Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be a Man

As promised, this is a post on the male side of body image issues. I really want to include this because it's A) important, B) pertinent, and C) I don't want to come off like I'm blaming men for this shit. Because it's not exactly their fault. As Susan Bordo says: "Men are not the enemy, but they often may have a higher stake in maintaining institutions within which they have historically occupied positions of dominance over women. That is why they have often felt like 'the enemy' to women struggling to change those institutions. (Such a dual recognition seems essential, in particular, to theorizing the situation of men who have been historically subordinated on the basis of their class, culture, or sexuality.)" (29, Unbearable Weight) I'd be a rather shoddy feminist if I was just standing around saying, "Men are to blame!" Because, well, things aren't always so peachy for them either.

Now that you have that impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head song running through your neural synapses, let's get down to business. ;) Gentlemen of the world, be ever vigilant. I have noticed an ensuing trend throughout culture, of men worrying about not being muscular enough, not being handsome enough, of not being manly enough.

Oh, shit. Shit shit SHIT. Not you too, men. Not you too.

Susan Bordo, brilliant writer that she is, has a follow-up to Unbearable Weight in discussing male body issues, aptly titled The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private. I'm only going to focus on a couple sections in one of this book, because it covers a lot of ground. So if you're interested, READ IT. It is BRILLIANT. (It's also fun to read in public because there's an image of a ruler down the spine of the book and it totally makes people uncomfortable. Do I have personal experience with this? YES.)
In "Beauty (Re)Discovers the Male Body,"  Bordo discusses how views of the male body are beginning to change. But as they change, a tension develops. There's this issues with men who are "'self-confident - if he knows he is attractive and is beautifully dressed - then he's not a man anymore. He's a fop. He's effeminate'" (195). At least that's ad expert David Altschiller's take on it. It's not that men in ads are showing a lack of self-confidence; it's just that they don't seem to care either way. "In everything from war paintings to jeans and cologne ads, men have been portrayed as utterly oblivious to their beauty (or lack of it), intent only on getting the job done - raising the flag, bailing hay, lassoing a steer, busting up concrete. The ability to move heavy things around, tame wild creatures - that's manly business. Fretting about you love handles, your dry skin, your sagging eyelids? That's for girls" (197).

And so it has been in our culture - women worry about beauty, but men aren't supposed to. But things have begun to change. Clothing lines like Calvin Klein and Gucci show more sexualized images of men. Male nudity (and I don't mean shirtless men; that's everywhere) has been (somewhat) more accepted in film. And then there's David Beckham:

Not exactly portraying your "I don't care about what I look like" man, is it? That's because men can accept their bodies now - instead of this weird Cartesian split where the body is used to express manliness but never embraced as a man, men can now show their bodies off in well-cut suits and designer underwear and show as much skin as women have for ages in ads. Women certainly enjoy this; they aren't used to "seeing naked men frankly portrayed as 'objects' of a sexual gaze" (177). And while this seems like a step towards equality... there's an unfortunate dark side. That dark side being that we're beginning to analyze men's bodies the way we do women's.

I happen to agree with Bordo on this issue. As she says:
 "... I feel decidedly ambivalent about consumer culture's inroads into the male body. I do find it wonderful - as I've made abundantly clear - that the male form, both clothed and unclothed, is being made so widely available for sexual fantasy and aesthetic admiration. I like the fact more and more heterosexual white guys are feeling permission to play with fashion, self-decoration, sensual presentation of the self... But I also know what it's like on the other side of the gaze" (215).
She continues that for women:
"there's always that constant judgment and evaluation - not only by actual, living men but by an ever-present, watchful cultural gaze which always has its eye on our thighs - no matter how much else we accomplish. We judge each other that way too, sometimes much more nastily than men... But if we are our 'own worst enemies,' it's usually because we see in each other not so much competition as a reflection of our fears and anxieties about ourselves" (217).
And, as she says, "men are suddenly finding that devil living in their flesh" (217).  Think of the number of men getting cosmetic surgery, becoming obsessed with working out at the gym, taking steroids to bulk up, reading "men's 'health' magazines" that give "diet and exercise the same cheerleaderish mode that Betty Friedan had once chastised the woman's magazines for.." (218). Bordo reports that in a class of undergraduates she taught, 90% of the males thought they weren't muscular enough (221) (I have a friend who thinks the same thing. Despite the fact that he can lift me off the ground and I can see his muscles, he wants to bulk up).  Men can become anorexic too, especially in the modeling industry.

Remember when I said I wanted equality? THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEANT. Viewing the male body as we view the female body isn't actually accomplishing anything (unless the end goal is to make everyone feel like shit). Even if suddenly we stopped criticizing women's bodies and just had a go with men's, that wouldn't solve anything either. That's just flipping the script; the inequality would still be there - it'd just be different.

What's more, this seems to be an issue that is hardly talked about. When trying to find the before and after pictures like what I showed of Jessica Alba, all I got were shots of male celebrities from the neck down. And I hardly feel like this counts:
Dammit, Clooney! Photoshop doesn't even know what to do with you. (And, really, I've seen way more photos published that look like the one on the left than the one on the right).

So since I can't find anything about men being photoshopped, I'm going to talk about a different issue: the fact that we think they're photoshopped. Cue this scene from Crazy, Stupid, Love:

Somehow, Ryan Gosling's character is the guy who knows he looks good and isn't self-conscious about it (except we know he must hit the gym like mad to look like that). But then we've got Emma Stone's character refusing to take off her dress because she can't compete with that. Men certainly don't look insecure in this clip.

What to hear something tragically hilarious? THOSE AREN'T RYAN GOSLING'S ABS. In this article, Ryan Gosling states: “No, it was just photoshopped” Ryan said, “It’s like James Cameron invented this program called Abatar and you just wear a motion-capture suit and suddenly, you have abs. It’s pretty neat." Neat indeed, but it totally makes me lose my faith in cinema.

What's really interesting is Ryan Gosling talking about his character in Crazy, Stupid, Love. In this interview, the reporter says:
But while Ryan may have played a suave, muscled lady-killer, he doesn't really identify with that character, and actually went to great lengths to get inside that one-track mind. "I'm more like Steve's character in the movie than I am like my guy," he bashfully recounts. "I read all these gentleman's magazines [and] tried to follow all the lists...all the things you're supposed to wear." As if the abs weren't enough, now he adds a side of humble to the equation. This guy's good. 
That moment when Ryan Gosling sounds like all the other guys trying to be chic? YEAH, THIS IS IT (and now I'm beginning to understand why he has such a fandom. Wow).

Not to say that all men worry about their body; it seems like there's still that urge to not care, to appear however, to just "be a man." Whatever the hell that means; because Lord knows the idea of masculinity is just as constructed as the idea of femininity.

Damn. I have way too much to say on this topic but this post is rather lengthy. So, part II to come. Until then, enjoy this picture about hugging hedgehogs. Because both they and I could use a hug right now.

Note: All citations (except for the one from Unbearable Weight) come from The Male Body by Susan Bordo. 1999. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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  2. Good work, Mushu! :D