Since this topic has been keeping you all interested this week, thought I’d point you towards a piece that’s just gone up at IB Times. I guess it captures some of my thoughts about the debate that has been going on, as well as spelling out where I stand on broader issues of our cultural obsession (?) with the male body beautiful.
Full piece is here, with a taster below. There’s no commenting at IB Times so if you want to call me rude names I’m happy to accommodate here.
The academic literature is sparse and inconclusive, but there is evidence that ever-greater numbers of young men and boys are struggling with self-esteem issues and eating disorders, anecdotal evidence suggests use of dangerous anabolic steroids and / or fat-stripping stimulants might be on the rise.
There is an obvious temptation to place the blame for such problems firmly at the door of the asorted magazine editors, the film directors and the advertising executives who have conspired to make the six-pack and the V-shaped torso every young man’s must-have accessory. Such an equation is simple and straightforward – and it is also profoundly wrong.
It is no coincidence that male body-sculpting culture emerged in the rubble of the post-industrial economy and took hold among the first generations of working class man to grow-up in the aftermath of Thatcherism and Reagonomics. For centuries, young men had quietly asserted and performed their masculinity through their work, through providing for families at a young age, through military service or even a carefully carved position within cultures of casual violence.
But the muscles which once wrought steel and hauled coal in Sheffield and Newcastle now pump iron and pull reps. The willpower and courage that once crafted mighty ships on the Clyde or in Philadelphia or churned out cars in Dagenham and Flint, Michigan is now instead turned inwards, nothing left to build but bulk. The journey to bodily perfection can be seen quite profoundly in the journey from The Full Monty to Magic Mike – self-objectification travelling from desperation to a kind of proud, if sad, fulfilment.
Forty years earlier, another generation – my generation – of young men reacted to a similar sense of alienation and disengagement with a safety pin piercing, a mohawk and a cheap electric guitar. The record labels, the management teams and the fashion houses quickly grasped punk, exploited it and sold it back to its creators, in the words of Joe Strummer, turning rebellion into money. The distance from nihilism to narcissism is a very, very short hop.
The precise same process has now overtaken body-sculpting culture and, as is the way with consumer culture, is simultaneously feeding it. The associated harms to young men’s physical and mental health will not be addressed or contained by protesting a protein shake advert, picketing the Magic Mike sequel or demanding that Cristiano Ronaldo puts his shorts back on. Those are mere symptoms. Boys do not need to be shielded from aspirational or sexualised images, they need to be secure that they have a meaningful role in society beyond zero hours contracts, the call-centre and brief respite in the gym. They need to feel like they have more to offer the world than a perfect set of abs.
Achieving all that will take more than removing a poster from the Underground.