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Here’s How Popular Media Commodifies The Male Body For You And Me To Consume

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By Abhishek Jha for Cake:

menAmong the many, many evils of our patriarchal, capitalist world is our obsession with the ideal body type and its commodification. Women, of course, have suffered and continue to do so in the betrothal of patriarchy and capitalism, endlessly having to present themselves in mass media for the consumption of men. But patriarchy also thrives by homogenising what is masculine or what it means to ‘be a man’. Hence, it is not surprising that the male body too is commodified. There are various reasons given for the proliferation of the naked male body in media, researchers argue, but here we will limit ourselves to understanding how the male body gets commodified and why we should resist that in the interest of a feminist world.

The ideal body type is then not what we might naturally find desirable but what we are taught to desire – through popular depictions in films, advertisements, paintings (an artist went ahead and photoshopped paintings to fit the 21st century ‘aesthetic ideal’), or even poetry. It was with the economic empowerment of women, and the questioning of traditional heterosexual masculinity that men’s bodies began to be feminised. Skin lotions or perfumes – earlier considered feminine products – are now regularly marketed for and by men too. This hasn’t changed the fact that the ideal male body still remains boxed. Also, there is hardly a female body part that has not been marketed – there are lists of ‘sexiest’ Super Bowl ads that could just as easily be dubbed ‘sexist‘.

Interestingly, there seems to be a taboo surrounding men’s penises, as was observed at a Paris catwalk recently. The appearance of the naked male body is not a recent phenomenon (think Greek sculptures). Thus, the pressure of achieving the perfect body has for long existed for men. However, the driving force behind this almost always has a firm root in gender relations. The body being the “most immediate and easily accessible mode of gender and power display,” becomes a dominant mode of presenting what masculinity should mean, researchers say. The ideal body type in our current day and age is thus irrelevant as long as it reinforces fixed, patriarchal notions of masculinity, or – the immediate effect – the ‘ideal’ itself.

Take, for instance, the case of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which people argue here and here led to men developing a very fixed notion of a ‘healthy’ male body. The images of emaciated AIDS patients forced homosexual men to ascribe to standards of a sort of super-masculinity, probably because gay men are often taunted for being ‘girly’, and, therefore, weak. This has continued into this century.

“The pursuit of muscularity, leanness and youthfulness are clearly not new aspirations for men. But what has emerged in the past two decades is an ever increasing range of media (magazines, films, television, and the Internet) that promote a profoundly image-conscious society,” Lina Ricciardelli, an Associate Professor of Psychology wrote on The Conversation some years ago. The metrosexual man – lean, muscular, and without any body hair – seems to be the ubiquitous image these days.

The late Christopher Hitchens, who subjected himself to a host of ‘self-improvement’ programmes for Vanity Fair, had a harrowing account of adopting that image, where he likened getting a Brazilian Wax to “being tortured for information that you do not possess.” He later jokingly said in an interview that he would prefer water-boarding (which also he underwent for a totally different project) to Brazilian Wax.

Hitchens, however, was still a straight dude poking fun at the marketed notions of ‘a man’. Those men who do not toe the straight lines of cis-fuckery have it tougher. Take the British comedian-actor Eddie Izzard, who came out as a transvestite when he was 29. Apart from having to explain his crossdressing, he has also had to take literal blows for it. Jaden Smith, who wore a skirt for a new Vogue photoshoot, is still getting hate comments for wearing ‘female clothing’ on his Instagram account. But appearing as a model for what even Vogue calls with a hint of surprise ‘womenswear’ is nonetheless a rejoinder to what has been adopted as the ideal of a man in the staple spread of six pack men in advertisements.

In that case it might appear interesting to watch this new Axe commercial that begins with mocking the ‘six pack’. It includes men with nearly all body types and might appear to be a blow to dominant patriarchal notions of what a man’s body should look like. However, as one researcher puts it, “representations of the male body not only preserve traditional traits of masculine dominance but may be said to reclaim them in defiance of historical developments in the culture.”

Although the commercial abandons traditional ‘body standards’, it still perpetuates the same old masculine dominance and agency. Five out of around a dozen men in the commercial thus appear using their ‘own thing’ to seduce women – meaning they are still in charge of their sexual activity and the focus is still on the achievement of the man in being able to pleasure women. This, as we know, can also mean demanding more emotional labour from women. Moreover, the anonymous ‘thing’ is still very much ‘masculine’ and full of the ideals of ruggedness and independence. ‘Nose’, ‘fire’, ‘balls’ are overt male signifiers asserting you are still in charge whatever your body type may be. ‘Dough’, ‘brains’, ‘books’ – all historically owned by men is still with you; you just need to “work on it”.

How much defiance of social norms is possible within the framework of capitalism, which thrives on creating and reinventing them for its own good, is a tough question then. But nonetheless, who knows, once the commodity has sold the idea, maybe the idea will kill the commodity.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

You must be to comment.
  1. The Hulk

    Feminists see patriarchy everywhere when they have their heads shoved up their ass. Moment they pull their heads out, they notice patriarchy doesn’t exist.
    Patriarchy is a bogeyman created by feminists to blame men for all women’s problems.

  2. Daredevil

    My underqualified sister didn’t get a job. Must be because of the patriarchy. There is no bread in the house. It is the patriarchy’s fault. My cousin had a nightmare few days ago. The patriarchy is definitely involved.

  3. Kartik Chaturvedi

    I agree. Women have gotten commodified for many decades, forcing us to think that women are supposed to be lean, skinny, etc. And the same has happened to men, which are supposed to ‘appear’ strong. Instead of focusing on a healthy body and a kind heart and personality, society has objectified our bodies mainly for profit 🙁

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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