Over the last couple of weeks, some news stories were brought to my attention that illustrate a problem I’ve been observing for a few years now.
The first was the latest in a long line of Photoshopping scandals. What made this interesting was that rather than some already-stick-thin female model being slimmed down even further or women of color having their skin lightened or their features made to look more caucasian, the subject in question was Justin Bieber. The website BreatheHeavy.com released what were supposedly unretouched photos of the Bieb—photos that suggested that Bieber’s muscles and package got a Photoshop-based enlargement. Of course, Bieber’s legal team went into overdrive, insisting that the “before” pictures were the altered ones, and forced BreatheHeavy to retract them.
The other was an article in Esquire UK, where the author decided to spend three months in a quest to become—in his words—“totally ripped.”
What strikes me about these stories is how they play into a new and pernicious narrative—the new standards for male beauty and how the quest to live up to them has been taking a deadly toll on men.
The beauty myth vs. the “Spornosexual”
In his article “The Rise and Rise of the Spornosexual,” writer Max Olesker decided he wanted to explore what he saw as the new trend in young men—predominantly men in their early 20s, but many ranging up to their 50s—to sport bodies reminiscent of modern pornstars, sports heroes and of course, movie stars. To many men, the lean-yet-jacked look has become de rigueur—the ne plus ultra of masculinity.
Of course, it’s hard not to feel that way when it seems like every time you turn around, another shirtless man with four percent body fat and abs like woah is staring at you from television and movie screens, in every advertisement and video game that comes down the pike.
In what seems like a sick parody of gender equity, men hear more and more about fitness “success” stories from other men. Hugh Jackman tweets his workouts to get into superheroic shape with “fitspo” slogans like “if the bar ain’t bending, you ain’t lifting.” Chris Pratt—having gone from chubby schlub to washboard ab-bedecked guardian of the galaxy—gets asked over and over about how he achieved his transformation. Zac Efron traded in an almost feminine beauty in his younger days to look like something that—quoting Seth Rogen’s character in Neighbors—a gay man designed in a laboratory.
When you browse Tumblr or Pinterest, you can’t help but see women drooling over Chris Evans as Captain America or Chris Hemsworth as Thor or the men of Magic Mike oiled up and strutting their stuff. In Hollywood, being built has become mandatory—even from people who aren’t typically action stars. The everyman hero—think Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves—the man who’s athletic and in shape but still someone you might see at work, is dead. Now to be a movie star means having visible muscle striations in your pecs and a perfect runner’s girdle pointing at the family jewels. If you’re going to be a leading man in the hottest movies and TV shows—your Supermen, your Thors, your Arrows, even romantic comedies—you can’t just look good with your shirt off, you have to look perfect.
The cruel irony, of course, is that men are now feeling the same pressures that women have been feeling for generations—to conform to an incredibly specific form of beauty. And of course, those who don’t measure up are taught that they’re failures—that they are inherently less desirable, even less manly, than the shiny-chested, leaned out Dolce and Gabbana model. At a time when men already feel sexually invisible and desperate for validation (or even acknowledgement), they’re being told that being sexy means being lean and jacked at all costs.
Welcome to the beauty myth, boys. Hope you survive the experience.
The hypermasculine origins of the beauty standard
“Is that what a real man is supposed to look like?” Tyler Durden asks, pointing at an underwear ad—perfectly airbrushed abs hovering over tiny tighty-whities. In Fight Club, this is a moment of supreme irony; Tyler, of course, is played by Brad Pitt, whose lean build is the Platonic ideal that Olesker and others strive for. He already looks like that model—better, some might say.
Of course, the other irony is that Tyler Durden is the manifestation of the nameless protagonist’s id; he is literally the hypermasculine ideal that Ed Norton’s character wishes he could be. Small wonder that he’s also the representation of what men feel they’re “supposed” to be.
Despite what we tell ourselves, the male beauty standard isn’t about what women think men should look like; it’s brought onto us by other men.
The ideal man—the peak of male beauty we demand others conform to—falls in line with the tropes of hypermasculinity and traditional gender roles. You have to be tall—short men aren’t “men” after all. You have to be lean, as lean as possible, because being fat means that you’re lazy and pampered and a man is active. You have to be muscular because men are strong. Men are fighters. And of course, you have to be virile, because men who don’t get bitches just aren’t men. Man as protector. Man as provider. Man as warrior.
We see these men lionized in television and film, on magazine covers and billboards—a look and lifestyle that is marketed to us. Gerard Butler’s Leonidas in 300 is the cinematic ur-example—you don’t get much more alpha than the totally jacked king of the Spartans—but the Internet provides its own real-life swole-models. Witness the so-called “King of Instagram” (there’s that “alpha” leader title again), Dan Bilzerian. His Instagram account is photo after photo of Bilzerian shooting guns, partying with porn stars, lounging around his mansion and private jet.
Those pictures all carry the ironic echo of Tyler Durden: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”
Yes, we’re told. This is what a “real man” is supposed to look like. So start catching up, wuss.
Male beauty and the impossible body
The objectification of men has followed the same path as the objectification of women. The “ideal” female body is a study in contradictions—athletic yet still soft, petite yet still curvy, thin (thigh gap, yo) yet still busty. And—most importantly—it’s supposed to look effortless. The work that women are expected to put into chasing the ideal is expected to be invisible. The “cool girl” rant from Gone Girl captures the dichotomy perfectly—they should be drinking beer and eating steaks, yet look like they exist exclusively on salad.
