The Construction of Masculinity

May 08, 2014

Annually there are two distinct peaks at which our motivation to change our external selves is heightened; the first commencing at the beginning of each new year and the second in the run up to summer. As it May now, it is not surprising to see the amount of body image articles escalating as the weather warms up. Whilst the conversation of female self image is somewhat exhausted*, we have barely scratched the surface regarding self representation and male culture.

Masculinity refers to the characteristics traditionally associated with men. These include strength, toughness and power. However, why are such qualities still culturally and socially reinforced? Whilst we have evolved over time, both physically and intellectually, the stigma attached to the male gender role differs very little to that expressed in the Viking Age. Men's body types (like women's) have changed over time. Man is nowhere near as muscular as he was during the viking era, and yet overtly muscular physiques are all that are exhibited by the media when targeting male audiences. An endless array of advertisements for aftershave highlight this best, one of the most famous being Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue advert. These adverts are not alone in profiting from their audiences attempts to aspire for the unobtainable. Abercrombie and Fitch's campaigns are renowned for their male models and cult 'V shaped' body, so much so that they have a male model stand at the door of their London flagship store in order to lure customers in. Whilst most of us would consider this a ploy to attract female customers, it is equally as productive for gaining male customers who aspire (either consciously or subconsciously) to meet this unrealistic concept of 'masculinity'. In fewer words, sex sells.

Whilst some advertisers, such as the retail sector are restrained and have to take a more conservative approach regarding erotic imagery, the pornography industry and culture surrounding it have free rein & blur the image of the average man. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that mens anxiety regarding body dissatisfaction is on the rise (80.7% of men have talked about their own or another man's appearance, drawing attention to weight). What is more is the stigma attached to the old age taboo subject of 'average penis size' is heightened by modern society, particularly within adult movies. Most actors average 10 inches, nowhere near the national average, it is therefore no wonder these influences can affect mens perceptions of themselves & can even become emotionally destructive. This 'bigger is better' mentality puts more pressure on men than any woman, like myself, can imagine. Men's insecurities, just like women's are seized by health and cosmetic industries for economic gain. With the media as our drug baron, the nutrition industry, male grooming industry and drug industry all profit from mans pressure of needing to conform.

There is very little evidence concerning male body image reports as less money is put into such research, however what is for certain is that male eating disorders are on the rise. When we refer to eating disorders the first things that usually springs to mind are Anorexia and Bulimia. Although these illnesses still affect men, the most common of such eating disorders is the lesser known Body Dismorphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is the idea that man see's his exterior differently to how others view him. For example men may find themselves lifting weights twice a day and to everyone else appear overtly muscular, however to himself he appears thin and weak. It is true the majority of men will not have to go through the struggles faced with BDD, however, it is likely most men have experiences it's symptoms to a lesser degree. A compulsive desire to exercise, putting it before activities such as visiting family or going out with friends can be a starting point for obsessing over body image. Likewise, spending hours on end focussing on healthy eating and opting for foods that only serve the purpose of bulking up muscle also triggers alarm bells with regards to self-imagery. Whilst exercise and healthy living is great and should always be encouraged, when man crosses the line between enjoying working out and eating well and it becomes an obsessive impulse, problems arise with confidence, perception, the desire for the unobtainable and potentially dangerous eating disorders.

Whilst I am not trying to emasculate man, I believe the concept of masculinity only appeals to a false gender binary, one that should be questioned with severity. Whilst the media focusses on toughness and  defining men as brutish and strong, we as a society have to turn away from our stereotypical view of man before big industries do the same. It is a subject that is rarely talked about as men are taught from a young age to consider 'femininity' weak and 'masculine' as the dream. This concept has to change before anything else can. Instead of concentrating on masculinity as our first point of call for defining man, we should opt for admiring less physical attributes like manners, social skills, education and humility. Qualities that define man in more ways than just how he appears externally. Only then can we ditch the anachronistic concept of 'masculinity' and opt for an idea that is applicable to modern society and modern man.


*Based on my experience it is a discussion I have had endless times. This does not in any way mean I believe the female body image discussion to be a losing battle or one we have come to a conclusion on, but just one that has had extensive amounts of publicity and attention. 

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