When it comes to the healthy male, Cameron Conaway writes, we need to realize there’s a lot more than just bulging biceps.
Conversations on contemporary gender roles often involve our beloved caveman. As cavemen, it is said, society needed men to be physically strong because there were physical threats. But no longer. Humans have risen to the top of the food chain….
Then the conversation veers in one of two directions, ever-embracing the black or white, the either/or, the groupings of two that we are comfortable forcing ideas and answers into:
(1) …and is this why women are becoming more successful.
(2) …and this is why men are finished.
For starters, the conversation assumes that the external experience – an animal chasing us down – is all that matters. This assumption cripples or minimizes several realities:
(1) Human genetic evolution has not come close to matching recent human innovation. Our primitive brain (parts within the Limbic System) has not fully evolved to match the parts within the Neocortex, let alone to accommodate for the technological advances of the past 100 years. Consider a few of the many studies on racism, for example. Nearly all children and adults, regardless of their race, will exhibit a split-second fear response when a picture of another race is flashed before their eyes. This response was likely useful back when we lived in tribes and needed to make snap judgments to protect our own, but in today’s multicultural rational-ruled world?
(2) History’s remnants remain within us. As evolved and sophisticated as we think we are, we can’t deny history’s ongoing heartbeat. As women still want to feel beautiful because, in part, they’ve been cherished for this aspect throughout much of history, so men still want to be strong. From these characteristics men and women can gather self-confidence. We can’t simply stop being what we’ve been rewarded for throughout most of human history. That’s not how nature works.
(3) We think therefore we arrghh! The transition from intensely physical lives to intensely mental lives is one in which we are all still adjusting. Stress hormones similar to those released during a life-or-death fight with a bear now slowly trickle through us over the course of weeks as we worry about a major business presentation. Studies have linked this kind of sustained stress (much different than the high-to-low stress rhythms of our ancestors) to nearly every disease imaginable. However, short bouts of intense physical exercise have been shown to recalibrate our more natural stress rhythms. There is evidence here that modern-day men genetically need to exercise.
(4) The media’s brilliant exploitation of our primal “wants.” Most men’s “health” magazines are not actually about the health of men. They are about the muscle of men, how to pack it on and impress the opposite sex. We’re fed to believe the shadeless notion that a body chiseled with muscle is always healthy. Book covers aren’t always the best evidence of what’s going on inside. Sure, improving aesthetics can build a self-confidence that carries over into many aspects of life, and the act of exercising itself has a host of health benefits. But whether right or wrong, many men think most women want a man that looks “jacked” or “ripped.” For this we have to thank both evolution’s slow crawl and marketing’s fast sprawl.
Men born in the 60’s and 70’s were notoriously vulnerable to such mind warping as they grew into maturity during the “muscle boom” where steroid use blew up men to unbelievably muscular levels. As though this wasn’t enough, these muscle men became the most successful and revered men of their time – unnatural behemoth action stars making millions and flaunted as the pinnacle of male sexuality all because they could carry over 200lbs of muscle and 3% bodyfat simultaneously – a twisted blend of training, genetics and the X factor that was synthetic drugs. The documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger* captures this and then some. Even now in 2012, one out of three men would sacrifice a full year of their lives to achieve their “ideal” body weight or shape. Often, this “ideal” isn’t possible through natural means. Several major studies even report a 250% increase in male eating disorders over the past ten years. Can some of this percentage be contributed to awareness? Of course. But it’s troubling nonetheless.
The simplest way to understand the world is to break its contents into twos. But the simplest ways aren’t always best. As a culture of men and women we dislike gray skies and we dislike the gray between black and white. We don’t see the grays in the Joe Paterno story. Good or bad. Wrong or right. Democrat or Republican. We speak of metaphorical “lines,” as though there are any. Where’s the “line” between using a bodybuilding poster at a gym for positive motivation and allowing that poster to create an ever-whispering voice that depresses? You’re not good enough, fatty. Look at your lame excuse for a body. Who could ever be attracted to you?
Truth is, human drive and innovation comes from such whisperings. Self-destruction both makes and breaks us. Just as the microscopic tear of muscle rebuilds stronger under the right conditions, so can the mind. There are no lines in the sand here, and it’s dangerous to assume so. These whisperings can slip into the role of the one-upper and trump our more rational thoughts. Bodily comparisons can burn uncontrollably in our minds and herein comes the boomerang effects of unsustainable obsessions – absolute depression, even eating and body dysmorphic disorders like anorexia and bigorexia.
We are living very different lives than even short periods ago. And it is imperative that when we talk about cavemen and the male body we take time to move beyond the bulging biceps and move into the brain. Here’s a quote from David Abram’s Becoming Animal that can help us all glue together our mind and body with our past and present:
Whether sequestered in our offices tickling the keys on a keyboard, or simply turning the pages of a good book in bed, we spend much of our time deploying a very rarefied form of intelligence, manipulating abstract symbols while our muscled body is mostly inert. Hence thinking, for us, seems to have little bearing on our carnal life; it often seems entirely independent of our body…