Among 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.