So it is with men. Men need to be muscular but lean, able to party hard and guzzle booze and beer like their bros on Jersey Shore or The Only Way Is Essex, but still maintain those perfect abs. And of course, it’s supposed to be natural. Yeah, you can post your CrossFit workout to Instagram with inspiring-yet-still-aggressive hashtags like #doyouevenlift, #brosdontletbrosskiplegday and #noexcuses, but talking about your diet? Well you better not get too specific, bro, because that gets too close to being a chick. Yeah, you can #eatclean and #gopaleo—manly ideals those—but too much talk about salad and you might as well be checking into a pilates class and handing your testicles to someone who can put them to better use.
The problem is that this ideal body is almost impossible to achieve. Olesker inadvertently points out an unspoken truth: that gaining (and maintaining) the perfect masculine body has to be your job. In his quest for ultimate male beauty, Olesker has to eat and work out on a schedule so rigid that he’s forcing himself to scarf down chicken breasts on the bus as he scrambles to make it to the next workout. It’s one thing when you’re a writer being paid to do a feature or a CEO who can dictate his own hours and schedule; it’s another when you’re working a standard eight to five in a cubicle with only a 20 to 30 minute break for lunch and an hour’s commute each way.
Those movie stars and models are being paid to work out and eat “clean”—usually at levels that the average joe can never meet. Neither are they paying for the meals or the nutritionists, or the trainers or the gym time; the studios pay for it all, often delivering the food to their stars in order to maintain their workout schedules. Jason Momoa was eating 56 chicken breasts a week in order to play Khal Drogo. Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, and Hugh Jackman were all putting in multiple 90+ minute workouts each day to get into shape for the movies. And this is before they set foot in front of the camera; getting ready for filming usually involves intense dehydration to make those muscles and veins pop, pushing diuretics and sweating out the last drops in order to get that perfect look. Even their height is frequently an illusion. Robert Downey Jr. is 5’8″ and Tom Cruise is 5’7″—they just appear taller on camera by the magic of apple boxes and convenient ditches.
What also goes unmentioned is the secret weapon: Testosterone and human-growth-hormone injections. What, you thought Hugh Jackman—in his 40s—got that vascular just by choking down chicken breasts?
Even then, those perfect muscles and ideal male beauty get an assist. Just as with women, those men are given a boost with some traditional Hollywood and Madison Avenue magic—carefully planned lighting, artfully applied make-up and, of course, Photoshop.
Moreover, even the celebrities—again, whose job it is to model the ideal—don’t look like this year-round. Stephen Amell looks like a Greek god (and, incidentally, sends me to the gym) every time he takes his shirt off to do the salmon ladder, but when he’s not filming, he goes back to a more normal shape. Yes, he’s still fit—again, his full-time job is to get camera-ready within eight weeks—but he doesn’t look like Ollie Queen.
But the impossible male beauty doesn’t look “fit,” he looks “perfect” at all times—no matter the cost.
The high price of perfection
The pressure for men to measure up to this impossible ideal is a cruel parody of gender equality; we’re rapidly approaching the point where men and women are equally fucked up about our bodies. Just as women have for generations—since the invention of the daguerrotype, some say—men are starting to pay the price for male beauty.
Body dysmorphic disorder is on the rise in men. Studies have found that nearly half of all men are dissatisfied with their bodies and up to a quarter of people suffering from eating disorders are men.
What makes it even more patently absurd is the sheer damage that we do to ourselves trying to achieve and maintain that ideal look. Five percent body fat is not natural in humans and comes with immense health risks. The stress on the body—from the unnatural level of body fat, the intensity of the workouts and the pressure on the psyche—can damage one’s internal organs and weaken the immune system, leaving them vulnerable to disease. The cheats that many people use in order to maintain their bodies—like taking ephedrine to counteract those beer-binges—can cause immeasurable damage as well.
And when I say “impossible” body, I mean it. Having the “perfect” body isn’t just built in the gym or on the dinner plate, it’s built in the womb. Genetics and bone structure dictate far more than can be achieved via workouts. The barrel-chested guy with the short waist (like, er, me) is never going to have the swimmer’s build. The ectomorph isn’t going to get the arms and chest of Brad Pitt. If you don’t have the right combination of genes, you can work out as hard as you want, starve yourself as much as you can and still not get those picture-perfect abs.
As a result, we end up with higher levels of depression and self-loathing. When we mock the “fat, cheeto-dust-covered nerd” we perpetuate this hate. We continue the idea that there’s only one way to be attractive, that there’s only one way to be a man. And when we we feel that we can’t measure up, there’s a price to be paid.
But attractiveness isn’t about looks or impossible standards of male beauty. It’s a matrix—it’s in how you act, in how you dress, in how you make others feel. It’s in loving yourself, no matter whether you look like Zac Effron or Seth Rogen.
Yes, there are body types we all enjoy looking at. But appreciating them doesn’t mean that this is the only type that we want. It’s possible to enjoy staring at Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and still prefer Chris Pratt in Parks and Rec. And yes, there will always be shallow people who insist that physical beauty is the only thing that matters. We call these people assholes. And why would you want to date an asshole in the first place?
Be fit, sure. Be healthy. But fit and healthy—just like beauty—comes in more than one shape.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Nerdlove and has been reprinted with permission.
Photo via Fox Searchlight/Trailer