Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: Is Masculinity Impossible?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

The cultural ideal of masculinity isn’t just narrow and rigid — it’s literally unattainable. What can men do about it?

If you’re familiar with feminism — whether you’re for it or against it — you’ve almost certainly heard feminist rants about cultural ideals of femininity. You’ve heard how standards of femininity are so narrow and rigid that they’re literally unattainable. You’ve heard how, to avoid being seen as unfeminine, women are expected to navigate an increasingly narrow window between slut and prude, between capable and docile, between moral enforcer and empathetic helpmeet. You’ve heard how female fashion models have been getting increasingly thin over the years, to the point where disordered eating is becoming an industry norm… and how even the minuscule percentage of women who can become fashion models, with or without eating disorders, routinely get their pictures Photoshopped to make them fit the beauty myth. You may have even ranted some of those rants yourself.

Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.

I’ve been thinking more and more these days about how rigid and narrow the gender expectations are for men. I’ve even written about it before, in this very space. But a recent article about male fitness models has made me vividly conscious of how the expectations of masculinity aren’t just rigid or narrow. They are impossible. They are, quite literally, unattainable.

And while this unattainability can tie men into knots, I think that — in a weird paradox — it can also offer a glimmer of hope.

The article in question is about the hellish, dangerous, illness-inducing routines that male fitness models regularly go through to forge their bodies into an attractive photograph of the masculine ideal. According to journalist Peta Bee in the Express UK (the article was originally published in the Sunday Times [London], but they put it behind a paywall), in order to make their bodies more photogenic and more in keeping with the masculine “fitness” ideal, top male fitness models routinely put themselves through an extreme regimen in the days and weeks before a photo shoot. Not a regimen of intense exercise and rigorously healthy diet, mind you… but a regimen that involves starvation, dehydration, excessive consumption of alcohol and sugar right before a shoot, and more. This routine is entirely unrelated to any concept of “fitness.” In fact, it leaves the models in a state of serious hypoglycemia: dizzy, exhausted, disoriented, and (ironically) unable to exercise, and indeed barely able to walk. But the routine makes their muscles look big, and tightens their skin to make their muscles “pop” on camera. And even then, the magazines use lighting tricks, posture tricks, flat-out deceptions, even Photoshop, to exaggerate this illusion of masculinity even further.

On any sort of realistic irony meter, the concept of starved, dehydrated, dazed, weakened men being offered as models of fitness completely buries the needle. But this isn’t about reality. The image being sold is clearly not one of “fitness” — i.e. athletic ability and physical health. The image being sold is an exaggerated, idealized, impossible extreme of hyper- masculinity.

And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.

But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.

We’re not just talking about the world of fitness modeling, either. From weight loss products to underwear ads to cosmetic surgery to supposedly helpful books of advice on how to make yourself tolerably appealing to the opposite sex, men are being increasingly bombarded with messages about what Real Men are supposed to look like. It’s not surprising that, among men, reported rates of anorexia nervosa, anorexia athletica, and other forms of disordered eating and body dysmorphia are on the rise.

And we’re not just talking about physical ideals of masculinity. We’re talking about cultural ideals. Sexual ideals. Economic ideals. Emotional ideals.

Sexuality educator Dr. Charlie Glickman has written a great deal (and teaches workshops) about male gender expectations, and what he calls “the performance of masculinity.” And a twopart series he recently wrote crystallized this idea for me. He was talking about the “box” of masculinity — the ideas we have in American culture about what a “real man” is and does. You know: strong, competitive, dominant, wealthy, good at fixing machinery, lots of sexual partners, enjoys sports, big dick that gets hard on demand. You know the drill.

And he pointed out that many of these ideas aren’t just rigid or limiting. They actually conflict with each other. As Glickman put it, “Some of the items in the box are contradictory. You can’t be a mechanic and a CEO. I’ve talked with men who are convinced they’re not Real Men because they aren’t rich and I’ve talked with men who are convinced they aren’t Real Men because they don’t work with their hands.”

In other words: The Act Like a Man Box isn’t just a painful, difficult, miserably limiting place to live. It is, quite literally, an impossible place to live. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t like having your goal be to live in a big mansion in Beverly Hills with dozens of supermodels hanging around the pool. It’s like having your goal be to live on the surface of the sun. It literally can’t be done.

But here’s the good news.

“Impossible” is, in many ways, a better cultural ideal to have than “really, really difficult.”

Because it’s a whole lot easier to ignore.

Now here is where, I freely admit, I am stepping away from more solid facts, and into the realm of harebrained speculation based on my own personal experience. That being said, I still think I’m onto something.

The day I realized that the cultural ideal of femininity was, quite literally, unattainable? The day I realized that women are supposed to be sexy and chaste, undemanding and seeking commitment, meek delicate flowers and strong backbones of the family? The day I realized that if you’re tall you’re supposed to look shorter, and if you’re short you’re supposed to look taller, and if you’re fat you’re supposed to look thinner, and if you’re thin you’re supposed to look more voluptuous, and that whatever body type you had you were supposed to make it look different? The day I realized that every woman is insecure about her looks… including the ones we’re supposed to idolize? The day I realized that, no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I would always, always, always be a failure as a woman?

That was the day I quit worrying about it.

If the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can be strong enough, pretty enough, rich enough, whatever enough… you’ll be a lot more tempted to keep running that treadmill, keep chasing the carrot that’s dangling in front of you. But if the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds? The whole thing just becomes laughable. And it becomes a whole lot easier to step off the treadmill. Obviously the cultural expectations still affect you — I’m not claiming to be free of them, I don’t think anyone is — but it’s a lot easier to see them for what they are, and shrug them off, and get on with your life.

So guys? Listen up.

