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It is Christmas day and my cousins, uncles, grandparents, and parents call to the house for dinner. We sit down, a bottle of wine is opened and my cousin of eleven asks his father can he have a sip of his wine. He agrees and my grandfather says with a smile “that’ll put the hairs on your chest”, my cousin’s face contorts in horror and he quickly says “I don’t want hair on my chest”. We all laugh at the innocence of the exchange. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the words from my mind.
It was a statement that captured how things have changed: “I don’t want hair on my chest.”
Our grandfather’s generation seen hairy chests as signs of strength and manhood, my generation sees chest hair as an inconvenience, and even to a certain extent ‘dirty’. Ironically men of my grandfather’s era see beards as unclean and dirty while the current crop of 18-30+-year-olds sees beards as a cool fashion accessory. There are plenty more ironies when we look at the modern man, such as the fascination among young men to correlate to a certain body type. The irony is that young men today are victims of the same social pressures that young women have been under since, arguably, the beginning of the twentieth century. The process has been ingrained in our society in recent years and it got me thinking as to when did this all start? How did we get here?
My own experience of body image pressure began as a fifteen-year-old. I was an athletic boy who played numerous sports and was highly active. I never really paid much attention to what my body looked like (by this I mean I never heard of a six-pack and other allusions to parts of the body) until I was nearly sixteen. I was walking off the pitch after playing a match and heard from a group of girls as I passed, “look at his six pack”. After that simple interaction how I looked became more and more important to me. I stayed up at night doing sit-ups and push-ups, I made sure my hair was perfect and groomed myself every day. Not to stay healthy, but to look good. It took many years for me to realise that exercise wasn’t about “looking good” but about feeling good and enjoying your exercise.
It is a strange phenomenon that many young men are currently experiencing. As young women worldwide fight to free themselves from the chains of body image pressures, we see young men now under much greater social pressure when it comes to how they look. It is now common to see boys as young as fourteen filling themselves with creatine shakes and pumping iron in a gym. But it doesn’t stop there, as body image pressures grow on these young men so too does the ability to perform within the boundaries of the gender stereotype of masculinity. Masculinity has long been a tight a fit, most men aspire but few ever attain the ideal stereotypical ‘man’s man’ type. But masculinity has changed, and in the words of W. B Yeats, it has “changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born”.
What I believe we are observing in young men is a form of masculinity that has grown
steadily among millennials, and has also been pursued by older men. In her essay “Stylish hard bodies: Branded masculinity in Men’s Health magazine” Susan Alexander describes “branded masculinity” as, “rooted in consumer capitalism wherein corporate profit can be enhanced by generating insecurity about one’s body and one’s consumer choices and then offering a solution through a particular corporate brand.” (Alexander 2003). In other words, masculinity is now something that can be purchased and consumed using the correct products. Over the last twenty years (some would say more) men have become increasingly more fragile with regard to their appearance. Male grooming as stated earlier is just one of the many examples of this obsession. A journal article that looked at male and female gym habits found that men predominantly focused on building upper body strength (biceps, shoulders, and chest), while women focused more on mid to lower body (legs, buttocks, abdomen). Of course, I am not saying that you shouldn’t work out, nor am I saying avoid the gym, the simple message is for men to be aware that they are being sold a lie. The problem with “branded masculinity” is that it sells a certain image of what it is to be a man. If a person cannot conform to this image a wide range of problems ensue, hence why men are overwhelmingly the main offenders when it comes to crime.
There are other issues that arise from this fascination with body appearances, the increase in male plastic surgery is one such issue. According to WhatClinic.ie between April 2016 and April 2017 over 500 liposuction procedures were performed on males in Ireland, and over 400 male breast reduction treatments were performed. The stats from WhatClinic also show over 400 hair transplants and over 1,000 tummy tucks performed on males in Ireland. Looking at these figures I cannot help but think that these numbers are going to continue to rise in the future. The figures show that appearance is now being sold to men in the same manner in which it has (and still is) sold to women. Corporations often “serve as agents of social change by creating new consumer markets.” (Alexander 2003). If such anxieties about one’s appearance can be exploited in women, the natural progression would be to exploit the male anxiety of not being muscular, baldness, obesity etc. I worry for the younger generation, with such pressures being put on them from television, social media, and other media outlets, how can we begin to tackle the real problems of our time when we are consumed by anxiety about our own appearance.
So where do we begin when we try to tackle the issue of “branded masculinity”? Honestly, I don’t know. When a whole civilisation of people conforms to an idea it is hard to fight against. But the proliferation of current ideals and the endless pursuit of profitable consumer markets is causing social problems worldwide. From the attacks performed by individuals from the lower socio-economic section of society in Europe to the struggle of black American men as they fight against injustice and persecution by authorities to the struggles of white Americans fighting their own battles against eco-social depreciation. These problems all have a common root (one of many), they are predominantly young males struggling to conform to a gender stereotype. Masculinity is in crisis, and the problems are already appearing. It is time to change the narrative. We need to stop placing such undue pressures upon young men (and women). The road ahead is unclear, but the challenge has been laid bare for millennials.
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