My personal trainer is, as they say in GymLand, ‘cut’, ‘ripped’ and generally ‘buff’. He works hard at his body. Indeed, to stay the way he looks takes several hours of sweat and hefting every day. That alone should persuade any more physically average man that such a body is not attainable without anything less than total commitment – forget distractions the likes of employment or family…
But even he raises an eyebrow when he sees the cover of fitness magazines, or goes to the cinema to watch certain actors in certain roles. In fact, it worries him – because he looks at these images and knows what it takes to make bodies such as these: an intensity of training that isn’t healthy, given the impact it has on the body; steroids – lots of them; and, to finish off, some computer wizardry.
OK, so as terrible as it is, we get the idea that software goes a long way to making a six pack. Given the timelines involved – some actors got from overweight to super-hero in a matter of months to suit differing roles – we might let the bubble of impressiveness pop and accept that such a transformation can’t be achieved just by repeatedly lifting heavy objects and putting them down again, not even with the assistance of a nutritionist and the incentive of a multi-million dollar pay cheque. Yes, drugs are most likely involved. We will probably consider all the time and help said fitness model or actor was lucky enough to devote to this enterprise.
But the problem is that we do all this subconsciously. We know all this deep down – much as we know so much of the imagery around us is unreal, a fact that will need to be addressed over the coming years. But on the functioning level of the minute to minute, the day to day, we also accept these ‘body beautiful’ images. They have a profound impact on the way we think – about the way people should look in their idealised state, about the way we ourselves should look if we weren’t so tired, hungry, lazy, old.
Women have been dealing with this doublethink for generations now – and not too successfully. Rates of eating disorders – and other self-harming behaviours – continue to go through the roof. There has been some fightback in recent years: clothes retailers forced to sell larger (more typical) sizes; more ‘plus-size models being used – even if the very use of the term ‘plus size’ says everything about the way the modelling industry thinks; cosmetic surgery increasingly called out and often mocked; publishers having to apologise for doctoring images (you go Kate Winslet); even a growing campaign to force these images to come with some form of labelling to underscore that they’ve been doctored. But, for all these small advances, most women still have a complex relationship with the mirror.
You’d have thought that, given that experience – for half the population, for decades – society might be unwilling to now put men through exactly the same hideous, demeaning experience. Even the most ardent exponent of equal opportunities might baulk at the idea of putting men through such a demoralising process simply because women have gone through it. And yet it’s happening: men are now surrounded by images of ‘perfect’ physiques. A certain body is packaged – by the media, by advertising, by cinema – as the aspirational. Having anything less than this is counted some kind of failure.
Of course, the scales are still tipped in favour of men. In society’s eyes, men are able to compensate for their lack of pecs and traps by being smart or funny, talented or even just monied – a woman with the same qualities is expected to be all that and be beautiful too to be counted a success. But it’s not hard to see those scales evening out pretty quickly. And not in the right way.
The worry is less for men of a certain age – if you grew up before the advent of Photoshop and gym culture, you have most likely experienced little pressure to conform to a physical stereotype. You’ll have an understanding of how perceptions of the ideal male body have changed radically over the last half century. Just compare the physique of Sean Connery as James Bond against that of Daniel Craig as James Bond – and Connery was a Mr. Universe contestant in his day. Sure, you’ll probably be more health-conscious now. You might eat better. But you won’t be busting a gut just to look like Wolverine.
No, the big worry is how this is all having an impact on boys, on teenagers, on men in their 20s. I’ve heard five-year-old boys refer to their six packs. Psychiatrists now speak of the Adonis Complex – the psychological damage boys are undergoing in their aspiration to the body of (as the example is given) the Greek god; the kind of physique of course, that their own pre-pubescent, or still growing bodies are biologically incapable of achieving. What are we doing for them?
Parents worry about their children’s exposure to pornography and how this might warp their perception of sex and relationships. They should be equally worried about their children’s exposure to images of unrealistic, unreal bodies: boys should be kept away from ‘Men’s Fitness’ and ‘Men’s Health’ every bit as much as one might wish to keep them away from ‘Penthouse’. And when exposure does happen, it falls on parents to explain that such bodies are, as Donald T puts it, a kind of fake news – propaganda for an industry that wants you to waste your life measuring your biceps and chugging back protein shakes (notice how you get added protein in everything these days, even, ironically, chocolate bars).
Of course, parents can only do so much. There needs to be a profound cultural shift so that we celebrate people for their contribution, not for their self-control when it comes to dinner; for their big ideas, not for their ability to bench press. That will take a much bolder response. In the meantime, we all need to do our bit: celebrate real achievement; celebrate personality. Don’t let all those push ups get you down.