Gender and the Body par excellence: Countenance, Consumption and Control

11 Dec

Michaelangelo's Man

Westerners, Americans especially, are fixated with the body but, person-to-person we generally don’t admit it for fear of looking fatuous, superficial, or overly emotional. It should be said that our fixation is much more than simply narcissistic. The social body of America has long since been thought of as a reflection of the individual body which conveys something definitive and substantive about the person. Bodies are self-defining, they’re markers of status and sources of cultural capital. Thus, we have all kinds of logical motivations for investing so much of our mental and physical bandwidth on the way we look and function.

The tumultuous 1960’s, in particular, was a turning point in the United States. The social and political unrest of the time woke people up to the fact that everyday life is unpredictable, human beings are fragile and modern technology can’t magically fix everything all of the time. This change of pace instigated a fitness movement, the first of its kind, where the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s health was advocated as a way to avert modern day risks. Enhancing the body became the logical way to have a say in one’s destiny and in-turn it socially demonstrated accountability and correctness. Fast forward to today when all around us, images replete with very specific versions of ‘healthy-looking’ bodies (fit, attractive, young) make use of this message to frame scenarios of the successful good life.

The cultural ubiquity of such images is overwhelming and their social influence palpable. Industry, media and celebrity culture unapologetically invite us to critically assess the shape and look of our bodies and how it functions all with a view to better ourselves, again and again. Body-positive activist groups like About-face, Adios Barbie and Endangered Bodies have pushed back on this by exposing the duplicitous tactics of media and beauty industry giants. Most of us aren’t surprised to know that the glossy stylized images of women (and men) are, more often than not, airbrushed; fashion models are actually physical anomalies; and maintaining a size zero or 28” waist (in the case of men), as so many celebrities are seen to do, is not unfeasible for lack of having a personal trainer on speed dial, it’s actually physically impossible for the average person.

459px-Victorian_MenSo there we have it, where modern social mores and postmodern culture meet the physical and perceptive body sits as a locus for expression, consumption and morality. These days men have more choice in all things aesthetic, from fashion to fitness and they’re indulging more too. Department storenow dedicate entire sections to male-only cosmetics and fashion. Aesthetic procedures among men have risen in recent years, 106% since 1997 actually. The number of men working out in my local gym at any one time almost always outweighs the number of women present. None of this, however, precludes the masculine double-bind. Men are confronted with competing discourses of masculinity that on one hand promote the value of physical appearance and aesthetic practice, and on the other, discourage such behavior, dismissing is as effeminate and soft.

Research documenting body-image disturbances has focused mainly on women largely because there’s more social pressure on them to be a certain size and look a certain way. All the same, there’s been a turn toward exploring how Western media portrayals, consumer discourse and the moralization of health intersect with constructions of masculinity. Findings show increased body dissatisfaction, excessive exercising and dieting, and eating and body image disorders among boys and men (see: Monaghan, 2001; Gill et al, 2005; Atkinson, 2006; Hobza and Rochlen, 2009; Ryan and Morrison, 2009; Strother et al, 2013). Themes that echo an individualistic sentiment have emerged in some of these studies. According to Gill et al, men make a connection between a fit body and a competent self; although, being autonomous and free to choose in matters of appearance is more important than appearance itself. Independence and control were of concern to the men in Monaghan’s research on bodybuilders and Atkinson’s research on cosmetic surgery. In both cases, voluntarily choosing to endure the pain associated with the outer body (from training or recovering from surgery) symbolized surmounting an obstacle of the self thus demonstrating control. The body is a matter that concerns everyone and our belief in it as the quintessential standard for the self overrides our ability to see that focusing so intently on it might be counterproductive and indeed damaging.

Further reading:

Hamermesh, D.S., 2011. Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Hutson, D.J., 2013. “Your body is your business card”: Bodily Capital and Health Authority in The Fitness Industry. Social Science & Medicine, 90, pp. 63–71.

Schwalbe, M., 1992. Male Supremacy and The Narrowing of the Moral Self. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 37, pp. 29–54.

Solomon-Godeau, A., 1997. Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Webster, M. and Driskell, J.E., 1983. Beauty as Status. American Journal of Sociology, 89, pp. 140–165.

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