Men, have you been more conscious of the fact that your six pack rolls more like a keg? Don’t fret. It’s not you; it’s the media. We’ve entered the era of man shaming.
Recently, we’ve seen more and more celebrity men held to the same impossible physical standards so enduringly foisted upon women. We’ve heard Howard Stern call Grammy winner Sam Smith “ugly,” “fat,” and “effeminate” (which he bizarrely offered as a compliment). We’ve seen singer D’Angelo labeled a “former R&B sex symbol” who has “done a lot of growing.” We’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio rebranded as “Leolardo DiFlabrio” and described as “barely recognizable” due to his “new-found paunch.” The gossip site TMZ maintains an entire category dedicated to “Livin’ Large,” taking shots at major and minor celebrities for packing on pounds — from Chris Brown to Tom Cruise to Rob Kardashian. Social media follows suit, lambasting changing — and sometimes merely aging — physiques in tweets, memes, and other sharable snipes.
The scrutiny even applies to famous men who have edged closer to our ever-shifting perceptions of physical perfection, with sites spending days examining the veracity of Justin Bieber’s purported bulk. On Tuesday, when Men’s Health releases its April issue sporting a shirtless, flawless, flexing Bieber with a cover line that questions if the 21-year-old pop star can “reinvent himself,” expect a fresh wave of speculation over the extent to which his body has been airbrushed, Photoshopped, and otherwise retouched.
Where did this intensified attention toward the male body come from? It’s easy to conjure some likely culprits: The 24/7 validation cycle of social media has stoked hyper-consciousness of appearance among the famous and non (even the most dashed-off selfies are the product of several takes); and the Internet joins the already noisy shame-scape of gossip magazines, fitness advertisements, movies, and TV shows that regularly sport more six-packs than the parking lot at Gillette Stadium.
But according to Dr. Jennifer Greenberg, a research director at Massachusetts General Hospital who works with patients suffering from severe fixations on appearance, while men and women are both subjected to unattainable ideals and altered images, men may put more emphasis on them.
“From an evolutionary perspective we tend to be attracted to others based on their health and their chances for reproducing,” says Greenberg, “and by and large men place more of an emphasis in that capacity on physical attractiveness. But I think men and women are equally barraged by and prone to internalizing negative appearance ideals.”
Media influence alone does not lead to conditions like body dysmorphic disorder (or the less documented body dysmorphia disorder by proxy, which finds people disproportionately concerned with other people’s appearance), but it does play a role in shaping the ways we see ourselves, as well as others.
“The more that you’re exposed to these unrealistic, unattainable ideals,” says Greenberg, “the more you’re likely to compare yourself or even compare others to those ideals, and the worse you tend to feel about yourself.”
But there’s also been a shift in ideals. The hardbodies that rose to prominence in the ’80s — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester Stallone — cut far different figures from the lean, cut, cross-fit physiques of stars like Jason Statham, Chris Hemsworth, or any of the airbrushed Spartans of “300.”
If anything, the new bromance forged between the fitness and entertainment industries have vaporized the sense of unattainabilty that once enhanced these ideals. Schwarzenegger’s body was exceptional precisely because it was exceptional. Today, you can turn to Men’s Fitness to learn Chris Pratt dropped 60 pounds for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or Men’s Health to learn how Bradley Cooper put 40 pounds on for “American Sniper.” In both cases, these transformations are painted as ultimately do-able, with your excuses providing the only barrier.
Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, has spent years studying the ways masculinity is portrayed and promoted in the media. And while he can’t pinpoint exactly where one standard slumped and another surged, he can point to the same director that gave us “The Terminator” (James Cameron) and credit him for what he sees as a major turning point in the presentation of the heroic male body: Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic.”
“That kind of narrative would never work with Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Lehman. “It wasn’t just a matter of acting, there had to be a different kind of body for the male hero.”
And while DiCaprio’s wasn’t necessarily the body that launched (or sunk) a thousand ships, it did signal a complex change in how men on screen are imagined, fusing the romantic lead with the action hero, in part to maximize appeal for both sexes. Lehman points out that this shift is partly the media’s doing, but is also tied up in men’s own notions of sexuality, health, and aging, as well as the influence of a marketplace that purports to fix all three.
“We believe if we exercise all day long, and we have sense about everything we put on our plate, and we get all these different cosmetic treatments that we can have, we think we will be forever young, to quote Bob Dylan,” he says. “There’s a sense that we are engaged in some sort of denial of the aging process, but what we’re really denying is death.”
So if pressures embedded in the media augment the pressures men put on themselves, does shaming the beer guts of celebrity men achieve any useful end?
Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at New York University, whose recent book “Is Shame Necessary?” explores the historical function of shame, sees the Internet as especially treacherous territory for shaming, as it strips away many of the mechanisms that make shame useful.
“It’s the largest public square,” she says. “Information moves faster than ever, it’s more permanent than ever, and the exposure can be done anonymously. That element of it feels very dangerous. There should be some cost to the punisher as well, and when the costs of punishing are so, so low, as they are online, things get really ugly really quickly.”
It’s tempting to see this change in attitude toward men as sickly refreshing, a turning of the tables on a demographic that has long enjoyed the privilege of aging gracefully — where wrinkles equal experience and fat signals a life well-lived. This too, warns Jacquet, is more dangerous than it seems.
“Intuitively, this might feel like a win for women,” she says, “but then you realize it really isn’t at all. It’s actually just making us all worse off.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly spelt Lehman on second reference.