Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, Packing Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet
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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.
A 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 Sunday Times [London], 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.
We're not just talking about the world of fitness modeling, either. 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.