Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet


Weightlifter American ideas about “real men” are contradictory and impossible to live up to. So stop trying!

You’ve almost certainly heard feminist rants about impossible cultural ideals of femininity: how standards of femininity are so narrow and rigid they’re literally unattainable; how, to avoid being seen as unfeminine, women are expected to navigate an increasingly narrow window between slut and prude, between capable and docile, between moral enforcer and empathetic helpmeet.

Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.

A recent article about male fitness models has made me vividly conscious of how the expectations of masculinity aren’t just rigid or narrow. They are impossible. They are, quite literally, unattainable.

And while this unattainability can tie men into knots, I think that — in a weird paradox — it can also offer a glimmer of hope.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet. To find out more about how male fitness models endure dangerous, illness-inducing routines to make their bodies look that way on camera; how the ideal of masculinity — not just the physical ideal, but the emotional and cultural and sexual ideal — has become not only narrow and rigid but literally unattainable; and how, paradoxically, the unattainability of this ideal can be actually liberating… read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. says

    Hear, hear!
    I love this post. I think it’s wonderful that our insights into the impossible bind put on women can be expanded to the impossible bind put on men. The idea that these ideas hurt all of us is so damn important. And that we are just so much more interesting than all that, if we let ourselves be.
    *applauds*

  2. Rainy says

    O my Wodan! I can’t tell you how much I love that you’ve written this article. I’ve felt this way a long time. I have traits that are considered stereotypical male, but I also have a lot of traits that would be considered typically female. I actually score high on femininity on personality tests. I have gotten strange looks from others for this, but I always felt that this is what makes me me. I’ve never liked having to live up to any societal ideal. I live my life the way I want to live it and nobody is going to tell me to do it otherwise. So I’m a man with female traits who is a psychologist, who loves: playing the bass, punk rock, model trains, coffee, women and men and is an atheist.

  3. Valhar2000 says

    Reading that article about what the male models do reminds me of when I sued to watch the “Strongest Man in the World” competition. The difference in the average body shape of the men involved could not have been more obvious! I wonder, though, how attractive the strong-men are considered?
    Not that I advocate those men as universal ideals. They are exceptional at what they do, certainly, but I’m sure they have to make enormous sacrifices that would be out of the question for most of us.

  4. says

    Greta, I can’t tell you how much it warms my heart to see a female feminist talking about this. I know you’ve done it before and will probably continue to toot this all-to-often-ignored horn.
    I have a question for you though: why are female feminists like you so rare when it comes to talking about this type of male issues?

  5. Valhar2000 says

    It is also interesting to see a particular kind of bigotry in the comments to the Alternet post, a kind that is not generally talked about.
    Notice all the invective that gets heaped on people who spend time at the gym, and have large muscles, and all that: in short, look at all the invective that gets thrown at people who are closer than average to the impossible ideals we are discussing.
    They are called stupid, shallow and selfish, blamed for things that could not possibly be their fault, and made fun of mercilessly by people who would froth at the mouth should such treatment be inflicted on less acceptable targets.
    I see this a being the same old bullshit with the names changed, and with the added smugness that comes from thinking that so much progress has been made, when the reality is anything but.

