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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.

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.

‘Geordie Shore’s Jay

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.

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.

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.

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 (1:07) 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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15 thoughts on “Let Me Hear Your Body Talk”

  1. Dean Jones! I remember him from ‘The Love Bug’. Don’t think I ever had a crush on him myself, but I fell head over heels for Herbie.

  2. Oh, HH, I think many of them would have made the cover of MH. After a week or two of Clenbuterol and 24 hours of not drinking any fluids. And with the usual shaded-in abs and Photoshop.

    Clint Walker! I had to look him up. What a fine figure of a man! A childhood crush of yours, perchance?

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

    Those are probably the over weight out of shape cadre, whose Dr. sent the to work out or be sticking themselves with diabetic insulin needles or else have heart attacks at an early age.
    Rest assured, the propaganda at the W encourages the aesthetics of being in attractive shape. Those guys look at themselves in the Mirrors(all over the place,) unavoidably. The Gyms that make the most money are the ones which cater to the crowd who want to get attention in their tighty-tight duds. Very little space IS dedicated to exercise which is competative.
    They make their money from all of the classes which are a combination dance floor- cardio hoot and holler situation.
    They also encourage individual classes with hot instructors.
    I get of on just sharing work out info with the dedicated guys who just come every day to look their best Mostly straight. Some of the really attractive gay guys just sneak peaks out the side of their heads: cute.
    I think that the straight guys really have a narcissism that keeps them coming back regularly. & they do like chatting about working out& their bodies. I think that the managers are just trying to be as “health”(homophobically) oriented as possible, even though a most of the staff really knows!

  4. Jonathan: Thanks for the link. It did make me laugh. He’s articulating quite well the incoherence and paradox of cultural ideas about male homosexuality.

    Though of course saying that just makes it unfunny.

  5. Mark-in a similar vein, don’t you remember the song ‘Doesn’t Anyone Want a Little Love?’ from ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. It was sung by Jane Russell while the US Men’s Olympic Team ‘worked out’ in the background? I like it easily as much as ‘YMCA’. Check it out.

  6. This is all to funny for comment at the moment: it does bring to mind the classes they have at the Y with the hords of queens spinning around waving their arms in the air and screaming joyfully. I find it to humerous to not either laugh or feel some sort of disgust.
    Good article.

  7. Don’t get me started on Holland and Barrett.

    They’ve even got me now. I have to go to buy arthritis pills for my aged dog.

    I’m sure this is how Tesco began.

  8. Ally: I don’t think I’ve ever got ‘Physical’ out of my head since 1981. Which would explain a lot.

    Thanks for pointing out (kindly) the flaws in the survey, which admittedly does seem to be even less reliable than most of these type. But at least it gave the ladies and gents of the press – and me – a chance to rabbit on.

    I think Holland & Barrett are the ones who REALLY know what’s going on. When I was a nipper the bodybuilding section used to be a tiny, slightly embarrassed corner of the shop – if you were lucky. Now it’s half the bloody store. Most of their ads seem to feature a man with biceps getting unaccountably excited over whey protein.

  9. Hey Mark

    Thought you’d be interested in this! I don’t doubt that there’s a trend towards greater (and occasionally severe) body consciousness among men – and I agree with a lot of your observations here, but please don’t read anything meaningful into this so-called research.

    The respondents were more than four times more likely to be members of a gym than the general population, and more than six times as likely to define as gay. The full report doesn’t seem to have been published yet, but according to the press release, the subjects completed an online quaire. I presume they were self-selected, and I’d hazard a guess they’d followed links from ‘Men’s Health’ type websites. Highly unlikely that they are typical of men as a whole.

    This work was commissioned by a couple of charities seeking to make a point and get some cheap publicity. Classic churnalism. It worked, but that doesn’t make their findings worth anything.

    Thanks for putting that Olivia Newton John song in my head though. That’s going to be earworming for bloody days.

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