Let me Hear Your Body Talk

Are men the new women? I’ve always avoided using that line until now. As the (hetero)sexual divi­sion of labour and lov­ing and look­ing con­tin­ues to fall apart, men are the new everything. Just as women are.

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But in the last few months we’ve been told men now take longer get­ting ready than women, mer­ci­fully delet­ing at a stroke most of the mater­ial of stand-ups like John Bishop. We’ve also been told that gents are more likely to take travel irons, hairdry­ers and straight­en­ers on hol­i­day than ladies. Now there’s new evid­ence they may be as body-conscious as women too. In fact, accord­ing to a widely-reported study of 394 British men pub­lished last week, lads are now more con­cerned with their body image than lasses.

A third said they think about their appear­ance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. While a Faustian 15% claimed they would hap­pily trade 2–5 years of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. (Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives — when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to go on Big Brother anyway).

Some we’re told were under­tak­ing com­puls­ive exer­cise, strict diets, using lax­at­ives or mak­ing them­selves sick in an attempt to lose weight or achieve a more toned physique. And although the sur­vey didn’t cover this, other data sug­gests a sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of men are also tak­ing ster­oids, growth hor­mones and other pre­scrip­tion drugs to achieve a more aes­thet­ic­ally pleas­ing appear­ance.

Which gen­er­ally means tits and abs. Men’s main pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, the sur­vey found, was their ‘beer belly’ and lack of muscles, with a whop­ping 63% say­ing they thought their arms or chests were not mus­cu­lar enough. And people never believe me when I tell them that while some women are size queens, all men are.

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‘Geordie Shore’s Jay knows what you want

Clearly a lot of men are gaz­ing avar­i­ciously at the flaunted porno pecs and abs of hit TV shows like Jersey/Geordie Shore (Geordie Shore is back for a second sea­son on MTVUK at the end of this month). We already know they’re buy­ing Men’s Health magazine as it became the biggest-selling men’s mag recently. All those tarty, shouty Men’s Health front cov­ers prom­ising BIGGER ARMS! PUMPED PECS! and RIPPED ABS! in a fort­night may be as laugh­able as they are repet­it­ive, but they’re clearly, luc­rat­ively tap­ping into 21st Century man’s deep­est, darkest and beefi­est desires.

Men may or may not be the new women, but men’s tits and abs are the new eye candy. Men have become their own High Street Honeys.

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They’re also rather bitchy. Apparently 80.7% of the sur­vey respond­ents talked about their own or oth­ers’ appear­ance in ways that draw atten­tion to weight, lack of hair or slim frame. It also con­firms that men of whatever sexual ori­ent­a­tion look rather a lot at each other’s bod­ies, com­par­ing and con­trast­ing, desir­ing and detracting.

Dr Philippa Diedrichs of the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE in Bristol who led the sur­vey, described this con­ver­sa­tion between men about their bod­ies as ‘body talk’ (which makes me think of both Olivia Newton John beat­ing up the fat­ties in ‘Physical’, and also that single from the same era by the incred­ibly camp dance band Imagination.)

Body talk rein­forces the unreal­istic beauty ideal which rein­forces lean­ness and mus­cu­lar­ity. This is tra­di­tion­ally seen as an issue for women but our research shows that men are feel­ing the pres­sure to con­form too.’

Rosi Prescott, chief exec­ut­ive of Central YMCA which com­mis­sioned the research also sees this as ‘damaging’:

Historically con­ver­sa­tion about your body has been per­ceived as some­thing women do, but it is clear from this research that men are also guilty of com­ment­ing on one another’s bod­ies; and in many cases this is hav­ing a dam­aging effect. Men’s high levels of body talk were symp­to­matic of a grow­ing obses­sion with appear­ance, she added.

Some three in five men (58.6%) said body talk affected them, usu­ally negatively.’

