rohlinger, D. A. Eroticizing men: Cultural influences on advertising and male objectification. Sex Roles 46, 61–74 (2002).
9. Liossi, C. Appearance related concerns across the general and clinical populations. (2003). at <;
10. British Association fo Aesthetic Plast Surgeons. Plastic surgery in the UK. (2012). at <;


One thought on “The appearance potency of men’s magazines

  1. Pingback: Dating & porn websites are appearance potent (surprise, surprise!) | Body image, critical psychology and other stuff

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