  6. says

    Thanks again for another incisive, wonderful article, Greta.
    @ EasilyEnthused:
    Feminism—as I’ve come to understand it—is about the strive for gender parity through social equalization of both sexes. However, this can only be accomplished by recognizing that women are at the low end of a current power dynamic and men are at the top. Therefore, the issues and the struggle have to be defined by raising the status and the opportunity of women while simultaneously downplaying and dismantling those things men lord over them, and part of this means putting more emphasis on the experience and interests of women.
    Most, if not all, feminists I know do have a genuine concern for and awareness of the gender constructs that negatively affect men, and this is entirely consistent with a belief in true gender equality; no one should have to feel marginalized simply on the basis of the sex they were born with or identify with. But the fact is that men are the ones in power, and nearly every mainstream conversation about social issues inevitably comes from a male perspective and is weighted toward serving the interests of men.
    Feminism has to push back against that. We need to take the focus away from men and mens’ experience as the only experience and this can only be done by placing more of an emphasis on the experience of women and acknowledging their marginalization at the hands of men.
    Also, it should not be the job of just women to illustrate and speak out against the unfair cultural mores that are harmful to men. Men have to stand up and assert their resistance to these attitudes as well as the attitudes that reinforce male privilege. Too often mens’ response to these issues are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, overtly admiring of male stereotypes, so I don’t blame feminists for being mistrustful when men try to bring the attention back to themselves in a serious conversation about gender.
    This is why I think Greta is great. She illustrates that the true goal of feminism is not women vs. men, but women and men on equal footing.

  7. says

    I often wonder why, exactly, we’re expected to admire the ‘sacrifice’ people put themselves through to adhere to a cultural standard of beauty.
    Reading about all of the pain and patently absurd efforts some of these fitness models endure, I’m just left with the overall question: “Why?” What has really been accomplished through all of this? The amount of effort and mental anguish some people go through to be walking versions of Renaissance sculptures all seems so dubious after a certain point.
    It certainly doesn’t hold up to the same ideal of “sacrifice” I see through other people who genuinely forego comfort, personal freedom and financial stability in an effort to make things better not just for themselves, but others as well.

  8. Azkyroth says

    In other words, for guys, embracing feminism isn’t just human decency. It’s self-defense.

  9. Azkyroth says

    I have a question for you though: why are female feminists like you so rare when it comes to talking about this type of male issues?

    Probably because various cultural trends are well known to often result in the discussion being derailed and dominated to the point where it becomes entirely about “men’s” issues, once they come up. Even if it had nothing to do with the original discussion. Even when the “issues” are trivial, illusory, or substantive but so badly misunderstood by those driving the derailment that their positions on them are trivial or illusory even if there’s actually a real substantial injustice or ethical problem underneath. (See innumerable Pharyngula threads for details).

  10. Margo K. says

    @ the article
    Yikes! I had no idea male models had to go through that.
    @ Casimir
    I agree that making great sacrifices to attain a “cultural standard” of beauty is a dubious goal. However, I know people who make sacrifices to attain their personal standard of beauty (which is of course influenced by the cultural standard, but at least they are aiming for what they think is beautiful, not what they think other people think is beautiful), and that makes sense to me. After all, while I don’t really sacrifice much for my looks, I do sacrifice a lot of my time and energy to learn how to read Chinese.
    Of course, making sacrifices to look pretty or learn a foreign language are not in the same category as sacrifices made to help others.

  11. Eclectic says

    Please don’t forget that the extreme diets mentioned are for make fitness (i.e. bodybuilder) models, not male models (think Zoolander) in general.
    They still have plenty of issues, but amazingly bulging muscles is far from the only male image ideal.
    You don’t have to look like a Tom of Finland drawing to be considered attractive.

  12. Adam G says

    Thank you, Greta. You’re right – it’s an ideal that I can’t attain. Now I can stop worrying about it.

  13. says

    I would say learning a foreign language can be seen as an effort to help others since it opens a person up to communicating with more people, and that’s always a valid pursuit.
    The type of “sacrifice” that bodybuilders, fitness and fashion models endure, however, really can’t be explained as anything more than narcissistic preening. It’s one thing to exercise and keep fit because you like it and it improves your health, it’s quite another to live in agony just to achieve a look that’s already rooted in human neuroses.

