Who Wants to be a Huge Jacked Man?

I was going to write a post about posture correction after a great comment I got from Janet Lawson of Stage Fight Scotland. I will do that post, but last week I watched an episode of Reggie Yates’ Extreme UK called “Dying for a six-pack” and it struck a nerve with me that I’m having difficulty shaking.

The Extreme UK series is a three-part miniseries exploring masculinity in the UK, and the challenges that men face. As many of my readers will know, I’m a feminist. I spend most of my time on social media discussing/ retweeting discussions on the ways in which women, non-binary people, people of colour and others are suffering under the cis-normative patriarchy we live in. However, like most modern feminists, I also see the ways in which this society impacts men. This is one of them. Feminists tend to call this Toxic Masculinity and if you have a look at the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag on Twitter, you can see a lot of ways in which this comes into play.

While I think that historically and currently, women still suffer a lot more under body pressures than men do, this is a growing problem and it’s causing a lot of pain and even death. I think we are all to some degree complicit in it, too, thanks to the fact that body dysmorphia among men has a tendency to be swept under the rug.

Why? Of course, I can’t answer that to anyone’s satisfaction, I’m not an expert in anything at all. Some people would argue that it’s because all we care about is women and that in our haste to “deal with” the pressures on women to conform, we forget about men. I don’t think that’s right, it seems to me through my conversations with friends of all gender identities that women, female-bodied and feminine people face a much more pervasive problem than men. However, I think that if we’re not careful, we might end up levelling the playing field. And not in a good way.

If you Google the phrase “Body image boys” you will find a swathe of articles from the past few years talking about this issue. From a very young age, kids are inundated through films and social media with images of ripped abs and pec cleavages. Here’s an example for you…Pratt's Abs

Chris Pratt’s “transformation” for Guardians of the Galaxy was astonishing. Over the course of several months, with the help of a team of nutritionists, private chefs, personal trainers and a metric shitton of hard work, Pratt shaved off a whole bunch of fat from his physique and got Toned. As. Fuck.

But for what, exactly? Why did this happen? Did Starlord need to have abs? I buy that he needed to cut a striking figure. I get that Pratt’s Parks and Rec persona of Andy does not look like a man of action. But why the abs? And specifically, why the focus on the abs?Story-wise and character-wise, there was literally no reason at all for him to get his shirt off. So why the abs? Because marketing. Because Superhero Transformations. Because Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Huge Jackedman and his progressively huge, jacked man-body as Wolverine. This shit sells. Not just tickets, but it sells magazines that promise readers their very own Superhero Transformations. It sells supplements and gym memberships and all sorts of other shit. And the most terrifying thing? This is being sold to CHILDREN. Yes, Marvel/ DC superhero movies are sold to an adult market as well, but a huge part of the marketing is aimed at children, and though the marketing that is aimed at children is not so body-focused, these things become part of it in the periphery. Do you really think kids don’t see this?

Did Indiana Jones flex his abs? Did Christopher Reeve go through a six-month Superhero Transformation to be Superman? Are there Men’s Health magazines with cover stories on how to achieve Michael Keaton’s Batman physique? NO!

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman in X-Men (2000) and The Wolverine (2013)

My oldest nephew, who isn’t even a teenager yet, told me he “collects abs”. The statement makes no logical sense, but look past that. Were you aware of the concept of “abs” when you were 10? I know I wasn’t!

An article in the Telegraph puts it this way:

The emotional needs of young women have (quite rightly) been discussed at length by experts, journalists and politicians over the past five years. Yet what those who present low self-esteem and body insecurity as “feminist” issues fail to grasp is that their male counterparts are struggling just as much, they are simply less able to articulate their needs. After all, generations of social conditioning tells us that men don’t “do” feelings.

Let me be clear: I don’t buy for a second that this isn’t a feminist issue. The way that boys are being taught to feel is part of the toxic masculinity I’ve mentioned. It’s directly related to how women are seen as “weak” and “emotional” and men should be “strong” and “resilient” and “take it on the chin”. Terms like “crying like a girl” or being a “sissy” or “Man up!” are still commonplace. If you’re reading my blog, most of these concepts will probably not be new to you, but let me be very clear on this:

Misogyny hurts men too.

Glad we got that cleared up. So, if you buy my reasoning, this is  a feminist issue.

As we are trying to fix the incredible damage that our media are perpetrating on girls from early on, we need to be awake to the fact that boys are today facing a very similar pressure, even if it is couched in different language. And it’s pressure that is mainly being applied by other men. While women certainly display their admiration for pretty man-bodies, it rarely comes packaged with the idea that if the man didn’t look so ripped, he’d be worthless. Women accept men’s bodies as being part of their personhood rather than a replacement for it. Men are the ones who tend to reduce persons to nothing but bodies.

So what can we do?

Well, I think Disney are doing something good so far in Star Wars. Notice how none of the cast were subject to this kind of reductive image of what a hero is supposed to look like. They all look like capable, active people, as they would do, but none of them have a single frame designed to show us exactly how heroic their bodies are. I hope Disney will keep it that way.

Rey, Finn and Poe: People, not bodies.

Personally? I’ve been thinking for a week now (I tried to write this post for last monday but had to let it sit for a bit to digest my own feelings on this subject) about my place in all this. Part of my reasoning for my aesthetic goals has been that I want to be able to cut and shape for a part if need be. I wanted to be at a reasonable size so I could bulk up or define a bit depending on the requirements.

Obviously, this is at odds with everything I have said in this blog post. I don’t think I want to take part in our industry’s relentless pressure on the next generation of adults. I don’t want to bend to requirements for a certain kind of body.

My goals have changed. I’m not entirely sure yet how, but they’ve changed. I know I want to be stronger, and I know I do still have aesthetic goals of putting on muscle. I feel like this is okay, because it’s anyone’s right to choose what they want to look like. I want to look strong, and I want to feel strong. I’d like to be able to climb a rope without issue, I want to be able to carry large loads and do physical things for parts that I haven’t previously been able to do. I want to have a strong core to do aerial work and strong legs for Roller Derby. (I want a cute butt, too) I want to feel vital and strong and healthy.

Those are my goals. They are mine, and they are for me and no one else.

PS: I apologise for the use of binary language in this post, but I did it consciously as this particular problem is directed very specifically at “men” and “boys”. I think this body image hysteria is also hugely adversely affecting trans and intersex people, who are seen as “less” their gender because they don’t conform to what we are told they should look like to be considered a “man” or a “woman”.

What are your experiences with body image? How do you feel about this trend in the media? Do you feel that men are getting close to the kind of objectification and pressure women have been seeing for a long time already? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.