G.I. Joe vs Average Joe

The Columns - G.I. Joe vs Average Joe

Bryan Karazsia and Jan Crowther study body image disorders in men—a trend seen over the years through the increasingly developed bodies of G.I. Joe action figures. Photo by Tim Black.

Two men in a weight room. one is fully jacked–washboard abs, tree-trunk thighs, and boulder shoulders. He exhales hard as he lifts, eyeing himself in the mirror, appraising the girth of his guns. Nearby, another man watches. He’s fit, but just the size of an average, healthy young man. He flexes his own arms, thinking about the bigger guy, comparing, and decides to keep his shirt on.

So which man’s health could be in jeopardy? The gym rat, of course; he might be popping anabolic steroids for breakfast with his Cheerios. But what about average Joe, who simply fears he’s not big enough?

Turns out, both men may be on the same dangerous path, with one just further along. According to recent research, more men than previously thought are afflict- ed by body-image issues, an area of concern that used to be considered girl stuff. In fact, one study says that 90 percent of U.S. undergraduate men feel some level of dissatisfaction with their bodies. In women, body issues can manifest in a fixation on thinness; but in men, it’s muscularity. Some call the condition “bigorexia.” The accepted term is “muscle dysmorphia.”

Psychology professors Bryan Karazsia ‘03 at the College of Wooster and Janis Crowther ‘75 at Kent State University are collaborating on research that examines social and psychological influences on male body image and risky body-change behavior.

“They work out more than is healthy,” Karazsia says, “enough that it interferes with their lives. And some- times they take supplements that have been shown to be unhealthy, but they’re still doing it.”

Karazsia and Crowther, who met and became research partners at Kent State while Karazsia was in grad school, are finding that the influences that explain muscle dysmorphia in men are similar to those known to impact eating psychopathology in women, most notably, comments made by parents and peers–even those as seemingly benign as encouragement to go to the gym; the frequency of “social comparison,” which is, literally, how often a person compares his or her own body to others; and exposure to media or pop culture images, like bulked-up (and air-brushed) men’s magazine covers, steroid-infused sports heroes and, yes, toys.

Consider the evolution of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. He has become completely unrealistic in recent years, just like that icon of female structural impossibility, the Barbie Doll. “There aren’t normal methods you can use to look like Barbie,” Karazsia says. “And you can’t attain G.I. Joe’s shape with normal workout behaviors.” But not every boy with an action figure becomes a man with muscle dysmorphia. So what tips the scale?

“That’s where internalization comes in,” says Crowther, who has 30 years of scholarship and a massive list of publications on eating disorders in women. “It’s the extent to which a woman has adopted for herself the thin beauty ideal that’s been promulgated in our society… for a man, it’s the extent to which he has adopted a more muscular ideal. It exists on a continuum.”

They both agree that society has become more appearance-focused and increasingly delusive about what’s real, what’s possible, and what constitutes beauty, so watch your words. Sure, the media is pervasive, and children will sometimes say awful things to each other–but parents are one of the most powerful social influences of all. Control that variable, and average Joe stands a way better chance of feeling good about himself, no matter the size of G.I. Joe’s guns.

Published June 2010