Campus & Community

Male body image

2 min read

East doesn’t meet West

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.