Men are left feeling inadequate by failure to measure up to adverts

For decades it has been seen a problem solely for women - being made to feel insecure by images of the "perfect body".

For decades it has been seen a problem solely for women - being made to feel insecure by images of the "perfect body".

But now it seems that men too can also feel intimidated. New research suggests that adverts with male models showing off "six-pack" bodies are seen by more than half of men as unfair images that pressure them to become muscle-bound hunks.

The study of 140 men in England and Wales found that the long-standing complaints from women about "unreal" body shapes used on billboards and in magazines are now being mirrored by men.

Researchers said the proliferation of male pin-ups advertising products from underwear to aftershave to magazines in the same way that female models have been used for decades was making ordinary men feel inferior and uncomfortable about their bodies.

The new consumer-driven image of the 21st century male, combining the "caring" features of New Man with the toned body of traditional macho man, was fuelling a rush to fitness clubs by men.

Rosalind Gill, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, told the annual conference of the British Psychological Society: "More than 50 per cent of the men felt very intimidated by the images. They were pressured and felt it was unfair that however much they worked out at the gym, they would never be able to achieve the sort of body you see, for example, in underwear adverts.

"What is obvious is that adverts now portray men as objects to be consumed, very much as women are."

The study used a series of magazine adverts to ask men aged between 15 and 35 in four locations - London, Manchester, Newcastle and Bangor in North Wales - their reaction to the portrayal of the male body.

Among the images used were adverts for Calvin Klein and Emporio Armani underwear, Joop and Egoiste aftershave and a cover from Mens Heath magazine, which regularly features articles on exercise regimes to achieve a more toned appearance.

The study found that the emphasis on the muscular body had originated in the gay community and transferred into the mainstream over the last 10 years. Women were now being invited to look on men purely for their physical attributes as part of an equally "lookist" or superficial consumer culture.

Dr Gill, who completed the project with staff at the University of East Anglia, said that men were being set an impossible task of conforming to two different ideals of masculinity.

"It is about a combination of softness and strength. These adverts combine the New Man, with his nurturing instinct, full lips, quite a feminine face, with the muscular body," she said.

The researchers said they had found eight types of reaction to the adverts with 51 per cent saying they felt pressured or angry at the images. Smaller proportions said they aspired to the photographs or even felt sexual desire. More homosexual than heterosexual men said they felt the pressure to conform with the images. Others said they believed women did not place as much importance on physical attraction as men.

The psychologist warned that the focus on the male body was likely to contribute to symptoms of stress and depression among men. But she added: "Men are not under the same pressure as women. No man is going to commit suicide because he doesn't look like Brad Pitt."

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