Shrinking Women, Hulking Men

The Hulk

The Hulk

Today’s woman may be a CEO, legislator, minister, action hero…

But as the sexes grow more similar, their bodies — at least in media — are diverging.

Men are getting bigger and women are getting smaller — except for their busts. 

Jackson Katz points this out in his documentary, Tough Guise. For instance:

Batman, 1960s:

Batman and Robin, 1960s

Batman and Robin, 1960s

Batman today:

Batman today

Batman today

Pro-wrestlers, 1960s:

Pro wrestlers, 1960s

Pro wrestlers, 1960s

Hulk Hogan:

Hulk Hogan

Hulk Hogan

Meanwhile women grow smaller as feminism gets bigger.

The 1950s Ideal:

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

The 1990s Ideal:

Ally McBeal

Ally McBeal

Today’s Ideal:

Victoria's secret model

Victoria’s secret model

In this last photo the woman isn’t just tiny. Thanks to implants, she may now be both smaller and bigger. With that most obvious of physical differences — breasts — exaggerated.

She Hulk: Strong, but pretty slim.

She Hulk: Strong, but pretty slim.

And since that body part is also the most sexualized, her sexualization is also prominent.

It’s fine for women to be tiny if that’s how they naturally are. It’s fine for women to have large busts if that’s how they naturally are. And it’s fine for men to work out to be fit.

But when images of men are consistently enormous, and when images of women are consistently tiny — and when everything is out of proportion — it seems that men grow bigger and women are reduced. In both size and value.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 25, 2015, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 66 Comments.

  1. I find this article very interesting on many levels. Back in the 1980s, Hollywood started to seek actors that were much larger in mass then past generations. I remember growing up and watching movies like: Pumping Iron, Rambo, and The Terminator. The main charters were built like a house on many occasions. So Hollywood started ushering in great muscular action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Replacing legends like Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery that were considered too small or too light.

    You bring up a valid point that men are getting larger and women are getting smaller in many aspects. Not only in size, but also the way the world views females. For instance–in Hollywood–the men are always seen as the lead character or the hero many times in action movies. While the female plays the “damsel in distress” in the movie. I know females can lead a great action movie. It’s been proven in films like: Kill Bill series and the Hunger Games but they are too far in between to make a significant impact. So I hope females get the same opportunities as males in the near future. I enjoyed reading you post, thanks.

  2. Gender equality is an ongoing issue that we will always face. The double standard of how women should look versus how men should look is just absurd. After looking at the photos that were posted above, I wish that people still found bodies such as Marilyn Monroe’s “attractive” or “acceptable”. Nowadays, if a model is the size she is, she is considered to be plus sized. Media doesn’t realize that these altered images are driving women to have some serious health issues. On the other hand, men don’t really care how they look, they still want women to have that model type and unrealistic figure. It’s not often that we hear that men are getting plastic surgery or enhancement treatments in order to look more attractive. It’s always the women who have to do the work and who are quite frankly, never perfect enough. Sadly, even the model in the lingerie is very photoshopped from her actual figure. It’s sad to see that this new standard of beauty is sickening and unhealthy.

  3. Yes this is definitely true – and it has been very noticeable within the media for the past twenty years or so. This portrayal of the female body as frail and almost child-like and that of the male body, as being ultra powerful and dominant. Both images can place both males and females under considerable pressure to attain the “perfect” body but on some level, I also feel the media is trying to covey some subtle but old fashioned ideas about societal expectations of men & women which are probably not mirrorred in the real world.

    We live in a society where we are taught that men & women have equal rights – but in the media, sexual equality has taken a step back. Females are sexualised and/ or seen as victims in music videos and movies, portrayed as being unrealistically thin and vulnerable and in conjunction with another article here, there is also this rigid adherence to female stereotypes in the media of women being more emotional and psychologically weaker than men.

