At a party recently, one friend posed this question to the group: ‘If you could wake up tomorrow and have one of the following, which would it be? Be able to speak another language; be able to play a musical instrument very well; have a masters degree; have £20,000; or change one physical feature about yourself’. While we all pondered the potential new talents we could have or how useful that lump sum of money would be to us recent graduates, I was astounded to hear none of my friends rank changing a physical feature highly. Obviously the reason for this is that my friends and I are all exceedingly good looking. But seriously, either my friends were not being entirely truthful, or they are the lucky few not to be affected by the media bombardment about how we should all look.
I’ve never had to watch what I eat, in fact I eat more than most, and I’m lucky enough to be slim still (at the age of 23). Yet while most people would probably look at my body and say I have nothing to worry about in the ‘body image’ department, I’m still very conscious of what I look like. I won’t pretend that it keeps me up at night, or that it means I’m in the gym every day, but I’m definitely very aware of how I compare to others.
The ‘trend-setters’ and image conscious media of the modern day have definitely succeeded with many men on the muscle front. Clearly I’m not the only one to have noticed that there is an increasingly overwhelming suggestion from the media that you are not attractive unless you’re made of solid, bulging muscle. Some would even go as far as to say that the pressure on men is even greater than on women. Now, I’m sure most of you will agree that this issue is even more prominent amongst the gay community. How many of us actually go to the gym because it’s healthy? How many of us are doing it just for fitness? Or are most of us trying to build muscle or lose weight purely for aesthetic reasons?
There are some more prominent explanations for this if we are to accept the homosexual male stereotype: we’re typically more concerned with our appearance; we’re more fashion conscious and, therefore, more susceptible to media promotion; we’re vainer.
Or is it, in fact, a rebuttal against this very stereotype? In an attempt to rid ourselves of the feminine label stuck upon us by society, it seems many gay men try to assimilate themselves with the more masculine man*. Whether for professional, social or personal reasons, it is still a social norm that the more masculine we are, the more likely we are to be respected – (but I shall refrain from taking a feminist, ’gendered society’ tangent and try and stick to the point). Also, it can be frustrating how others assume that all gay men are “camp”, or are attracted to “camp” men, and thus many feel the need to affirm their ability and desire to be “straight acting” (an issue I will come on to in a later post).
The amusing irony of all this, is that by succumbing to these fashionable images of sex and masculinity, we’re fulfilling the stereotype of the vain gay man, just in a different way. After all, most of us enjoy being looked at sometimes, or knowing that others admire our bodies. Which makes you then wonder if the muscled man is actually more attractive or not – and if he is, what is it that makes him so? Leading on from my earlier point, you could certainly argue that as gay men we are attracted to MEN – manly men, men with muscles – therefore, the more masculine a man is, the more attractive he is. However, any of you that frequent a gym will have noticed how long these muscle-pumped males spend looking in the mirror, adjusting their appearance, puffing (no pun intended) up their chests – if this is the raw, masculine image that we’re all aspiring to then the word masculine needs a new, vainer, more self-conscious definition.
Furthermore, if this is the case, it would stand that most heterosexual females find really muscular men the most attractive. Referring back to the party, not one of the female friends present found a muscular man particularly attractive. Clearly it’s no secret anymore that ‘sex sells’, but with all this imagery of the perfect body, the next generation are being taught, in less and less subtle ways, that muscular = beauty. Are the media really reflecting our preferences, or creating them? And by following this image of muscular masculinity are we improving the gay stereotype or actually further damaging it?
All comments are very welcome – I’d be interested to hear your opinions. (Or write to me/follow on Twitter @Pete_Thom)
*I use the terms “feminine” and “masculine” in their generic and general meaning for the purpose of this article. I recognise that these terms, in themselves, are highly contentious.