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16 March 2006
Positive Body Image Not So Good For Men
by George Atkinson

A study from Penn State University has found that there's a downside to being happy with your body. It seems that young men with a positive view of their body image have a higher likelihood of having multiple sexual partners and engaging in unprotected sex. Interestingly, the study found almost the opposite result for women who had a positive attitude to their body. Body image issues are a hot topic in health circles, with experts suggesting that a diverse number of health problems - such as steroid abuse and eating disorders - can stem from them.

The new study, appearing in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, was based on interviews with over 400 college students, aged between 17 and 19. Nearly all (97 percent) of the students identified themselves as heterosexual and a little more than half indicated that they were sexually active.

Researcher Meghan Gillen said that generally, the sexually active students had a more positive body image. "Both men and women who were sexually active evaluated their appearance in a more positive way, were less dissatisfied with their bodies, and were more oriented toward their appearance than sexually abstinent individuals."

In explaining the risky behavior of the young men in the study, Gillen noted that a positive view of one's body may provide an extra dose of confidence for males and, as a result, may make them confident enough to seek multiple sexual partners and engage in unprotected sex - behaviors that exemplify the stereotypical male role of sexual freedom. "Although it is widely believed that a positive view of one's body is beneficial, our results suggest this may not necessarily be the case for males. We are not suggesting that positive body image is harmful to males, but rather that [health] program administrators should be cautious when designing programs for males that address body image, as being quite positive in body evaluation may actually lead to riskier behaviors," she added.

As far as sexual behaviors and body image are concerned, it seems that the opposite is true for young women with a positive body image. For these women, the confidence that comes from a positive body image may work in the opposite way, empowering them to resist multiple partners and insist that a condom be used when they do engage in sex. "These findings suggest that programs that focus on improving young women's attitudes toward their body could also help to promote healthy sexuality," noted co-researcher Eva S. Lefkowitz.

The researchers concluded that body image is a possible area of intervention in risky sexual behaviors. "These findings suggest that programs that focus on improving young women's attitudes toward their body could also help to promote healthy sexuality. However, programs designed to promote positive body image among young men should also include content to help them develop healthy sexual attitudes and respect for women," said Lefkowitz.

Based on material from Penn State University

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