The world is telling you to turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds.

The world is giving you an impossible task. It’s not just a stupid task; it’s not just a pointless task; it’s not just a needlessly confining task; it’s not just a task that will make you miserable. It is, quite literally, unattainable. You will never, ever be man enough.

So stop giving a damn. And be whoever you are.

Be a whisky-drinking electronic music nerd who mixes a perfect Manhattan. Be a dialog editor who bakes banana bread and does stand-up comedy. Be a tattooed poet and kettlebell competitor. Be a retired soldier who does English folk dancing. Be a software engineer with waist-length hair and a thing for Michelin-star restaurants. Be a French-speaking rare book collector who calls into sports radio talk shows. Be a porn writer and atheist activist with eighteen cats. Be a muscle-bound gym rat who sings opera and cries in public.

Be who you are. That’s actually an attainable goal. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: Is Masculinity Impossible?
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28 thoughts on “Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, and with Endless Hard-Ons: Is Masculinity Impossible?

  1. 1

    There was a MTV True Life episode where a male fitness model used steroids to bulk up before a shoot. I’d wager the practice isn’t uncommon.

  2. 2

    Wow. I honestly didn’t know some of this, and I’m fighting by means of diet and exercise to approach more of these fake-ideals. I’m hitting a wall where eating only small amounts of healthy food and being kinda weak and fuzzy is STILL not taking me there. It didn’t occur to me that the people I see are likewise weak, fuzzy, and incapable- including, incapable of doing the work I need to do to pay my mortgage.
    Thank you.

  3. 5

    Thank you for writing this. It’s really nice to know that there’s someone else out there who sees that rigid and damaging gender roles aren’t just a reality for women.

  4. 8

    How come when I binge on alcohol and sugar my muscles don’t pop?
    Seriously though, this is another great essay, I’ll be using this when I discuss body issues, preceded by a discussion of the Fitness Magazine covers.

  5. 9

    Another excellent article.
    I think this is just another example of the media getting really good at giving us what we instinctually want. We evolved to desire that which is “perfect”, whether it’s food or a mate, because those traits are beneficial for the continued survival of the species.
    Unfortunately, we have arrived at a point where we can “create” perfect, whether it’s through artificially adding ingredients to food that we crave (i.e. salt, sugar, etc), or creating images via models putting themselves through hell and Photoshop. I would claim that this is a symptom of a greater problem…overindulgence due to us not having had sufficient time to evolve to our current lifestyles.

  6. 11

    Great article. I’m of the XY persuasion, and in a women’s history class something finally clicked in my head- women aren’t and never have been Barbie dolls. And, by extension, I am not and never have been a fucking Ken or GI Joe doll.

  7. 12

    Thanks, great article.
    I hadn’t been thinking about it, and I wouldn’t have known it, but I really needed to read this today.

  8. 14

    I just wanted to say, for the record, that I do most of the cooking and my wife does most of the driving in our marriage, and we’re both perfectly happy with that arrangement. 🙂

  9. 15

    I like the article quite a lot! The one on Undateable (could you try to interview the authors of that book about it?) and Liz Farsaci’s too.

  10. 16

    Just to add another layer of significance for gender stereotypes… once you get beyond typical child rearing age and your body starts winding down (women and men) you are still ‘expected’ to display the attributes of sexuality. This can result in pathetic behaviours, trying to imitate the ‘younger set’.
    Which is why many older women and men just fade into the grey background…

  11. 21

    My hairy husband never used to worry about his body hair until suddenly it was deemed ugly. Now he trims back and chest but I fell in love with a hairy man and I don’t like helping him. At least he has resisted the waxing!
    Thanks for further insight into media insanity.

  12. 22

    Thank you, Greta! I’d never heard about what the “fitness models” put themselves through — eye-opening stuff. I personally bailed on trying to meet the modern male ideal when body hair became passe. Your commenter Discovered Joys is on to something important — through age into the mix and trying to meet the stereotypes gets that much worse

  13. 24

    Good article. Sadly it actually does not speak to my experience in particular except on a very coarse level and in a somewhat tangential way.
    I never liked notions of masculinity or bought into the “real man” concept.
    But by doing that the realization is that in fact a man who does not follow certain patterns or take up certain roles will run into a range of issues that I myself cannot actually solve. It’s the externals, what other people, man and women do and think and expect, that is the issue.
    What I miss in the article is female expectations. And some of it is quite trivial. In the US the man is still expected to approach, ask out, lead the date, progress things. The early dating patterns are highly sexist and worse, maintained that way mainly by women, i.e. to change them it would require women to do what men currently do.
    So while it is wonderfully non-sexist and a rejection of masculinity to not hit on others according to gendered roles, the consequence of being consistent with this is isolating to those guys who I think actually do the right thing, and it will require a broader cultural change of both man and women to fix that.

  14. 25

    As the mother of two grown sons, I was often aware of the unrealistic expectations you wrote about in this piece. I think they’ve grown into pretty well-adjusted men, but it sometimes saddened me when I couldn’t shield them completely from stupid pressures to attain the unattainable. It’s tough raising kids, both boys and girls, in a culture that heaps so many stupid ideals onto them. Thanks for articulating the “other” side of gender issues. Female issues are real and they’re tough, but so are the issues men face.

  15. 26

    I suppose I’m fortunate that growing up I heard both women and men speaking out against the fictionalized ideal woman. Later in life it wasn’t so difficult, usually, to extend that rejection to the standards of masculinity.
    Thanks feminism.

  16. 27

    Thanks, Christina.
    I think I will simply be a 50 year old, 30 years married, former badass special forces veteran who just openly and uncontrollably cried while reading this wonderful, humanizing, humane and humanistic post.

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