    Interesting in this age of equality, that women are still portrayed as physically and mentally vulnerable and weak, almost even more so than ever before, as though society is clinging to these old stereotypes and these last vestiges of sexism. I often wonder why this is and what is governing this phenomenon.

  4. Serina Barrera

    I think this is a completely fascinating observation! To think that an attractive women and sex symbol of the 50s was a size 9 but in modern times a rib cage being visible is sexy. Even in media this is reflected the “cubby” friend is the friend with the great personality but the beautiful friend is a size 0 who always gets the guy. For example a show on the Disney channel called Liz and maddie, maddie has a bestfriend who is obviously not a size 0 but has a crush on maddie’s brother but since she is athletic and louder she doesn’t even get close to getting the guy if anything she scares off the guy. This goes beyond ads it’s being exposed to young children who will eventually come to correlate the size of themselves to the potential of their self worth.

    • It’s fascinating to see how much beauty ideals differ from place to place. In some places sexy is seen as what we might consider a bit overweight. And in other places obesity is preferred. Or, stick figures are preferred.

  5. I partially agree with the content of this post. There is no denying that the media idealized body type has shifted in the past 60 years. This post is similar to one of the arguments presented in the movie tough guise. But the one part that I disagree with is the very last line of this post. About how women have been shrinking in size and in value. Women’s value, outside of the media, has increased exponentially if measured in rights. But in the media, women have decreased in value as they transition from sexy to sex object.

    • I agree with you. I just meant that the shrinking of women seems to be meant to communicate a symbolic shrinking in value — even though women’s value has actually risen — actually, to counteract the increase in value.

      But good thinking!

  6. I don’t know if you follow — or are familiar with — the blog Sociological Images? Phillip Cohen has a series on there where he looks at body dimorphism in Disney movies. Fascinating…and also a very disturbing look at the messages our culture sends girls.

    From Tanled:

    Another, more recent:

  7. I often get told that I don’t get to have bad body image because I’m small and therefore fit “the ideal”. Well, no, I don’t really fit the ideal because I’m short and small busted. I also don’t happen to have perfect, poreless skin, mile long legs, and flawless hair. I don’t identify with models; I never have. In fact, images of perfect, slim-yet busty models have been harmful to me as they might be harmful to other women. I had to learn to not let those images have power over me. I’d love to see more diversity in modeling and Hollywood, but I think we all need to learn to not hand the power over our self esteem to models and actresses who don’t even know we exist. We need to not hand it over to a doll (like Barbie), or a cartoon character (like a Disney Princess). It’s tough, especially when the tall, slim, and busty body type is touted everywhere. But it’s a body type that few women achieve naturally, and women are supposed to come in different shapes and sizes. It’s taken me awhile to realize that yes, it is ok to be short and small-busted. I had to realize that about myself because Victoria’s Secret certainly wasn’t going to tell me it’s ok to be that way.

    Interesting note about VS though… most of their models are naturally small or very small busted. They use a variety of techniques (push up + cutlets; even taping the models into their bras, using makeup to deepen cleavage and highlight the tops of the breasts, and then digital enhancement) to make the model’s busts appear larger. It’s all just a fantasy!

    • Yeah. And models these days often get implants.

      I agree that we should appreciate a variety of sizes and shapes. Whatever is natural and healthy, whether that be thicker or thinner, curvy or slimmer, tall, short, etc.

  8. I never actually noticed this or paid fully attention to this. What the article is saying is so true. Society now wants men to look masculine with muscles and women to look tiny with breasts. Men now are getting bigger while women are getting smaller which this shouldn’t be this way. Society sees beauty as women being in size zero and two as they want men to be buff. But this saddens me that women are embolden to look a certain way. Women shouldn’t be shrinking because beauty come in all shapes and sizes. No one should be encouraged to look a certain way.

