Tuesday, May 31, 2011

muscle men

i wanted to share a recent article that appeared in the LA Times. it's a multimedia piece regarding the prevalence of muscular men as heroes in current cinema. the article observes that this is a resurgence of the male ideals that were common in 1980s action movies, and makes a number of observations as to why this is happening. it involves a selection of movie excerpts and pictures, making a presentation of the article text incomplete, and so i'll direct anyone interested to check out the multimedia at the following link:
what caught my attention were a couple of specific points made in the article:
  1. ideals of masculinity are cyclical, with cinematic images of male ideals varying according to perceptions of power--in times when men feel they are losing financial or societal power, the ideals of manliness shift to increased muscularity, strength, and physical size. this suggests that the current wealth of massive male heroes in summer movies reflects a level of insecurity in men (or possibly the larger populace) regarding their power in society.
  2. the current ideal of size and muscularity contrasts with reality, with the average American male being dramatically different from the heroes presented on screen. i've included a picture from the article above, which shows that the average American male is 5 feet 9 inches tall, with an average weight of approximately 195 pounds and average waist size of approximately 40 inches.
these points are not controversial; they've been made frequently enough that i think most everyone agrees with them, or at the very least have heard of them. their appearance, however, in a news media piece focusing on masculine ideals in something as so high-profile as the summer movie slate gives them a spotlight in the public consciousness inciting greater attention to the issue of physical ideals for men--something which is not typically associated as an issue for men.

my responses to these points are as follows:

first, it's interesting to see that there is an academically recognized pressure for men to meet a male ideal in popular culture for size and muscularity. this runs contrary to the common stereotypes of men as being oblivious to concerns for their own body image. the article suggests that the current summer movie slate reflects an increase in pressure for men regarding their self-image, and quotes academics asserting that men increasingly want to improve their bodies by trying to emulate the massive male physiques they see on-screen.

second, it's interesting to compare this increase in pressure regarding male body image from cinema to the pressure i see in sports. the male ideal for athletes tends to vary depending on the sport. some sports, like rugby, American football, wrestling, or powerlifting, place a premium on maximizing mass, and so correspond to the observations the article is making. much like the actors discussed in the article, i know a lot of athletes in these kinds of sports who obsess about gaining weight and increasing their muscularity.

other sports, however, especially endurance sports, emphasize less size. in fact, endurance sports actually finds mass a detriment, with the preference being instead for less mass and more attention to other characteristics like aerobic and anaerobic efficiency or power-to-weight ratio. for these kinds of sports, the pressure is for athletes to be lean, light, even skinny. i know a lot of athletes in endurance sports, even among the men, who obsess about losing weight and lowering body fat.

third, it's really interesting to consider all of this in relation to the profile of the average American male given by the article. when i first saw this, my initial reaction was disbelief (with the instinctive response being a question: "what American population are they looking at?"). but then i considered the obesity epidemic in the U.S., and the profile became much more believable.

i think my initial disbelief was a function of the bodies i see in my regular life, and it reminded me of perhaps how skewed my immediate surroundings are relative to larger American society, and serves as a signal of just how much our perceptions of body image can be warped by what we see on a daily basis. given my involvement in endurance sports, i am constantly surrounded by people with body types that run towards lean, to an extent that the male bodies i regularly see conform to an average profile radically different from the one given by the article (consider this: i am 5 feet 10 inches tall and am currently 160 pounds with 7-8% body fat, and yet in my circle of athletes this is actually considered a little heavy...i am, in fact, considered in my current state to be somewhat tubby).

it doesn't help that i live in Southern California. if you want to feel pressure regarding the state of your body relative to a physical ideal, you will find an abundance of it here--and this goes for both women and men. the competition level in physical perfection on the beaches of Los Angeles and Orange counties rivals that of the beaches in Miami, the French Riviera, Saint Tropez, Rio de Janeiro, or any other hotspot of carnal obsession. what may be considered an average for American males is seen as horrifically whale-class on the shores of Malibu, Santa Monica, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and any other location on the coast.

the main reason i am bringing all of this up is to raise the issue of body image, and to observe how subjective it can be. despite all the statistics and data of medical and sports science, the definition of an "ideal" body ultimately is a function of perception. and "ideal" does not necessarily always mean healthy, but instead can sometimes go to extremes (e.g., from super-muscular massive to compulsively anorexic).

which makes identification of an "ideal" body difficult, even as it may be valuable: we certainly recognize that the current state of the average American is NOT healthy and NOT ideal, but then what is? can we really say that Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson's body in Fast Five is ideal? can we say that the body of an professional marathon runner is ideal? is the criteria size? symmetry? body fat? strength? speed? endurance? who decides?

this matters, because based on what i see at the beach and in training, and based on what this article is saying, men are increasingly driving--figuratively, killing--themselves to meet these "ideals." it's not just women anymore. it's everyone.

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