Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, And Always Ready for Sex: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet

There’s no such thing as a real man. And that’s OK.

—-

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.

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—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 London Sunday Times, 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.

It goes well beyond the world of fitness modeling. 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 writtengreat 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 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.

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 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 lot easier to step off the treadmill. Obviously 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 telling you to turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds.

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 whiskey-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 18 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.

This post originally appeared on AlterNet.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

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Comments

  1. While I agree that in recent years men are becoming more subject to the cultural pressure that women have been under for generations, I do not agree that it affects them on the whole nearly as much as it affects women. Personally, I know maybe 1 man who laments not being able to achieve a perfect gym body, yet every single woman I know struggles with her self-image with regard to her body. You draw comparisons between the FITNESS magazines for men that tell them that the perfect bodies are attainable, yet EVERY magazine geared toward women pushes that in our faces.
    I’m not disagreeing with your point that men should be “whoever they are” and resist feeling badly about not living up to an unattainable cultural stereotype, but to compare the breadth and scope of what pressure men face about the subject to what women go through is borderline absurd.

    • “draw comparisons between the FITNESS magazines for men that tell them that the perfect bodies are attainable, yet EVERY magazine geared toward women pushes that in our faces.”
      - First off, Daria, which magazines geared toward men do you believe have male models with the average joe body? Guns n’ Ammo? Get real. GQ, Details, Men’s Health, they all have models from the same stock. Is the pressure of body image the same for men and women? No, not yet. But the “yet” is exactly the point. It should be stopped before it is. Your attitude is apparently that of “you may be suffering, but until you suffer as much as I do, your concerns are invalid.” Quite a selfish position, but one that is common from the so-called vicitimized demographic groups.

      • Luckey, I never said that men are not subject to social pressure. Of course they are, and male models, like female models, are the embodiment of socially constructed (and mostly unattainable) ideals as well.
        And yes, if you look at Men’s Health, as the title would suggest, you’re going to get an abundance of material on how to train your physique toward that social ideal. Obviously. If you don’t like it because it makes you feel badly about yourself, don’t read that magazine. I just think women don’t have that luxury of simply avoiding material that makes us feel badly about our shapes and sizes because it’s too omnipresent. I can think of a handful of rotund male celebrities that garner press and paparazzi following (Jack Black, Seth Rogan), yet almost none of the female celebrities are less than a size 2 and stunning. There is a double standard and to deny it’s existence is naive.
        My point, actually, was that the author’s example seemed weak because it equated men feeling badly about seeing the bodies of extreme body builders to what women go through every day, not that her point wasn’t in some ways valid. But the social pressures facing women and men are not the same, and no amount of calling me selfish will convince me otherwise.

        • Wrong, Daria. The article didn’t “equate” men and women’s body image pressures, nor did I. Reading is FUNdamental, try it! For example, it clearly stated that eating disorders for men are on the rise, NOT equal to the percentage of disorders in women. The examples of rotund male celebrities are becoming more the exception than the rule. But as you stated, “the social pressures facing women and men are not the same”, therefore the concerns of men about those pressures are not valid. Maybe you’re not selfish, just sexist against men. Which begs the questions why you bother reading a site for men and about men.

      • Luckey, you have a point, but Daria definitely does too. Maybe understanding is what we need here. Not disagreement. You guys are all attacking Daria for expressing her opinion and feelings. If you want to discount her opinions and feelings because you happen to think they are stupid, go ahead. But realize that attitudes like yours are part of the problem.

        Now should I prepare for the attack?

    • Matthew Orifice says:

      Daria, i would like to respectfully disagree with you… how ever you;re comment offended me too much to do that so here you go.
      I’m in the 40 somethign group of men, who went from ” you need to be John wayne, to John travolta, to Magnum pi, to alan alda” in less than the span of a decade. who have been told that we can’t be considered intelligent much less competent since the 90′s, who get cried to about not being able to find a “Nice Guy” by the girl we love just to watch her ignore the nice guy she was crying to to go out with a misogynistic idiot who happens to have a 6 pack set of Abs… every step we took for the last 40 yrs not only has society told us we can’t be good enough but it kept switching what we were supposed to be. NOW we get all of it at once, a sensitive caring guy is seen as too weak, an emotionally distant guy is seen as not in touch. I lucked out personally i found a beautiful woman who can go from a ball gown to jeans with grace and ease and she is happy that i can be just as comfortable in both situations, but getting here was a life time of listening to society demonize the exact type of male we were told to be so i said screw it i’m me. i’ve seen what women went through it’s similar, not the same but similar but at this point no one is safe.

