BYU professor Kevin John is using eye tracking technology to research something that’s been lacking from the conversation on body image issues: the way men process body image.
According to John, a lack of research doesn’t mean the topic isn’t important.
“We’re constantly surrounded by media messages,” said John. “We can control what we look at, but we can’t control how it affects us.”
John said that in a society where a lot of idealized body images are extreme portrayals manufactured using digital manipulation software like Photoshop, it can be difficult not to become negatively affected.
“It used to be the case that you weren’t going to look like someone because you’re not that body type, but now you’re not going to look like that because it’s physically impossible,” said John. “What happens when we take a beauty standard that is unattainable by the vast majority of individuals or potentially nobody and we celebrate it? We’re setting ourselves up not only for disappointment, but also for psychological ramifications. What message do we want to send? Do we want to send the message that all women should be thin and all men should be muscular? No, the types of messages we should be sending are more along the lines of ‘be your best self.’”
To explore at these questions, John and his team used eye tracking technology — which uses infrared lights and cameras to track where a person’s eyes focus on a screen — to record the subjects’ reactions when they were shown advertisements featuring muscular and average men. The subjects were then given a survey asking them to rate their satisfaction with certain parts of their body, including their arms, legs and upper torso.
When John compared the subjects’ reactions to their surveys, he found something interesting: men process body image in a completely different way than women do.
When women aren’t satisfied with a certain aspect of their bodies, they tend to avoid focusing on that body part when they look at models or other women. John said this phenomenon is generally regarded as a self-protection tool that allows people to prevent themselves from feeling uncomfortable about an aspect that they don’t like about themselves.
John found that men exhibit the opposite behavior. When shown photos of muscular models, they exhibit increased fixation on the parts of the body that they are the least satisfied with in themselves. Many men who were less satisfied with their arms spent more time looking at the models’ arms.
John is currently doing additional research to figure out what causes this increased fixation in men; his hypothesis is that it’s either a manifestation of a preoccupation with improving what men consider a problem or a desire to enhance these parts of themselves.
Regardless of the conclusions, the study has already been impactful, at least for John himself.
“Doing research in this area has made me more conscious of my tendency to compare myself to other people and the fact that doing so is a losing game,” said John. “My personal satisfaction is mine, and it’s not dependent on any external factors. This research has made me a little more conscious of that.”
John hopes that his study will help others learn the danger of basing their value on what they see in the media around them.
“We’re not here to compare ourselves to other individuals; we’re here to figure out how to be our best selves,” said John. “Whenever we’re relying on some external measure of satisfaction, we’re going to find ourselves disappointed.”