  14. DavidByron says

    Same comment as your other attempts to look “fair” towards men. You don’t know anything about men and you don’t care to educate yourself by reading the extensive literature on this topic by people who do know.
    The male gender role in our society is far more restrictive than the female role. Naturally as a feminist you could never accept such a notion or ever ask in your heart of hearts if it is true because to ask would be to betray everything feminism stands for — the ideological stereotyping of all men as violent assholes who are all in power and endlessly victimizing women at all time.
    So what do you do instead? You pick an example of male behaviour that is trivial and hold it up as if that was the worst of what men are subjected to. As if men in general were bodybuilders. Or as if society primarily judges men by their physical appearance as they do women. Men should be so lucky. You allow men only to be seen as victims if they are victimized as women are. But not if they are victimized as men are.
    Or perhaps you are just so embedded in sexism that you cannot even imagine anything but your petty grievances as a woman. What’s next from you? An article about how men suffer from breast cancer too (but never mention that men die years before women and die of almost any disease more than women (for a given age gp), or any male specific conditions)? Or maybe an article sympathising with men who become “pregnant”?
    This article is a fake.
    If you want to be “fair” then read the literature and then decide if you’ll go on identifying yourself with a sexist label like feminist or not. Treat men as equals or just forget this crap.

  15. John the Drunkard says

    Thanks Greta. While you get to the point towards the end of your piece, we need to hammer on the idea that: the ‘ideals’ people pursue are not just exaggerated or unrealistic, they are mutually exclusive expressions of severe cognitive dissonance.
    Every male ideal you mention is also a trigger for cascades of female loathing. Even being rich (a favorite example for poor guys to bitch about) can stimulate resentment, let alone being muscular/priapic/’sensitive’ etc.
    Ditto for the crazed visions of self pursued by women. Beauty itself, of any sort, can arouse childish resentment in men.
    For more on the topic of ‘health’ role models, you should read. ‘Muscle; confessions of an unlikely bodybuilder’ Sam Fussell.
    John

  16. says

    The type of “sacrifice” that bodybuilders, fitness and fashion models endure, however, really can’t be explained as anything more than narcissistic preening.

    Actually, I’m not sure that that’s fair. Remember, for professional models (fitness or fashion), looking a certain way is a major part of what they do to earn a living. It’s not just about narcissistic preening: it’s about being successful in their profession.
    And while this may be hard to imagine for a lot of people, there are positive, non-narcissistic reasons that people care about both fitness and fashion. (Fitness for reasons of good health; fashion as an art form and a form of self-expression.) People can and do get engrossed in these worlds to an unhealthy extreme, and they are certainly worlds that dangle impossibly high standards in front of the people who participate in them… but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of real value in them.

  17. says

    @Greta,
    You’re right. I just call into question the value of any profession that forces its participants to be miserable for the sake of meeting an ideal, as well as a profession and a field that, quite often, is used as a wedge to create divisions between people.
    I think it’s a symptom of industrializing and standardizing things that should be individual human interests. Fashion and fitness as a personal pursuit can be great things. The fashion and fitness industry, however, is a much different—and in my opinion—much darker dynamic that tries to say there is one way and one way only to do things and people who meet that standard should be held in higher regard than those who don’t.

  18. SoccerNut says

    Greta, why don’t you engage David Byron in a lively debate rather than just writing him off as a troll? It makes more sense to invite controversial ideas than to preach to the choir.

  19. says

    @Soccernut, if I’m recalling correctly, we’ve heard from Davidbyron before… I’m not certain engaging him is a great idea, folks who think MEN are the oppressed class tend to sound like broken records after awhile.

  20. says

    SoccerNut: What Lou Doench said. DavidByron has been here before. He is a known hostile troll who battles straw men — or straw women, more accurately. He has a stubbornly fixed notion of what feminists think, entirely unrelated to anything feminists actually say or do, and indeed entirely in contradiction to the things feminists actually say or do. And he has shown himself in this blog to have a hostile and disrespectful manner, and to be entirely unwilling to actually listen to/ respond to anything anyone says. “Engaging” with him is like “engaging” with a pit of greased rattlesnakes. It’s no fun, it doesn’t accomplish anything, and it sucks up time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

  21. says

    Another excellent article , yet again I find you eloquently expressing an Idea I have been mulling over for some time but not yet put to paper.