      • Matthew, I can appreciate and understand your stance. As society evolves and roles change, it can cause anxiety and confusion about what roles men and women are “supposed” to play, and how we fit in and measure up to those standards. I can appreciate what you’re saying, for sure. As I stated above, in response to Luckey’s criticism of my comment, what I was trying to convey was more that I believe, overall, that especially with regard to pressure to fit into a certain physical mold that society has created, women, much more so than men, are subject to the damaging psychological effects that pressure puts on us. Not that some men don’t feel it, not that it’s right, just that’s it’s not the same. That’s all.

    • Feminist tries to play the oppression Olympics.

      What about teh wimmins!

    • I absolutely agree and think it’s silly to argue with the obvious fact that women have significantly greater body image pressure put on them.

      It’s also worth noting that (based on my purely anecdotal, life experience evidence) the most likely reason you assume that most of your male friends don’t beat themselves up pretty badly for not being closer to the current physical ideal is because:

      A) It’s completely socially unacceptable for men to discuss any non-anger or lust fueled emotional state they’re in (with a few exceptions like temporary exuberance or disappointment relating to competition in topics like work, politics or sports… and for some reason unless it’s part of a musical performance)

      and

      B) Not having a gym body is a relatively small social infraction compared to publicly acknowledging that you’re capable of being influenced by an insecurity, especially an image related one. The apparent absence of insecurity in any form whatsoever is such an important affect for men in our society to posses that even the least sophisticated of men have built extraordinarily elaborate and thick emotional walls to prevent slip-ups from occurring… usually being impermeable enough to allow even a good (though not infinite) amount of smack-talking to occur directly about said insecurity without showing so much as a flinch… though more than one drunken fistfight has occurred between even the best of friends who were drunkenly pushing each others buttons.

      These two things often make it extraordinarily difficult to perform basic communication tasks regarding emotionally charged topics, and often give the impression that men are too emotionally unsophisticated to be aware of or affected by such things.

      Even being in a very progressive, staunchly feminist social environment that’s heavily populated by the proudly open LGBTQ crowd, I consistently see heterosexual men, and though less often, lesbians that identify less with traditional female personality traits be socially/emotionally/sexually not rewarded or even punished (even if subtly) for showing emotional openness that wasn’t directly related to anger/lust/competition.

      It’s something to keep in mind when discussion issues like this… that not only do many of these gender issues silently but deeply affect many men, but even giving the slightest indication that they’re being affected by them is a HUGE no-no. That’s why sites like this are such a rarity.

      Once again, because so many of these discussions spawns fire-spitting trolls, I only assert that this stuff is my opinion which is based on my life experiences. I don’t think that this represents everyones reality, nor should it.

      • “socially/emotionally/sexually not rewarded or even punished” I’d like to emphasize that this is done seemingly by every gender/orientation/identity.

  2. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    It is possible to be masculine, however. Avoid media is a good policy.

  3. I agree with this article in theory – there should not be pressure put on either gender to conform to specific (often unattainable) ideals. However, I disagree heartily with the conclusion – that you should thus ignore all the ideals and simply be whatever it is that you are. With a country that is (on average) overweight and even obese, telling men to ignore any sort of fitness ideals and get off the treadmills seems counterproductice. I am not, by any means, advocating attempting to be a dehydrated, hypoglycemic Adonis who can’t stand up – but while you are enjoying your Michelin Star restaurants and waist length hair, try to do so without needing two seats on an airplane.

    So, yeah, ignore the unattainable standards … but don’t ignore them all. Find a balance and while you’re ignoring the tanned, sickly veined model in the pictures on Mens Health, and do pay attention to some of the exercises and the diet suggestions. You’ll be healthier, emotionally and physically – and really, isn’t that the best foundation for our idealized versions of masculine and feminine?

