Home > Critic-At-Large > Carve Abs While You Sleep!
Carve Abs While You Sleep!
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's probably not the stride in equality that most feminists were hoping for, but it appears that men are starting to get as screwed up about their bodies as women are. A number of behavioral studies in the past decade have pointed to a surprising social trend — the "straight guy's" unhealthy obsession with person attractiveness and attainment of the "perfect body." (I distinguish between straight guys and gay guys in this instance because gay men have had tricky body image issues for years. More on that later.)
Plastic surgery among young men has virtually doubled in the last five years, and plastic surgeries for men in total now account for 15% of all liposuctions, 24% of all nose jobs, 14% of all Botox injections. Breast reduction surgeries for men — and yes, you read that correctly — have increased nearly 90% since 1997, and are the fifth most popular cosmetic surgery for American males. Pectoral and calf implants, eyelid surgery, and hair transplantations have become popular procedures for "KenMen" in the new era, and the male grooming industry now tops 3.5 billion dollars in sales.
Not surprisingly, there's also been an attendant increase in eating disorders for men in the 2000s, though much of the data remains incomplete — anorexia and bulimia are so widely perceived as "girls' diseases" that it's theorized many man are too embarrassed to seek help. Therapists have estimated that the 800,000 number usually bandied about for men with eating disorders could actually be 4 or 5 times that amount. Dr. Stephen Edward, of the University of Wales, Swansea believes that young men in 2010 feel more pressure to look good than they did just five years ago, and this pressure has caused a surge in destructive eating habits and unhealthy workout addictions. After years of being the one demographic that didn't seem to give a damn about body image, straight guys are now busting themselves to get physiques as sculpted as David Beckham's or Matthew McConaughey's.
For years, insane body preoccupations were the domain of heterosexual women and gay men. In surveys concerning body image and physical attractiveness, straight women and gay men always posted the lowest scores and had the most negative perceptions about their own bodies. Straight men and lesbian women usually had far healthier attitudes toward the way they looked. Without getting into a thorny discussion about sexual politics, I think the results make sense — lesbian women (very generally speaking) have more progressive interpretations about what "femininity" means and aren't afraid to challenge traditional perceptions of what a girl "should" look like. And as for straight guys, their positive body images were probably due to the fact that women were, generally, less discriminating. In "mate-preference" studies, both gay and straight men consider "physical attractiveness" to be far more important in a partner than heterosexual women and lesbians do. (And if you want to argue that this makes men profoundly more shallow than women, I won't stop you.) Straight guys didn't have to kill themselves to look good because their potential mates were more accepting of less-than-perfect body types.
Now, though, things seemed to have changed, and I can't begin to understand why. But it's obvious that men are allowing themselves to be held to the same ridiculous notions of physical desirability that women and gay men have experienced for decades. While it's too easy to blame the predominance of buff pop-culture icons (Beckham, McConaughey, those douche bags on Jersey Shore), it's apparent that the impossibly chiseled flat stomach has emerged as the new gold standard of attractiveness for both men and women.
Previously, women were perceived as being desirable if they had the prototypical, Marilyn Monroe "hourglass" figure — curvaceous in the bust and hips, with little emphasis placed on a flat stomach. Men, also, were held to a different standard that didn't include 5% body fat — having strongly developed shoulders, chest, and arms was the preferred body type. The emphasis today, though, is firmly located squarely in the area between the rib cage and the waist, which wouldn't be so bad if flat stomachs weren't so damned hard to achieve. Healthy people need to have a little body fat on their bones, and a slightly rounded stomach doesn't necessarily represent unfitness of "letting yourself go." Sometimes it merely shows what a normal, healthy person should look like.
But try telling that to someone in 2011. At the beginning of the new year, it's always dispiriting to me to see the packed parking lots at local gyms and health clubs, as men and women once again start killing themselves to get that perfect, socially acceptable, toned body. I think about the deprivations, the new diets, the pep talks, the firm resolve. I wince when I think about that third week in January, the time when most people start slacking off, when the self-loathing kicks in as the commitment begins to dwindle. Body image issues are nothing to laugh at — most studies show that even healthy middle-school girls have already developed strongly negative attitudes toward the way they look. Not having a perfect body builds shame and a profound sense of personal inferiority. And the killer is, the "perfect body" is always unattainable. More than one sociologist has already noticed this, but if the "Barbie" doll was life-size, she would be 6'0 and weigh 100 lbs, and her proportions would be 39-21-33. How's that for a young girl's role model?
And yet, in spite of the new emphasis on trim physiques and the workout culture, Americans are now more obese than ever before. It is a contradiction that I can't wrap my head around. I wonder if the gulf between the obsessively fit and the obese is similar to the disparity between the rich and the poor in this country — i.e., the fit get fitter, the fat get fatter, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Whatever the reason, it's obvious that there is an ocean of difference between the way people look and the way they're expected to look, and that can't be healthy. Not to get all positive-thinking on you, but it might be worth remembering, in these initial weeks of the resolve-laden new year, that there are many roads that lead to happiness, and most of them don't require side trips to the land of Boflex and stomach crunches.