Dating & porn websites are appearance potent (surprise, surprise!)

Sounds obvious doesn’t it? Porn and dating websites feature the male & female appearance ideals frequently and (largely) singularly.

But we have to count these things. Else it’s easy to let neoliberalism slip in and blame your appearance shame on yourself rather than the appearance pressures emanating from cultural agents (like mass media).

So we did. Me and colleagues counted every image of a man and woman on popular dating and porn websites that men use. We then coded their body types, their head hair amount, their sexualisation etc. as a way of starting to quantify just how much these websites place pressures on user to conform to narrow appearance ideals.

This was an extension of a previous content analysis we did with men’s magazines but this time with websites.

Here’s an excerpt of the findings:

Across the websites 1,415 images of men and 714 images of women were coded. Across all websites, the majority of men were young (84.6%), had symmetrical and unblemished faces (100.0%), were mesomorphic (71.2%), had a full head of hair (95.1%), were White (87.4%), had no chest hair (93.6%), were nude (79.6%) and were sexualized (82.7%). About a fifth of the images of men were dismembered (22.8%). The majority of the images of women were also appearance-ideal (87.0%), nude (61.7%) and sexualized (93.9%). Fewer were dismembered (15.5%).

Most importantly though (in my opinion), and separate to these specific findings, are 5 reasons why we should be looking critically at culture and not individuals when trying to explain why people feel body ashamed. Content analyses are a perfect method to do this:

  1. Firstly, as outlined above, in order to examine these differences in ways that avoid further pathologising gay men via self-report methods (Kane, 2009, 2010).

  2. Second, disclosing body dissatisfaction and its causes is not a straightforward process. Most pertinently to the current study, researchers have noted gay men tend to be more at ease in disclosing their body dissatisfaction compared to their straight male counterparts (e.g., Adams, Turner, & Bucks, 2005; Bordo, 1999). Participants in Adams et al’s (2005) study, for example, recognized that for gay men, though not straight men, admitting body dissatisfaction was acceptable. Therefore, analysing media may be more likely to overcome the particular methodological hurdle that plagues self-report methods comparing gay and straight men (e.g., Jankowski et al., 2013) where it is not clear whether any differences between gay and straight men are more “announced than pronounced” (Kane, 2010, p. 315).

  3. Third, it is difficult for anyone to account for the impact media has on them. The vast majority of sociocultural research, whether via experimental, cross-sectional, longitudinal and qualitative means, has asked participants what they think of media. For example, experimental studies ask participants to rate their body dissatisfaction before and after viewing appearance potent media images (readily allowing for participants to decide whether to inflate their post-score so as to deem the media culpable or satisfy the researcher’s desires). Other research studies have asked men in groups or individually to account for media’s effects (Diedrichs & Lee, 2010; Elliott & Elliott, 2005). These designs are problematic as people do not have access to aggregate data to assess their systematic exposure to media appearance potency or its impact on them. In addition, media effects may be hidden, subtle and depicted as normative; their effect may not be obvious. For example, Men’s Health magazine positions itself as about health but – as content analyses show – is more about conforming to unrealistic appearance ideals (Jankowski, Fawkner, et al., 2014; Labre, 2005). In support, body dissatisfaction researchers have noted a ‘media third person effect’ in research where participants only ever regard others as impacted by media, never themselves (Davison, 1983; Diedrichs, Lee, & Kelly, 2011).

  4. Fourth, asking individuals to account for media draws attention away from culture and onto individuals. This may collude with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, as well as being an economic ideology, is also a dominant cultural ideology that encourages individuals to see themselves as individually responsible (and therefore to blame) for their body dissatisfaction, health, income etc. (Petersen, 1996). Asking individuals to account for cultural agents may imply that individuals are responsible for its impact.

  5. Finally, we must hold media, culture, to account. Media is not unproblematic with regards to body dissatisfaction despite worrying conclusions otherwise. For example the biggest meta-analysis of experimental research to date on media’s impact on body dissatisfaction has concluded: “media effects are generally minimal and limited to those with preexisting body dissatisfaction” (Ferguson, 2013, p. 20). Others in the body dissatisfaction field have not only dismissed other cultural agents such as the fashion industry, as responsible for body dissatisfaction but also firmly placed individuals as responsible: “[body dissatisfaction] is not a cultural construct that exists to tyrannize…[and] line the pockets of fashion designers, but a universal fascination with the human form which developed along Darwinian lines since the dawn of man” (Etcoff, 2002). In contrast, research that actually assesses cultural appearance potency by analysing media (rather than individual people’s accounts) provides compelling evidence that it is appearance potent, that is harmful, that it needs challenging. A review of this research follows.

    And you can download the accepted version of paper here: the-appearance-potency-of-mens-websites.

    If useful, cite it as: Jankowski, G. S., Slater, A., Tiggemann, M. & Fawkner, H. (in press). The appearance potency of gay and straight men’s websites, Psychology of Sexualities Review.

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