Men and Their Bodies
The last decade has witnessed the extraordinary rise of 'body culture'. From the beaches of Rio to the gay bars of Sydney, the cosmetic surgery clinics of LA to the gyms of London, there is concern with the body--and the body beautiful--as never before.
One thing that makes this change so interesting is that it is not confined to women--the gender traditionally defined by their bodies--but also includes men. In a matter of years, men's bodies have gone from near invisibility in cultural life to hyper-visibility. The muscular heroes of action cinema, the 'sixpacks' who grace the covers of the men's health magazines, and the 'super waifs' of male fashion photography all attest to a shift in visual culture in which male bodies are presented in increasingly idealised and eroticised ways, which give permission for them to be looked at. An unwritten rule of looking, in which, in John Berger's famous phrase, 'men look and women appear', has been transgressed. The male body has now become an object of the gaze rather than simply the bearer of the look.
A growing number of representations of the male body that we find evidence of body culture. Increasingly, ordinary men are showing more concern with their bodies. Surveys reveal that some are becoming despondent about whether their own bodies can ever match up to the perfection of the male bodies shown in aftershave and underwear advertisements. And this has led to anxieties being raised about male health, self-esteem, body image and eating disorders. But for many men, working on or changing the appearance of the body has been less driven by negative feelings than by the sense that changing the way they look offers opportunities for constructing a positive sense of identity and belonging.
In fact, look around at the pierced, tattooed, scarred, dyed, muscled bodies in any western urban environment and it seems clear that the look of the body is increasingly central to identity.
One example of this is the fact that we are experiencing a phenomenal fetishisation of muscles and muscularity among young men at precisely the moment that fewer than ever of them are working in traditionally male manual jobs that require physical strength. In fact, the man building muscles at the gym--whether it be in Tokyo or Paris--is more likely to be working in an office than in heavy industry. Highly developed muscles have become semiotically divorced from the previous connotations of social class and manual labour.
The notion of the body as a project is one way of trying to capture these different ideas--above all, the sense that people attempt to create a sense of identity through attention to the body, and, in particular, the body's appearance. This sense emerged very clearly from a far reaching research project, which was concerned with masculinity and embodiment.
Researching the body as project
For a long time it was believed that women were the ones who were confined by and defined by their bodies, while men somehow rose above it: they were the rational ones. But without empirical research on men and their bodies, there was no way to verify or refute such a belief.
It was against this backdrop that we decided to set up our research project. I worked on this with two colleagues, Karen Henwood (now at University of East Anglia in Norwich) and Carl McLean (a colleague at the LSE). We were basically interested in what we called 'mapping men's psychologies', and our major concern was to try to locate men's sense of self against the backdrop of some of the changes in economic and social life. So instead of launching straight into that popular crisis-of-masculinity discourse--which states that because manufacturing is in collapse it means 'Oh no! Men are in crisis. They are no longer able to define themselves through their jobs, so they must be doing it through their bodies'--my colleagues and I decided: 'Well, hang on a minute. Let's take a bit of time and actually reflect and consider whether this is the case'. Are men actually defining themselves through their bodies, or is this pure speculation?
We interviewed a total of 140 young men of different class, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and different sexual orientations, all aged between 15 and 35 and living in one of four regions of the UK. When we asked them about their bodies and bodily practices, a striking finding emerged: they talked less about muscle and skin (and indeed about 'problems' with their bodies in the familiar ways of women's magazines) than about their own selves located within particular social, cultural and moral universes.
We had carefully designed the project to pick up on and be sensitive to differences between young men's experiences, which might relate to class or ethnicity or sexual orientation. What became apparent, however, was that at least as significant as the differences were the extraordinary similarities in the ways that the men talked about their bodies. The congruence was at times astonishing: the same expressions and figures of speech would recur in interview after interview, so that when we read the transcripts we wondered whether a computer error had accidentally duplicated the same passage in multiple interviews. But this was not the case. Instead it became clear that men's talk about embodied identity is structured by a limited range of five key discourses.
Being your own man
It is often said of this cohort of British men that they are an apolitical generation, 'Thatcher's children', steeped in consumerist values and with little or no interest in social change. Like other researchers we found little evidence of political radicalism; however, we did find a strong attachment to the notion of rebellion. The target of their rebellion is conformity and uniformity, with hostility to anything associated with being conventional--e.g. office work, the 9-to-5, marriage, and so on. This was not unambiguous, because many men were simultaneously attracted to security in jobs and relationships and despite sneering at '2.4 children' aspired to this--or even lived it. But a central part of establishing their identity as different involved attacking those things deemed mainstream of conformist.
Sport and exercise routines were often discussed it those terms--e.g. some men told us that they would never join a gym because it was so conformist, and frequent contrasts were made with more collective or sociable forms of exercise such as team sports, or 'pitting oneself against the elements' which was seen as being more indicative of a free and independent spirit. Overall, men were at pains to highlight their individuality and to claim that they were unaffected by influences from anyone including parents, teachers, friends, lovers or the media.
This discourse came up repeatedly in discussions about cosmetic surgery--with individuals defending the rights of others to do whatever they want with their own body. It was also seen a lot in talk about other body modifications, such as piercing.
Limits to body autonomy
Vanity was discussed again and again in our interviews as something to the condemned and guarded against at all costs. Being thought vain was something that was feared by the vast majority of men we interviewed. They would often offer detailed justifications for why they did something--such as use a moisturising cream or work on building up a particular part of the body--going to great lengths to make sure that the interviewer did not think they were vain.
In fact, the notion of vanity was used to police what was and was not deemed acceptable male behaviour. Sometimes, this meant that the men's attachment to ideas of bodily autonomy was challenged--cosmetic surgery, for example, was fine as long as it was not just for vanity.
At the other extreme was the censure reserved for men who 'let themselves go'. This used to be a profoundly gendered discourse, a means of attacking women, but among our sample it was feared by many men that they would develop a beer belly or stop being appropriately concerned with their appearance.
Finally, the men told us that they also guarded against being seen as obsessional about their bodies--or indeed about anything else. Like the other discourses, this was entirely flexible--one man's obsession was another man's normal--but what the vast majority shared was the injunction 'not to take it all too seriously.'
So how did the notion of body projects measure up? It was useful as a
way of thinking about the identity functions of the body as a canvas for
expressing the self, and as a source of capital for the individual. But
it suffers from the same problem--we would argue--as the things it is
trying to explain: namely, it is too voluntaristic and fails to recognise
that bodily reconstruction is not equally open to all (in particular to
disabled bodies and bodies that are racialised in particular ways). Moreover,
it fails to pick up on another project in which the body is equally implicated
in these young men's lives--the regulation of normative masculinity, structured
through a prism of individualism.