  9. Nowadays, the public aesthetic has totally changed by the society. As we can see the batman is different between 1960’s and today. From the little fat become a fully muscle body type. Also the 1950’s ideal Marilyn her body type is plentiful and the 1990’s ideal Ally McBeal her body type is super skinny and Now’s the Victoria secret model body type is skinny and sexy. Thus we can concluded is people tends man become a muscle guy and women become a sexy and thin. In China, The Tang period, their aesthetic was fat women equal pretty women and thin is bad. I think the reason is media wants to shape a perfect body type to the public so that it can attract our attention.

  10. There are so many body types and such diversity in body types that people find attractive I think the media is really on the wrong track focusing on one female body type and one male body type.

  11. I have never really paid attention to this. It’s absolutely true that men are being made to look more masculine especially when it comes to commic book hero’s. Women are essentially thought of as more beautiful with tiny pincil figure girls with bigger breasts. I can see how this can be harmful to some women who don’t think they have big enough breasts and decid to get bigger just to feel as beautiful as that girl in the magazine. These magazines are marketing how men want women to look. By doing this we are actually undermining women and devaluing the brilliant creatures that they are. I believe that women should return to their natural curves. It’s interesting to know that Marilyn Monroe is one of the all-time most famous sex symbols of all time but in today’s society she would be seen as a fat actress. Something’s got to give.

  12. I feel as though the way our current media reflects the ideal size of men and women also influences their “desirable” role in society. Men don’t often feel threatened by the presence of women, nor do they want to give up the feeling or superiority. If the women they see are petite, skinny, and concerned with appearance over anything else, I feel as though many men feel stronger about their physical attributions. You don’t often hear about men with eating disorders, or men who slave away at the gym to meet their ideal figures for one of two reasons. Men are often more concerned with the appearance of the women they find attractive then they are about themselves, especially when engaging in the viewing of porn to obtain satisfaction from the bodies of females in which they are not in turn observed. The second reason is obviously, that men find it even harder to admit that they have issues with their body types, and often times their friends do not always notice these behaviors because knowledge about male eating disorders is not discussed as commonly or openly as female eating disorders. Another thing to note is that the women we see the most of are the type in the Victoria Secret image. Society does not depict women in roles of power nearly as much as they do men. They also do not have very many magazines that highlight athletic women who may be stronger and more muscular than a large amount of men. One thing I wonder is if we see more of a degrading role of women in the media because women consumers are truly interested in beauty over everything else, (something I definitely did worry about when I was growing up), or because men are interested in the beauty of women rather than the strong competitors that many women are and could be.

  13. Caroline Dietrich

    Thanks for this great post about Shrinking Women, Hulking Men.
    I really agreed with you on the fact that men are growing larger and women smaller.
    There was a time when a curvy body was “in” for women and men would love a thick woman. It seems that now a days through our culture every time you turn on the TV there is a new ad about how to “trim your waist line” or burn belly fat. There is even a product on the market called a Waist Trainer that is essentially suppose to make women’s bodies more of an hourglass shape – who knows if this product actually works or if it’s a gimmick.
    On the other end of the spectrum there are a multitude of protein shakes for men. The word work out junkies I think has become more and more popular in our culture- those who are addicted to getting bigger and bigger to achieve the most muscular body possible. Yet when you go to the gym there are 2 ends of the spectrum, men who want to bulk up by weight training and over exerting their bodies and women who are doing cardio trying to burn their fat. I think it is really sad that super models have destroyed their bodies to be the skinniest that they can in order to book their next job. Last year while in new York during fashion week I saw the models walking down the street to their next runway show and one of them fainted- I’m assuming because she hadn’t eaten a substantial breakfast and she was very frail and anorexic looking. Overall, with the dramatic differences we are seeing in celebrities and social figures bodies it is putting a schema in everyone’s heads that in order to be pretty, and successful you must look like them.

    • Thank you. And of course it’s fine to be then if you’re naturally thin, Or whatever. But I do worry about the message that is sent out when all women are really thin — with big breasts — and the male ideal is massive.