    • Agree, except I think we should add that fitness and health should be pleasurable, and not a mad rush to get a hot body.

  4. Great article – definitely something I have struggled with as a man myself. At the end of the day, I’ve learned that being true to who you are is the only thing that can make you happy. I tried to chase this muscular ideal for quite some time, but eventually realized that the reason I was chasing this ideal was because I was unfulfilled internally. As I become more and more comfortable with who I am and esteem myself for this genuine person, these societal ideals of masculinity lose their appeal. In fact, they seem quite cheap, empty, and sad.

  5. Lindsey says:

    Rather than bicker about who has it worse, can’t we just agree that unrealistic portrayals are bad all around?

    I think that there are a lot of men and women that would be willing to give the finger to the concept of idealized perfection if it weren’t for one thing: the feeling that everyone expects it from you. They’re afraid of the social consequences that would come with rejecting such a commonly held ideal. There are a lot of women I know that would toss their make up and push up bras in the trash if they didn’t think that that’s what guys want and, without it, they’ll end up alone. The same marketing that tells women what they should be also tells men what women should be. It’s the same for men. “Being yourself” is all well and good, but if everyone is socially conditioned not to accept you, it can be a pretty difficult life.

    What I would really like to see is both genders, together, working to end the absolutely ridiculous standards that the advertising/publishing industry has set for people. You can’t complain about the Men’s Health models and then go buy a Maxim. You can’t complain about men only wanting to date model-like women if all you will date is a body builder. It’s time to stop the double standards.

    I agree that the same unhealthy body image that has been around for women for a while is spreading to men. It really should be nipped in the bud. Because both genders feel the pain of this unfairness, it’s it time that people actually, you know, did something to stop it?

    There’s a real tendency for women to brush off men’s complaints of things that have traditionally viewed as women’s problems (body issues, the difficulties of parenting, etc.). Similarly, there’s a tendency for men to brush off women’s concerns about things that have been traditionally masculine (finances, money issues, the burden of the 9-5 work week, etc.) The reaction seems to be something along the lines of “oh boo-hoo! I’ve been dealing with that for YEARS”. I feel like this needs to stop ASAP. The more people that understand the challenges you face, the more allies you have in making positive change. Gender shouldn’t matter.

    • When I see men who give a shat about eradicating unreasonable standards for women… that’ll be the day. I can think of only one… and he writes for this blog and when he writes about such things… is RAILED against by a legion of huffy men stating, why should we interfere with their ‘god given right to decide who is prettiest on a scale of 1 to 10.’

      Sorry, but this whole article is a deserving of a huge eye roll. The article was even written by a sympathizing woman… Men don’t even write about this because it really *doesn’t* affect them as much or they would be inspired to do something about it, unless they are grossly overweight or have some physical deformity that impedes their dating life.

  6. I think this article misses some key facts. The standards imposed on men at least as far as fitness and obesity do not present ‘real life’ consequences in the same way they do for women. In the working world, overweight men make much, much more money than overweight, even sometimes more than svelte men.

    Also, if you looked at diet ads, weight loss products, and other things, you would think that the majority of overweight people in the country were women. I would venture if you asked the regular person on the street they would also say women. But in reality, men are overweight or obese 20% more than women.

  7. In addition to the stereotype portrayed in this article, the media also portrays men as buffoons. We have all seen the guy on commercials and sitcoms who is sitting in an easy chair, scratching, wearing a ballcap, eating Cheetos and watching TV.

    I agree with the takehome message of this article. Be yourself. More importantly, trust yourself to do the right thing.

  8. Anonymous Man says:

    Deeply, deeply ironic here — no doubt some of those men are taking steroids, which have a habit of shrinking the testicles. Shrinking testicles in the pursuit of masculine perfection? Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  9. Yes, bisexual men do exist, even genuinely bisexual men who are attracted to both men and women in nearly equal measure. But not as many bisexual men exist as gay men who claim to be bisexual.

  10. It’s written by a female!

    Anyhow… very good point! I’ll have to soak this up entirely – tricky matter really.

    Well done on this excellent article!

  11. “Be a muscle-bound gym rat who sings opera and cries in public ”

    Hey…that’s me :) :) :)

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