This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
The cultural ideal of masculinity isn’t just narrow and rigid — it’s literally unattainable. What can men do about it?
If you’re familiar with feminism — whether you’re for it or against it — you’ve almost certainly heard feminist rants about cultural ideals of femininity. You’ve heard how standards of femininity are so narrow and rigid that they’re literally unattainable. You’ve heard 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. You’ve heard how female fashion models have been getting increasingly thin over the years, to the point where disordered eating is becoming an industry norm… and how even the minuscule percentage of women who can become fashion models, with or without eating disorders, routinely get their pictures Photoshopped to make them fit the beauty myth. You may have even ranted some of those rants yourself.
Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.
I’ve been thinking more and more these days about how rigid and narrow the gender expectations are for men. I’ve even written about it before, in this very space. But 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.
The article in question is about the hellish, dangerous, illness-inducing routines that male fitness models regularly go through to forge their bodies into an attractive photograph of the masculine ideal. According to journalist Peta Bee in the Express UK (the article was originally published in the Sunday Times [London], but they put it behind a paywall), in order to make their bodies more photogenic and more in keeping with the masculine “fitness” ideal, top male fitness models routinely put themselves through an extreme regimen in the days and weeks before a photo shoot. Not a regimen of intense exercise and rigorously healthy diet, mind you… but a regimen that involves starvation, dehydration, excessive consumption of alcohol and sugar right before a shoot, and more. This routine is entirely unrelated to any concept of “fitness.” In fact, it leaves the models in a state of serious hypoglycemia: dizzy, exhausted, disoriented, and (ironically) unable to exercise, and indeed barely able to walk. But the routine makes their muscles look big, and tightens their skin to make their muscles “pop” on camera. And even then, the magazines use lighting tricks, posture tricks, flat-out deceptions, even Photoshop, to exaggerate this illusion of masculinity even further.
On any sort of realistic irony meter, the concept of starved, dehydrated, dazed, weakened men being offered as models of fitness completely buries the needle. But this isn’t about reality. The image being sold is clearly not one of “fitness” — i.e. athletic ability and physical health. The image being sold is an exaggerated, idealized, impossible extreme of hyper- masculinity.
And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.
But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.
We’re not just talking about the world of fitness modeling, either. From weight loss products to underwear ads to cosmetic surgery to supposedly helpful books of advice on how to make yourself tolerably appealing to the opposite sex, men are being increasingly bombarded with messages about what Real Men are supposed to look like. It’s not surprising that, among men, reported rates of anorexia nervosa, anorexia athletica, and other forms of disordered eating and body dysmorphia are on the rise.
And we’re not just talking about physical ideals of masculinity. We’re talking about cultural ideals. Sexual ideals. Economic ideals. Emotional ideals.
Sexuality educator Dr. Charlie Glickman has written a great deal (and teaches workshops) about male gender expectations, and what he calls “the performance of masculinity.” And a two-part series he recently wrote crystallized this idea for me. He was talking about the “box” of masculinity — the ideas we have in American culture about what a “real man” is and does. You know: strong, competitive, dominant, wealthy, good at fixing machinery, lots of sexual partners, enjoys sports, big dick that gets hard on demand. You know the drill.
And he pointed out that many of these ideas aren’t just rigid or limiting. They actually conflict with each other. As Glickman put it, “Some of the items in the box are contradictory. You can’t be a mechanic and a CEO. I’ve talked with men who are convinced they’re not Real Men because they aren’t rich and I’ve talked with men who are convinced they aren’t Real Men because they don’t work with their hands.”
In other words: The Act Like a Man Box isn’t just a painful, difficult, miserably limiting place to live. It is, quite literally, an impossible place to live. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t like having your goal be to live in a big mansion in Beverly Hills with dozens of supermodels hanging around the pool. It’s like having your goal be to live on the surface of the sun. It literally can’t be done.
But here’s the good news.
“Impossible” is, in many ways, a better cultural ideal to have than “really, really difficult.”
Because it’s a whole lot easier to ignore.
Now here is where, I freely admit, I am stepping away from more solid facts, and into the realm of harebrained speculation based on my own personal experience. That being said, I still think I’m onto something.
The day I realized that the cultural ideal of femininity was, quite literally, unattainable? The day I realized that women are supposed to be sexy and chaste, undemanding and seeking commitment, meek delicate flowers and strong backbones of the family? The day I realized that if you’re tall you’re supposed to look shorter, and if you’re short you’re supposed to look taller, and if you’re fat you’re supposed to look thinner, and if you’re thin you’re supposed to look more voluptuous, and that whatever body type you had you were supposed to make it look different? The day I realized that every woman is insecure about her looks… including the ones we’re supposed to idolize? The day I realized that, no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I would always, always, always be a failure as a woman?
That was the day I quit worrying about it.
If the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can be strong enough, pretty enough, rich enough, whatever enough… you’ll be a lot more tempted to keep running that treadmill, keep chasing the carrot that’s dangling in front of you. But if the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds? The whole thing just becomes laughable. And it becomes a whole lot easier to step off the treadmill. Obviously the cultural expectations still affect you — I’m not claiming to be free of them, I don’t think anyone is — but it’s a lot easier to see them for what they are, and shrug them off, and get on with your life.
So guys? Listen up.
The world is giving you an impossible task. It’s not just a stupid task; it’s not just a pointless task; it’s not just a needlessly confining task; it’s not just a task that will make you miserable. It is, quite literally, unattainable. You will never, ever be man enough.
So stop giving a damn. And be whoever you are.
Be a whisky-drinking electronic music nerd who mixes a perfect Manhattan. Be a dialog editor who bakes banana bread and does stand-up comedy. Be a tattooed poet and kettlebell competitor. Be a retired soldier who does English folk dancing. Be a software engineer with waist-length hair and a thing for Michelin-star restaurants. Be a French-speaking rare book collector who calls into sports radio talk shows. Be a porn writer and atheist activist with eighteen cats. Be a muscle-bound gym rat who sings opera and cries in public.
Be who you are. That’s actually an attainable goal. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.