  14. I think one of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that most straight men will deny finding “stick” women attractive, while most straight women will deny finding male bodybuilders attractive (like uxorious mentioned above me!). Media portrayals aren’t necessarily the truth of our sexual desires– in fact, I forget who told me this, but these images honestly seem more like a male power fantasy than heterosexual eye candy. Strong, big, usually seen beating someone up and taking what’s “rightfully theirs”? Small women, even more so in comparison to their male counterparts? This is a completely male dictated image, and women have to take it in daily. We come to idolize this image without understanding what it represents. And yeah, I don’t find that tasteful at all. We need less cartoonish people in our fantasy world of advertising and media, and more skinny flat-chested women, attractive scrawny men, chubby and obese people, people who you couldn’t begin to assign a gender to…I could go on : )

  15. “Luckily, men have a variety of tastes — with you exhibiting expression form of that. I know guys who like skinny, Guys like thick, and guys who just like healthy — however weight is distributed. It’s just crazy for everyone to think there’s just one way to be — and that they don’t fit it.

    And then there is another purely symbolic level of these images communicating that men and masculinity should take up a lot of space, While women should pretty much disappear — except for their boobs.”

    Well it just goes to show, that if women put down the magazines and listened and looked at how many guys feel. Then many women would or should feel sexier than they think they are. All these “thick” women who think they are fat or unattractive, are quite sexy to many men and in fact more men prefer their body type than the model thin type. The skinny women who feel they don’t have boobs or curves, are sexier than think and plenty of men loving their bodies and finding them very attractive.

    It’s the regular, non workout male body that is kind of unnoticed of all.

    • They’re noticed and appreciated. Just not fetishized.

      • I don’t know about that. Men with tone or muscles shirtless at the pool will get appreciative glances from women, from time to time and be checked out or some attention. A man with a gut, or no muscle definition or plain build, will be pretty much ignored for the most part.. You can say women with nice bodies get attention over plain janes, but plain janes will still get looked at, because well, men love boobs and some men like big asses. A plain male body that has neither tone or muscle or not much of, doesn’t seem to cause women to look at anything, though I kind of understand too. As what is there to look at for men’s bodies who don’t lift weights or don’t work out or don’t naturally have a physique and instead a pot belly? Really nothing much…

      • Women are no doubt more likely to look at a toned man than a man who isn’t. But most women don’t like really big muscles. (They prefer the guys who appear in Cosmo over the bigger guys to appear in Men’s Health.) But most of the time guys are going to be wearing clothes where you can see their bodies, anyway.

  16. Aram Moshkounian

    I find this post to be very interesting and also very accurate. Today in 2015 when we look at the media and images of men online they are always so exaggerated and photoshopped to make it like they are very muscular. I believe you brought up a very good point when you talk about wrestlers and super heroes. These men are portrayed as big muscular heroes that you should strive to become. I believe that this sends out a very bad message to our youth. I’m a male and having a six pack or big muscles doesn’t matter to me one bit. What matters to me the most is being healthy and being in good shape because that is all that really matters. I believe that many people also feel bad about themselves when they see these big muscular men on T.V because it is something that they want to achieve but most of the time it isn’t possible. In term of women I find it really saddening how the media only portrays them as a sex figures. Women are always portrayed as being small, petite, beautiful sex figures that men desire. This is simply unjust because women also are big and strong and can do just as much then men can do. In terms of the topic I believe we can gain equality by showing the two genders as equals and not over-exaggerating one over the other. We need to stop making men look so large and powerful and stop making women look small and helpless.

  17. I find the whole thing of men getting bigger/bulkier interesting because most women I know have told me that they like for their men to be in good shape, but that they don’t care for the muscle builder, bulky physique type of guy; that they don’t care for the Mr. Atlas or Mr. Nautilus types.

    • Surveys show the same thing. Because of these images, men often think that women want someone really big and muscular. But women actually prefer just normal, average size — not big and bulky.

