Simpson Does Cif
This is the full text of today’s article in Comment is Free by Mark Simpson:
Back in the early 90s, when Loaded magazine and footie were conquering the culture, making it untuck its shirt, admire its beer belly and leer at “babes”, I foolishly predicted the future of men was metrosexual.
No one believed me, of course. Everyone was in New Lad denial. It wasn’t until the noughties that the world was ready to discuss what was happening to men and why they were spending so long in the bathroom. And of course the footie that New Lad fetishised for its manly “authenticity” went most flamingly metrosexual of all.
But for all my Cassandrine prophecies, no one is more surprised than me by just how tarty men in the post-metrosexual teenies have turned out. Or to put it in more “sociological” language: how readily they objectify and commodify themselves and one another.
In the last few months the newspapers have told us that men now take longer getting ready than women, and are more likely to take travel irons, hairdryers and straighteners on holiday. And this month a widely reported “Body Talk” survey by the YMCA and Bristol University claimed that men were now more body-conscious than women.
A third of those surveyed said they thought about their appearance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. A Faustian 35% claimed they would happily trade a year of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives – when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to appear in a spray-on vest on the “straight” dating show Take Me Out anyway.
Some were reportedly undertaking “compulsive” exercise, strict diets, using laxatives or making themselves sick in an attempt to lose weight or achieve a more toned physique. And although the survey didn’t cover this, other reports suggest a surprisingly large number of males are alsotaking steroids, growth hormones and other prescription drugs to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing appearance. To be “hot”.
Which generally means tits and abs. Men’s main preoccupation, the YMCA survey suggested, was their “beer belly” and lack of muscles, with a whopping 63% saying they thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough. And people never believe me when I tell them that while some women are size queens, all men are.
All surveys should be taken with a shovel of salt, of course – particularly the YMCA study which seems to have had a rather higher ratio of gym-goers than the general male population. Perhaps the most reliable source of information on the rise of male tartiness is the evidence of your own eyes.
A glance at the newstand, the billboard, the telly and the queue at the bus stop will tell you that with many young men the desire to be desired, the driving force of the metrosexual revolution of the last decade or so, has taken an increasingly physical, sensual form. Lovingly, painstakingly sculpted, shaved muscles decorated with those elaborate designer tattoos. OK, I admit it, I’ve done a bit more than glance.
It’s clear those Men’s Health front covers promising bigger arms, pumped pecs and ripped abs by teatime tomorrow, laughable and repetitive as they are, must be tapping into 21st-century man’s deepest, darkest and beefiest desires. A couple of years ago Men’s Health replaced FHM as the best-selling men’s magazine. Men have become their own “high street honeys”.
Turn on the telly this week and you’ll see the return of the shameless, busty male hussies of Geordie Shore and the preening boys of The Only Way is Essex. And also the launch of an ad campaign by the sporno star who has taught this new generation of metrosexy males everything they know about self-objectification and commodification. David Beckham’s H&M commercials will feature him shoving his designer (and possibly photoshopped) package down the nation’s throats again. Meanwhile at the cinema the chattering classes have been flocking to see Shame, a harrowing film about sex addiction which seems to prompt everyone to talk about how shaggable Michael Fassbender is – and how big his talent.
As an avid fan of the male body I can’t help but mostly welcome today’s parade of metrosexy male bodies. Despite the downside to male self-objectification outlined in the YMCA study, the generalised, compulsory self-loathing among men that went before was mostly worse. It was also considered normal.
After all, not wanting to talk about their bodies is part of the reason why men historically have been very reluctant to visit their GP and tend to die at a younger age than women. Until very recently the male body was simply an instrument that was to be used until the mainspring broke. Barely giving men time to rewind their horribly symbolic retirement clock.
And certainly, men didn’t look at one another’s bodies. Now they can’t stop staring. A married squaddie mate who is an occasional gym buddy of mine always subjects my body to close scrutiny in the changing rooms after our workouts. Appreciatively commending, say, my deltoid or tricep development and mercilessly criticising, say, my belly’s general flabbiness. As he says, “No one really cares whether any of this makes you fit or not, Mark. You could be rotten underneath but if you look great no one gives a fook.” He’s right. The metrosexy cult of male beauty is all a bit Dorian Ghey.
Watching straight men flaunting their depilated pecs and abs on reality shows, or the orange rugby players spinning around topless in glittery tight pants on Strictly Come Dancing – or Tom Hardy doing much the same thing in Warrior – it’s as if I’ve died and gone to a hellish kind of heaven. But I can probably live with that.
• Mark Simpson will be one of the speakers at Beefcake: Gay Men and the Body Beautiful at UCL, London on 6 February
My comment below the line:
‘What is funny is how the writer tries to give such a light weight obsession some crediblity by throwing in words like Cassandrine and referring to surveys.’
Well usini I don’t think metrosexuality (and Mr Simpson coined the concept ‘metrosexual’ back in 1994) is so lightweight.
Masculinity has transformed in recent decades. Did George best parade himself on massive billboards in his undies, not just any undies, but ones which display his packet and his ripped torso?
Men wherever you look, especially young men, are focusing on their bodies as much if not more than women do these days. And they are buying lots of gym memberships and product to do so. This shift in gender expression is also a shift in, or at least a continued expansion of, consumer capitalism.
Me, I think it is important. But sometimes it feels like I am the only person apart from Mr Simpson himself, who does.
P.s. I see Simpson is speaking at an event called ‘Beefcake’ about ‘gay’ men’s bodies.
I think that sounds ridiculous and out of date and also erases bisexual men.
He edited a book called Anti Gay in 1996 which challenged the concept of ‘gay’ identity and gay culture. Now he is being wheeled on to talk about ‘gay’ men’s bodies as if it is not a problematic concept at all.
Auntie Gay is a bit upset!