New research provides evidence that men’s self-evaluation of their bodies predicts their level of sexual esteem, and that this relationship is moderated by body-focused anxiety and male gender norms. The findings have been published in the journal Psychology & Sexuality.
While studies have demonstrated that having a poor body image is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, most of this research has focused on women. The authors of the new study sought to better understand negative body image among men, and were particularly interested in sexual esteem, which has been defined as “positive regard for and confidence in the capacity to experience one’s sexuality in a satisfying and enjoyable way.”
“From an interest in investigating male extremist groups, we had noticed that one extremist group in particular (‘incels’) held the collective belief that if men did not look attractive, they would not be able to find a romantic or sexual partner,” said study author David Hattie, a member of the O.R.G.A.S.M Research Lab who conducted the research as part of his honors thesis for his BA in Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“Particularly fascinating was how hyper-focused incels were on specific parts of the body; in particular, wrist size and skull shape could be arbiters of inability to find relational or sexual connections. We then determined to interrogate the connection between men’s body image and sexual satisfaction in the general population.”
The researchers recruited a sample of 298 male participants. The average age of the sample was 32.34 years. The participants completed a battery of questionnaires, including one known as the Body Esteem Questionnaire-Revised. The participants indicated how they felt about various body parts (e.g. arms, chest) and physical characteristics (e.g. energy level, physical coordination) on a 5-point scale.
Their responses were totaled into three separate dimensions: upper body strength, physical condition, and sexual attractiveness. Hattie and his colleagues found that all three dimensions of male body esteem were positively associated with sexual esteem. Body esteem related to the wrist, nose, jaw, and height were also associated with sexual esteem, which was “a particularly novel finding not reported in previous literature,” the researchers said.
In other words, those who had positive feelings about their body were more likely to agree with statements such as “I would rate my sexual skill quite highly” and disagree with statements such as “I sometimes doubt my sexual competence.”
“However, this relationship was complicated by incorporating other variables,” Hattie told PsyPost. “For instance, we found that body image anxiety negatively moderated the relationship between sexual attractiveness and sexual esteem; the strength of the relationship between sexual attractiveness and sexual esteem was weakest when body image anxiety was high, suggesting that increased body image anxiety has a negative impact on men’s sexual esteem.”
Those with a high level of body image anxiety agree with statements such as “I don’t like my partner to see me completely naked during sexual activity,” “During sexual activity I try to hide certain areas of my body,” and “I am self-conscious about my body during sexual activity.”
The participants also completed a questionnaire in which they reported the extent to which they agreed with a variety of statements regarding manhood. The questionnaire assessed male role norms related to restrictive emotionality, self-reliance through mechanical skills, negativity towards sexual minorities, avoidance of femininity, importance of sex, toughness, and dominance.
In an unexpected finding, the relationship between upper body strength and sexual esteem was not moderated by male role norm endorsement.
“Higher conformity to male gender norms did not impact the relationship between upper body strength and sexual esteem,” Hattie said. “We hypothesized that a macho/muscular body type would impact men’s sexual esteem especially for men who endorse male gender norms and we did not find this result. In hindsight however, perhaps this result is unsurprising, given recent trends of men’s body image shifting from a muscular ideal to a leaner/toned ideal.”
The relationship between sexual attractiveness and sexual esteem was strongest when male role norm endorsement was high. In contrast, the relationship between physical condition and sexual esteem was strongest when male role norm endorsement was low.
“Higher conformity to male gender norms had a negative impact on the relationship between men’s physical condition and sexual esteem,” Hattie told PsyPost. “One theory we had about this result was that men who conform to stereotypically masculine body types may feel pressure to maintain physical fitness to enjoy their sexuality, while men who are less likely to conform to male gender norms place more emphasis on other factors that contribute to their sexual esteem.”
“Collectively, our findings suggest that clinical and sexuality education programs should consider both the positive and negative influences of men’s body image in influencing their sexual satisfaction and esteem,” Hattie said.
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for overall levels of sexual activity and precarious manhood beliefs (or the belief that one’s status as a “man” is hard to earn but easy to lose). But as with all research, the study includes some caveats.
“There is always a need to investigate how the relationship between body esteem and sexual esteem influences other groups of peoples besides men,” Hattie explained. Demographic variables such as race, gender, or country of origin may all influence body image and sexual esteem in differing ways. Additionally, there is still work to be done exploring the relationship between functional (as opposed to aesthetic) body image issues and sexuality, especially for individuals with disabilities.”
“Body image is an ever-evolving concept; although rates of body dissatisfaction may differ among men, women, and non-binary individuals, negative body image in men can contribute to long-term issues such overexercising, depression, loneliness, social comparison, sexual dissatisfaction, and disordered eating. We believe that men should be given a space to discuss and process the impacts that negative body image has on their sexuality in both therapy, educational settings, and within society overall.”
The study, “The Effects of Body Esteem Dimensions on Sexual Esteem in Men“, was authored by David M. Hattie, Flora Oswald, and Cory L. Pedersen.