  18. It is interesting how the society changing over the last couple decades with the most obvious of physical differences between males and females. I think the most influences the changes is social media. The physical differences also reflect the power of males and females. Females’ model figure seems smaller and smaller over the decades. It marks women seem tinier and less power and less value. It also makes women seems like a sexual object. But for males’ figure seems more muscular and bigger. It makes males seem more powerful and rule over women.

  19. I’ve noticed this ideal: skinny women with disproportionate large breasts) and the usual neurotic obsession over weight) and hulking gym junkie males. Have you noticed when males are sexualised they’re invariably got washboard abs, sick-packs, biceps.etc. I mean why only such a specific body type that is seen as sexy for men? Why aren’t more ordinary men appreciated for their bodies?

    • Yeah. Luckily, real live men and women often don’t subscribe to these ideals. But the images give women the idea that they must be skinny with big boobs, Or skinny with big boobs and a big butt. And men think women want washboard abs. And it all creates a great deal of insecurity — and sells a lot of stuff, which is the main reason these crazy images are sold to us.

  20. Lately I’ve been musing on my “revenge” tactic I would do when I was younger at the end of a relationship. My revenge would be to lose as much weight as possible so the next time I bumped into an ex- he would see what he was missing. Interesting to me that it was in reducing myself to less than what I was that I associated the “revenge.” We seem to live in a world where society sees a woman in opposite proportion to how little physical space she can take up in the world- except for the breasts, as you say.

    • Nothing but boobs. Says a lot.

      • Which is weird since curves are seen as feminine and valued as well. Sure thin is important, but to me, I like slim, but find women that are thick or even with some extra to them quite sexually attractive. I actually prefer “thick” women with curves to the victoria’s secret skinny women, but who have big boobs or pretty big boobs. A woman who is thin like that, but has big boobs, it doesn’t look proportioned, like a woman not tiny and regular sized with big boobs. It’s also weird, because boobs aren’t the only body parts men find sexually attractive, but skinny women like the models you see who have big boobs, they really don’t have curves elsewhere. When I see the models on tv, they are beautiful of course, but they’re so small, and not curvy and look frail too. They don’t have a curvaceous butt, hips and legs.

        That’s why, even though women like that are seen as the pinnacle and used in ads, you’ll see that it’s usually women like Sofia Vergara, Beyonce knowles, Kate Upton, and like bodies who capture men’s lusts more so than the tiny victoria’s secret models.

        Yes Kate Upton is a model, and has big boobs, but what’s different about her is you can see she’s not tiny. That’s more meat to her whether her midsection, and you can tell with her legs, hips and butt. Most other models like that, are very petite and have skinny legs, very tiny waists and smaller hips too.

      • Luckily, men have a variety of tastes — with you exhibiting expression form of that. I know guys who like skinny, Guys like thick, and guys who just like healthy — however weight is distributed. It’s just crazy for everyone to think there’s just one way to be — and that they don’t fit it.

        And then there is another purely symbolic level of these images communicating that men and masculinity should take up a lot of space, While women should pretty much disappear — except for their boobs.

    • “We seem to live in a world where society sees a woman in opposite proportion to how little physical space she can take up in the world- except for the breasts, as you say.”

      Don’t you think this also varies by race and ethnicity? I think Black and Latino men are not that much into having their women look like “tits on a stick” so to speak. Would you agree?

      But, in general you are indeed correct. A large or larger woman is subject to far more negatives than thinner women or even fat guys. Sad. Personally, I don’t care if she is a size 6 or 16.

    • I’ve wondered about this phenomenon a lot too…

  21. “she may now be both smaller and bigger” 😀 LOL…

    But you’re right, absolutely.