  22. "Top Squirrel" says

    Why should this be such a problem? No matter how good you are, there are always things that could be improved upon, but so what? Nobody’s perfect; you are what you are and it is good always to try to improve in those things that are important to you. It almost doesn’t matter if you ever attain an auspicious goal; Doing what you love is what’s important and the process is the product.
    Anything more is yielding to other people’s expectations of us. Their expectations are their problem, not ours. Don’t internalize them or make them yours. Would you believe a different way just because someone else does? And tells you you should? Might as well dust off the god nonsense.
    I score pretty well on the things quoted here as making up the male ideal, but there always are people who can complain, “yeah, but…” Here are some of the things I’ve used in reply:
    “Yeah, too bad I’m not perfect”; or “It bothers me too”; or “You’re amazing to put up with me even for a minute” or “Aw shucks, and I was so close to being perfect.” And make a quick escape.
    When I was a kid my parents never stopped pointing out things I didn’t do well enough. I got to where I answered, “I wonder if that reflects more on me or on your parenting skills. Let me know what you decide.” And then I learned I was the model many other parents used when they tried to tell their kids how they didn’t measure up and “how you should do what he does.”
    I once told my father I was sorry I was such a disappointment to him. (This was while I was doing well as an undergrad at an Ivy League University, had high academic and personal achievements, and developed a tall and athletic body.) The sputtering and backtracking I heard in response amused me for a long time. By the time this exchange occurred, his approval did not matter to me, and his realization of that really seemed to shake him up. But that was his problem, poor fellow.
    Be who you are and be happy; let other people think what they want.
    –Top Squirrel

  23. says

    I recently went to a Body Worlds exhibit, and one thing I came away with was a greater acceptance of the uniqueness of each human body, including my own. I’m thin with hairy arms, not much for a chest, and the slightest pouch rather than washboard abs, but I’m healthy, and I’m pretty much perfect, just like most other people, regardless of their body type.

  24. ckitching says

    And just like for women, it is the men that seem to be the guards in the particular jail.

    Sorry, but you’re wrong. Women are more than capable at exerting social pressure to enforce these ridiculous rules, just as they participate in enforcing the ridiculous rules for what is and isn’t a Real Woman™. In your analogy, men may hold the keys for the cells, but women were more than happy to act as guards to the jailhouse and subjugate others to secure power and influence for themselves.
    I’m not sure there are any social ills that men are capable of and women are incapable of. We’re not different species, after all.

  25. Azkyroth says

    Greta, why don’t you engage David Byron in a lively debate rather than just writing him off as a troll? It makes more sense to invite controversial ideas than to preach to the choir.

    What makes you think she didn’t do exactly that the first time she was subjected to his shit?

  26. Puzzled says

    Well, I don’t see why pointing out that men are held to unrealistic ideals has to be accompanied by attacks on those who choose to do exceptional things.

  27. says

    I don’t see why pointing out that men are held to unrealistic ideals has to be accompanied by attacks on those who choose to do exceptional things.

    Whose definition of “exceptional” are we going by? I’m sure there’s something about everybody that’s quantitatively “exceptional”, but I’m not about to ascribe some level of superiority to them based on that.
    I can respect that having chiseled pecs and a washboard stomach may be important to the person who works to achieve that. What I can’t respect is when that person (and others) say it should be equally important to me.

  28. says

    Why should this be such a problem?

    Because human beings are social animals, and like it or not, we care what other people think of us and what they expect from us. It’s therefore worth pointing out when social expectations are harmful or unreasonable.

  29. says

    You know: strong, competitive, dominant, wealthy, good at fixing machinery, lots of sexual partners enjoys sports, big dick that gets hard on demand.

    Don’t forget, also – with at least one masters degree, fluent in multiple foreign languages, and with volumes of poetry memorized to recite on demand. Etc.

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