When you hear the phrase “body image,” (particularly when followed by the word “issues”) your brain may immediately associate the concept with an insecure teenage girl, walking through the magazine aisle of her local grocery store. With photoshopped images of hundred pound, six-foot tall super models littering the covers of each issue, you wouldn’t be wrong – our society has established a frankly unrealistic standard of beauty for women to aspire toward, and even if you’re the type that’s not prone to such aspirations, we all have to acknowledge that the pressure is there, in one form or another.
The thing is, that pressure isn’t relegated only to impressionable young women. In recent decades, we’ve seen a significant transition in the way all demographics are marketed to – which includes projecting physical standards on women who left their teenage years behind long ago, and yes, even men (*collective gasp*). Oddly enough, throughout the past 10 years or so of society beginning to embrace the idea that we should skew our depictions of beauty back toward realism in magazines and advertisements directed at women, there has been an inverse reaction in material directed toward men.
No, this fitness column isn’t about to take a hard right into “men’s activism,” but if we’re going to have a frank discussion about fitness goals, we should agree that an objective understanding of where those goals comes from, and if they’re even healthy, is an important factor here. If you’re shaking your head at the idea that men might find themselves pressed by similar societal expectations when it comes to physique, I present to you just one of many examples: Wolverine. See, when the first X-Men movie came out 17 or so years ago, Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) looked an awful lot like a regular dude… and we were all okay with that. He played the role well and, at the time, we were willing to accept our heroes looking like a guy we might know.
Fast forward a few movies and…
Hugh Jackman, perhaps better than most, personifies the transition we’ve seen over the past two (plus) decades toward expecting men to maintain a similarly impossible physique in order to qualify as “hot.” When “X-Men” (2000) came out, no one complained that we couldn’t see the veins through Hugh Jackman’s skin. But when “Justice League” premiered this year, Twitter was aflutter with comparisons between Ben Affleck’s pretty normal, fit physique (as a bad thing) compared to Jason Momoa’s super ripped aqua-abs.
Just like Chris Evans in “Captain America,” Ryan Reynolds in “Blade: Trinity,” and countless others, stories on the internet are abound of what these guys go through in order to look this ripped for the scenes with their shirts off: spoilers, this isn’t how these dudes look on your average Tuesday, it’s the culmination of months of workouts, weeks of cutting, and days of the same sort of unhealthy habits body builders use before a competition to dehydrate themselves until their skin shrink wraps around the muscle.
Why would they do this? Well, in part, because it looks rad. We want our superheroes to be, well, super – but that’s not the only thing. While some of SOFREP’s more seasoned readers may not think that muscles are the most important part of a man’s physique, the current generation of young women attending college certainly seem to think they are.
In a recently published study, an (admittedly fairly small) group of 160 women rated images of men in terms of attractiveness. The men were depicted with their shirts off, with obscured heads, and the women, ranging in age from late teens through their 20s, were asked to rank them in attractiveness on a scale of one to seven.
You’ll never guess what happened next… a whopping zero of the 160 women showed a preference for weaker, smaller men. Height and leanness played a factor, but the most conspicuous result showed that all of the 160 women preferred men that looked strong and muscular.
“No one will be surprised by the idea that strong men are more attractive,” said study author Aaron Lukaszewski, an evolutionary psychologist at California State University at Fullerton. “It’s no secret that women like strong, muscular guys.”
I’m not accusing women of anything here, I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing. What I am saying is that things like being concerned about how we look, and aspiring to achieve impossible physical standards… these problems are universal, and they affect each of us in varying ways.
So, now that we acknowledge that we are all susceptible to having our self-esteem chipped away by magazine covers, TV commercials and Dwayne Johnson’s never-ending optimism in the face of 4 a.m. cardio sessions, what do we do about it? Well that’s easy – we make informed decisions about what our goals are and the ways in which we intend to pursue them.
Let’s talk body fat, for instance.
In that picture of Hugh Jackman from “X-Men: First Class,” he’s rocking somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-6% body fat according to my (formerly) professional educated guess. That’s right on track, but maybe a bit lower than what you’ll see on just about every leading man in Hollywood that dares take his shirt off on-screen, and because of that, we might be inclined to think these super-humans (or just super-studs) are the pinnacle of human health… after all, just imagine what a good core workout all that swimming has been for Aquaman?
The truth of the matter is, for you’re an average adult man, a healthy amount of body fat is probably creeping up toward to 18% (allowing for some fluctuation because different bodies have different needs). In today’s world, guys with 18-20% body fat play the male lead’s shlubby friend. Get much porkier than that, and you’d damn well better be funny.
The same can be said for women. As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous article, I knew a few girls in my younger days that thought visible collar bones were a sign of fitness, others have mentioned visible ribs, and the longer I think about young women staring at themselves in the mirror and damning their rice cake lunches for hiding their freaken ribs, the more my eye starts to twitch. No, I’m not a subscriber to the idea that “all bodies are beautiful,” – if you’re fat, you’re not giving your body a fair chance at survival – but if you’re striving for an unhealthy concept of fit, you aren’t doing yourself any favors either.
A healthy, not particularly athletic, woman should probably be maintaining body fat in the 20-30 percent range. Even pretty athletic ladies should be sticking to the low 20s, maybe working into the teens if you’re really on your fitness game.
It’s near impossible to tell someone to stop judging their overall fitness by their waistline, number of visible ribs, or their vascularity – in large part because we all see the men and women in the media looking awesome and want to look that way ourselves. The thing is, remember, those people don’t look like that on a day-to-day basis, and the shelf life of a six-pack like the one Ryan Reynolds rocked in “Blade Trinity” is about the same as a gallon of milk. There are anomalies out there – people who are very healthy and able to maintain 2% body fat forever and ever, and I congratulate them on that ability – but for the rest of us mere mortals, healthy is not necessarily ripped.
Now is the part of the article where I backtrack a bit to make sure you don’t misconstrue this piece as either a) an argument that we need to change how men are depicted in the media or b) an argument that it’s totally cool to be fat. I’ll approach those one at a time.
First, I expect Superman to look like Henry Cavil, muscles and all, be cause he’s the goddamned Superman. I don’t have a problem with Hugh Jackman looking like he was sculpted in marble as Wolverine, because Wolverine is a fictional, superhuman killing machine. The issue with our fitness expectations isn’t the depictions we’re exposed to, it’s the way we internalize them. Applaud Ryan Gosling for working so hard on his ab game, but remember that you’re still healthy if you can’t grate cheese on yours.
Second, it’s not cool to be fat. The cultural backlash toward body shaming has blurred the lines between what we’re supposed to think is good and bad, and the idea that we should applaud someone who’s morbidly obese for being “brave,” is offensive to my sensibilities. Extremism doesn’t work in donut eating any better than it does in religion or politics.
Fitness is not an upvote/downvote thing. You aren’t either fit or fat. We should always aspire to improve, to build upon ourselves… but cut yourself some slack if your belly hangs over your belt a bit. After all, you’re not Wolverine.
Feature image courtesy of the author