Fitness and the American Man

1023366_ruslan_lenskyI recently read an article entitled “Why the fat guy should lose his privilege,” by David Sirota.  The article begins with the announcement that Weight Watchers is launching its first male-focused ad campaign.  Mr. Sirota lauds this choice, citing statistics about the alarming rate of American male obesity, and then lambasts marketing companies, TV, radio, movies, politics—pretty much all of pop culture—for the discrepancies in the way we treat male and female bodies.

My reaction to the piece was joy—not just because someone saw the same discrepancies I do, but because a man saw them, and cared enough to write about them.  While of course I think it matters that women rage against the machine of digitized, enhanced, unrealistic body images, I think it also matters if men rage against it—in some ways, it especially matters if men rage against it.  If men say they see something wrong and unjust in the way we culturally handle the female body (even though they—the heterosexual among them, anyway—enjoy seeing the female body), they might capture the attention of an otherwise uninterested audience.  They will, at the very least, be perceived differently and listened to in a different way than a woman would, since their bodies are not directly involved.

I chose to share this article with the class I am currently teaching, an advanced writing seminar with a focus on public writing.  I chose the piece for three reasons—I was familiar with it, I happened to have it on hand, and it is well-written.  I didn’t think about the reactions my students would have to the piece, and I was intrigued by what some of them had to say.

Some of my male students—particularly those with a background in health and fitness—were quick to point out the ways in which our culture puts the ideal male body on display (one student used the phrase “stone-cut men like Brad Pitt”—an excellent phrase, and one I shall try to work into casual conversation), and the impossible standard this sets for average men.  These students also objected to some of Mr. Sirota’s language—he describes overweight football players as “whales.”  Mr. Sirota, while he might bring joy to women who want to hear men protesting an unrealistic female body image, ignores the cultural pressure that currently exists for men, particularly young men, to meet an equally unrealistic body image.

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While images of the perfect male body are not as prevalent as those of the perfect female body (and not as blatantly and consistently presented as food for female desire), they are proliferating.  During a recent visit to a doctor’s office, I picked up a copy of the magazine Men’s Health and was surprised to see how much it focuses on the superficial aspects of fitness while preying on male insecurities—much like similar magazines do for a female audience.  For example, the magazine included an article about how to tell if your woman is cheating on you and was full of men who were so “pumped up” that they reminded me of Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Live fame.  Most of the men in this magazine were no more focused on fitness than your average teen pop star is—they, like a pop star, were all about image.

My students are right—there is plenty of focus on the perfect male body in this culture.  In fact, I’ve seen some Facebook polls that compare male bodies in much the same way that female bodies have been compared for many years, asking the general audience to judge one of two gorgeous male bodies superior to the other.

But this rising trend doesn’t mean that Mr. Sirota is wrong. He claims that “The real explanation for the gender disparity is found in a chauvinist culture whose double standards demand physical perfection from women while simultaneously celebrating male corpulence,” and then proceeds to give examples from the entertainment industry (John Goodman, James Gandolfini) and politics (Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich).  I believe that Mr. Sirota is right—this double standard exists in our culture.  However, I also believe that increasingly the double standard applies to men, and in a different way than it applies to women.

If the dilemma for women and fitness is that we are encouraged to satisfy male appetites while denying our own to do so (see my post Fitness and the American Woman), the dilemma for men is that they are encouraged to indulge all of their appetites at once, to the point of gluttony, while also striving to be the kind of uber-masculine man that Men’s Health advocates.

Just exactly where, in all of this, is the idea of true fitness—physical, mental, and emotional health and strength?

Another article I’ve taught in class, a book review by Jonathan Rauch entitled “Buff Enough?”, asserts that the modern focus on male beauty isn’t all bad.  Mr. Rauch uses his own transformation from awkward adolescent to fit, confident man—motivated by the images of other fit, confident men—as an example.  Fair enough—I know what Mr. Rauch is talking about, as I’ve had my own ups and downs with fitness, and of course it’s awesome to look your best.  If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be so dang obsessed with it.  However, I think Mr. Rauch—who asserts that we are “…only just learning to cope with the intoxicant of male beauty…” and that “with time, and with the help of books like The Adonis Complex, more and more men will learn to be buff without being crazy” is overly confident in culture’s ability to self-correct.

Because we aren’t just dealing with a culture that is boy-crazy as well as girl-crazy.

We are dealing with a culture that encourages women to be playthings who deny their own appetites while simultaneously encouraging men to be steroid-enhanced supersoldiers of ultrafitness who can and should indulge their every appetite, sexual and gastronomical.   We are dealing with a culture that flings contradictions at us under the guise of fitness for the purpose of profit.

So yes, Mr. Sirota is right—we won’t see real change until the fat guy loses his privilege.  But I would argue that we need more than that.  We won’t see real change until we all recognize that the fat guy, the fat lady, the supermodel, and the supersoldier are just caricatures.  Underneath, there are real people—people who need to worry about diabetes and stroke, bulimia and anorexia.  People who need to think about fitness.

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