Jasmine Peterson wonders why so many big men want to be bigger.
As a student of Psychology, I have developed a particular fascination with the gender binary, hegemonic masculinity and femininity, body image, and media representations of bodies. I spend a lot of time deconstructing images that I see in media, and deconstructing the things people say when they speak about bodies (much to the constant chagrin of everyone around me).
It seems that discussions about the pervasive objectification of the female body have become part of popular discourse; most people are at least peripherally aware of the role of media in pervasively objectifying the female body, of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and of the significant role that our Western beauty ideal plays in their development. Body dissatisfaction in females is so common that it has come to be referred to as a ‘normative discontent’. Part of my fascination with body image and constructions of gender stems from this reality – I want, through my research and studies, to find ways to fight back against this systemic attack on body image in females and males.
What doesn’t seem to be acknowledged at the cultural level is the rise in body image dissatisfaction among men over the last several decades. Men have become increasingly concerned with muscularity, the idea that they are never big enough. And, like others who struggle with body image and disordered eating, males are increasingly engaging in unhealthy behaviours – like excessive exercise and unhealthy eating behaviours – in their pursuit of muscularity.
Where does this drive to be bigger, faster, stronger come from? Internalization of body ideals happens in early childhood – young children learn through images, the toys they play with, and through social interactions about ideal bodies. Children’s action figures have bodies that have become impossibly large over the past forty years (their proportions exceed those of even the largest body builders – as untenable as Barbie’s body type); characters in children’s shows have gotten progressively (and excessively) larger over the years, and the male form in advertisements and film, much like highly unrepresentative female bodies, has become one that is attainable by only very few. Given this trend, it isn’t overly surprising that there is a rise in men’s body dissatisfaction.
But why this shift in media representations, and the hypermasculinization and hypermuscularity? I have my hypotheses about these shifts. Our knowledge about the world and about ourselves is dependent upon the social and historical contexts in which we live. We’re living in a time where women have gained privilege and power – shifting social dynamics, where we’re vying for jobs traditionally done by men; encouraging men to take over their share of household duties (my partner will laugh at this, because he’s forever after me to do my share; I’m working on it) and sharing parenting responsibilities. Manhood has come to be defined through large, active bodies; it’s a means of gender differentiation (it is particularly interesting to examine the phenomenon of male bodies taking up more space and female bodies simultaneously occupying less physical space in idealized images). Muscularity signifies male power, renounces feminine ‘weakness’, signifies attractiveness, and is associated with strength, dominance, sexual virility, and self-esteem.
My partner and I have conversed about male bodies a great deal. He enjoys working out, and he’s extremely muscular. In conversations, however, he always talks about a desire to be ‘bigger’, a need to be bigger. I haven’t been able to comprehend this need; I think he’s a large man (nearly six feet tall, he towers over my less than five foot frame), and he’s well-defined. Other men often admire his build and marvel over his definition. Yet he still talks about being not big enough.
When we were talking about muscularity just this evening he made an insightful comment – one that I hadn’t considered, and one that makes a great deal of sense. He talked about the utility of the male body: “men like me desire muscles for one reason only: utility”
For him, muscularity isn’t about aesthetics. This idea of utility is logical – when grownups talk to young boys, emphasis is placed on agency, abilities, and the utility of their bodies. Boys are described with adjectives like “strong”, “fast”, “tough”; this provides boys with the message that their bodies are utile. Perhaps this is particularly important for certain men in defining their masculinity (because masculinity is enacted differently in different circumstances – dependent on socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.). Masculinity isn’t static, but fluid, and different aspects of masculinity will be valued depending on one’s position in culture. My partner is a labourer, so he covets his muscularity for the agency it brings him, the ability to lift and move objects, and to do his job well.
I am by nature a scientist, inquisitive about natural phenomena. I am intrigued by the pursuit of ideal bodies, in the ways these body image ideals can be positive expressions of self, and the ways in which they can become pathological or detrimental to health. I am interested in both the constraints and strengths that result from gender constructions.
My conclusion thus far: there are aspects of both masculinity and femininity that are positive, and some that inhibit or constrain us. For some, the pursuit of muscularity might be harmful, and for others it might be a positive experience. For some, perhaps a mixture of both.
—Photo tinou bao/Flickr