  22. Great post, Georgia…. I´d say that the Marilyn Monroe type is a sort of woman from the Renaissance, and the 90´s type a Middle Age skinny woman … Dark times indeed.
    As to nowadays, the ideal is pretty much a perfect shaped and well shaped, narcissistic post apocalyptic woman… Same applies to men as the ideal is a sort of Armageddon new Terminator type, i.e very muscled… Once you survive the end of the World you are ready to anything, I guess
    Have you noticed that these stereotypes are a result of timely circumstances, defined by cultural, economical and sociological factors-…Best wishes to you, Aquileana 😀

  23. It’s sad the way women are being encouraged to be stick thin. And that last photo of the Victoria Secret model is, I have no doubt, enhanced to make her look even thinner.

  24. I’m not so sure about the change in ideal beauty for a woman. You show a Ally McBeal for the 1990’s ideal and a recent Victoria’s Secret model to represent today. I would be interested to see a Victoria’s Secret model from the 1990’s to compare with their typical model for today.

    • Well, the images are meant to represent pre-and post-implants. I don’t remember exactly which year implants really took hold. But this is also a post that is based on Jackson Katz, “Tough Guise” documentary, and he uses Calista Flockhart as the 1990s ideal.

  25. akismet-df59bc621f2551c08836b3f2f96c4243

    There isn’t a lot of sexual dimorphism in humans naturally and that seems to make some people upset. They complain when a woman doesn’t have enough curves, has “masculine” features, or looks too plain without makeup. I think we’re encouraged to be an exaggerated version of our sex so that there’s a strong visual demarcation between the dominant and oppressed class.

  26. Since the average joe/jane doesn’t have the time, money, or fortitude to subject him/herself to the rigors required to maintain such an extreme physique, it’s a question of the impact this has on the rest of us. Does it undermine? (Maybe, and especially for youth.) It seems that image diminishes the value of both sexes–nobody can live up to that expectation, unless you have nothing else meaningful to do.

  27. Why is it that men want big boobs and yet are they big in that area its only right that both have it. Why let him enjoy and she is not cause he is small. And men are all equal no matter what race small, nice n big in that area.

    • While media affects our ways of seeing, it doesn’t determine it. Luckily, men have a much wider variety of tastes than media suggests. And since only about 20% of women orgasm through intercourse, size isn’t that “big” a deal to most of them.

      Instead of trying to make most everyone feel bad about themselves, it would be much better to broaden both media portrayals and personal tastes even wider than they currently are.

      • “…it would be much better to broaden both media portrayals and personal tastes even wider than they currently are.”

        YES!!! This would solve a lot of problems, indeed.

      • Men love boobs n booty i know cause i deal with men who say they one or the other or both. And i say what do u look like to want this. Alot of these who want this dont even look hot themselves. And i say why be picky if u aren’t hot looking. You want a gorgeous woman well i hope she wants a man like U.

      • You’ve got a point there. I’ve also heard of guys saying that sort of thing, Just randomly, Not to any particular woman, and I wonder why they have a double standard, Because it’s not like they’re so perfect, in terms of social ideals. But we live in a culture where women are more judged than men and I suspect that it gives these guys a superiority complex: Oh, I’m judging all you women. Which really reveals a sense of insecurity that they’re trying to cover over and compensate for.

  28. Baffling….

    With 2/3 of Americans being overweight AND nearly a third of those being obese, how can you say men and women are diverging? It’s the opposite! We are each getting bigger.

    Of course the popular media might portray something different. But that’s all fiction. The reality on the ground is we are all getting fatter and sicker as a nation.

    • As Marneymae, above, points out, The reflection in our reality comes in the types of clothing styles we see on the street. And while it mirrors what we see in media, real life can’t be as exaggerated. Partly because, As you point out, most people’s bodies don’t reflect what we see in media.

      What I’m talking about is symbolic messages in fake media portrayals — which does happen to be reflected in everyday clothing.

  29. It seems that popular clothing also reflects this in general
    Women wear tight tight clothing
    Men wear baggy baggy clothing
    Strange phenomenon

  30. That’s amusing too though. Specially batman. We are imitating cartoons and anime for the real physique.

  31. kellie@writingmoment

    Ha ha, so true about the large breasts!

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