So, this week we turn to “male issues.” Often enough, I take classes in which we devote an obligatory week to underrepresented voices on the topic, but in past classes those voices have never been male. In fact, the whole point of focusing on underrepresented voices has been to hear something other than the opinions of old, white heterosexual men. Until this class.
One thing Professor Sungold has noted multiple times this quarter has been the difficulty she experienced in finding writings by men about male bodies. Reflective of that paucity, perhaps, we ease into the only day on the syllabus with all male authors (Thursday) by way of an introduction to male bodies on Tuesday by an almost entirely female cast (save the third author on the second article).
To begin bridging the gap in the literature, some of our authors attempt to make parallels between male and female experiences. Bordo (1999) argues that female insecurity regarding body size is mirrored by male insecurity regarding penis size. Ihde (2002) and Brand (2011) both suggest that male insecurity is rooted in feelings of deficiency regarding height or athleticism. I find Bordo’s argument somewhat less convincing than Ihde and Brand’s– after all, a penis can be hidden, but height and athleticism are on display for all to see, which seems much more analogous to female insecurities about body size.
So, according to these latter authors, if the waife-like model is the average woman’s muse, the muscle-bound jock is the average man’s muse. “Real beauty” campaigns (like Dove’s) have recently been launched to remind women that models can embody a lot of different looks. Similarly, perhaps men could use reminders that athleticism, too, can look very different on a case-by-case basis:
I first stumbled across this photography project last spring. The subjects are all Olympic athletes and the project, taken as a whole, challenges the idea that there is one way to look or be “fit.” You can view the whole series here. What I like about this project is that the photographers hope to shift attention away from bodily aesthetics of to functionality.
Interestingly, Gill, et al. (2005) tell us that of 140 male interviewees, only one would willingly admit that any of their normal bodily practices might have anything to do with aesthetic concerns. Rather, they justify their use of beauty products and attention to appearance in instrumental terms, in terms of function and capacity. As a result, men seem confronted with a difficult set of imperatives: Work out and take care of your body so you are able to look and act like a man, but don’t let anyone SEE how much you care about your appearance.
The social pressures men experience regarding their bodies are decidedly different than the pressures women experience. However, I feel like the measures men often take to hide their concern for these social pressures borders on hilarity at times. As an example, I’ll draw on my own family. Last week in class I spoke of my father’s cancer diagnosis. The chemotherapy resulted in dry skin and sensitivity to cold. As a result, my manly-man wrestling coach father had to use *gasp* lotion and wear *shudder* a scarf! To salvage some of his masculinity– which he felt was constantly under attack in his sick, weak state– he insisted on calling his lotion “goop” and his scarf a “man wrap.”
In many situations, men’s style is so low-maintenance that they can feign disinterest in appearance easily. Typical day: Short haircut, t-shirt and jeans. Need to dress up? Throw on a button-down and khakis. Or a suit. Or a tuxedo. In each of these situations, stylistic creativity is relatively limited. The male appearance is already managed because social conventions so narrowly define what is appropriate. However, when the body fails to cooperate, to fit within these narrow confines, perhaps men have fewer tools to cope. Masculinize what you can masculinize, or act like you don’t care? I have not lived these experiences myself, so I can’t say for sure. Hopefully the cultural shift we are currently experiencing toward a broader definition of gender roles will lead more men to investigate their own embodied experiences. Feminist literature could certainly be enriched by that contribution.