I’m a bit con­flic­ted here. Probably because as an ‘avid fan’ of the worked-out male body I’m part of the prob­lem. On the one hand I wel­come this kind of research and the pub­li­city it’s received because it’s both put­ting the spot­light on both how much men’s beha­viour has changed of late, and also under­min­ing sex­ist assump­tions about ‘men’ and ‘women’, which many fem­in­ists, like lazy stand-ups, buy into. And it’s always good to draw atten­tion to the Patrick Batemanesque dark side of the met­ro­sexual revolu­tion – and its costs.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that apply­ing the prob­lem­at­ising, patho­lo­gising and some­times Puritanical, dare I say ‘Wolfian’ (as in ‘Naomi’), dis­course that’s been used on women’s bod­ies whole­sale to men would be some­thing to wel­come. Men aren’t the new women, but they might be the new moral panic.

This ‘body talk’ amongst men isn’t neces­sar­ily a sign of ‘guilt’ as was sug­ges­ted. It might be a healthy hon­esty. And whilst obvi­ously this kind of cri­tique and com­pet­i­tion might push some into anxi­ety and obses­sion and self-destructive beha­viour, or con­form­ity to rather nar­row ideals of male beauty, the gen­er­al­ised, com­puls­ory, tra­di­tional self-loathing that exis­ted amongst men before ‘body talk’ and (male) body interest became accept­able was in many ways worse. It was also, remem­ber, ‘normal’.

After all, not want­ing to talk about their bod­ies is part of the reason why men his­tor­ic­ally have been very reluct­ant to visit their GP and tend to die much earlier on aver­age than women. Until very recently the male body was simply an instru­ment that was to be used until the main­spring broke. Barely giv­ing men time to rewind their hor­ribly sym­bolic retire­ment clock.

And cer­tainly, men didn’t look at one another’s bod­ies. Unless they were queer.

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Not any­more. Men’s ‘body talk’ has become deaf­en­ing. On the hit ITV real­ity series The Only Way is Essex Arge, who is a little on the husky side, was always gaz­ing long­ingly at Mark (above) and ask­ing how he gets his ‘fit body’ and whether he can help him get one too.

A mar­ried squad­die mate who is an occa­sional gym buddy always sub­jects my body to a close scru­tiny in the chan­ging rooms after our workouts, appre­ci­at­ively com­mend­ing, say, my delt­oid or tri­cep devel­op­ment, and mer­ci­lessly cri­ti­cising, say, my fore­arms’ fail­ure to keep up with them. And my belly’s gen­eral miser­able flab­bi­ness. Part of me dreads the scru­tiny, but another wel­comes the frank ‘body talk’ too. I’m glad he gets all Olivia Newton John on my ass. If he didn’t, I might have to pay someone to do it.

Mind you, his wise obser­va­tion about gym cul­ture to me one day sticks in my mind: “It’s all about ‘ow you look isn’t it, Mark? Nobody really cares whether any of this makes you fit or not. You could be rot­ten under­neath but if you look great no one gives a fook.” He’s right. The met­ro­sexy cult of male beauty is all a bit Dorian Ghey.

Which reminds me, appar­ently a quarter of the respond­ents in this sur­vey were gay (well, it was sponsored by the Central YMCA). Of course, some people will hast­ily seize upon that to dis­qual­ify its find­ings. And while it prob­ably is reason to treat them with at least as much cau­tion as those of any other sur­vey, I’m inclined to see the large sample of gay men included as a sign of this survey’s rel­ev­ance and inclus­ive­ness. After all, it’s gays that are to blame for the cult of male bloody beauty.…

Gays like The Village People. Love it or loathe it, the body-fascist found­a­tions for the met­ro­sexy male cul­ture we’re liv­ing in were laid in the early Eighties. And I’m deli­ri­ously happy the Central YMCA com­mis­sioned this sur­vey as it’s a per­fect excuse for me to post (below) my Favourite Music Video of All Time. I sus­pect it was part of the inspir­a­tion for Olivia’s ‘Physical’ video. (And both were almost cer­tainly inspired by this epic.)

Every frame is a joy, but the Busby Berkeley (or is it Leni Riefensthal?) shot of the swim­mers diving one after the other into the pool as if they were perfectly-formed pop­pies scythed down by the camera’s gaze never fails to send me into par­oxysms of delight. For me, it’s always fun to stay at the YMCA.

Which is just as well. In the 21st Century we’re all checked in there. Permanently.

 

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