Rethinking Masculinity: Men and Their Bodies
Rosalind Gill

Session 4 Understanding Men's Responses to their Bodies

Intro Session 1 Session 2 Session 3 Session 5 Session 6

The masculine paradox of male models

video Rosalind Gill discusses the paradox of male models.
(2:11 min)
The paradox of these images of men, designed to appeal to masculinity yet posing in a traditionally 'un-masculine' fashion, is telling. It was commented on a lot, and the gay men in the sample in particular were incredibly skilled and sophisticated in reading these images. In fact, they were much more skilled than we were as researchers in actually being able to differentiate between different kinds of images. What to us might have appeared as a fairly uniform set of men with rippling torsos and big muscles were differentiated for them. One would say: ' that one is well known for being homoerotic', 'that one is a lot softer', and 'that one is much more of a gay body building icon'.

One of the things that we concluded about the 'masculinity' of posing in this fashion, was that the images were actually quite an effective way of handling what we would consider to be a cultural contradiction. There is a general social consensus about what men should be. Our society demands that men should be strong and masculine, powerful and dominant. At the same time we also demand that men should become more emotionally literate, that they should be more involved in fathering, that they should become more nurturing, softer and much more like women in some ways.

We felt that many of the images that we had chosen captured both of those injunctions about contemporary masculinity. If you look at some of them you will see that they had very hard strong bodies, but soft feminine faces, quite full lips, usually very close shaven faces, very big eyes, very soft-looking skin. So we thought that, in a way, these images themselves are quite interesting for what they say about our contradictory expectations about men.

Male and female responses

video Rosalind Gill looks at male and female responses.
(0:44 min)
Men are currently experiencing some of the pressures that women have been experiencing for a long time, but I don't think that they are experiencing them to anything like the degree that women have experienced them. I think that most men, particularly middle-class men, have a whole range of other sources of identity open to them, through their work largely, through fathering, through friendship networks and so on, that means that their appearance is still, notwithstanding these images, not as important to them as women's appearances is to women.

Uniformly obsessed with difference

video Rosalind Gill considers the male obsession with difference.
(2:09 min)
One of the central findings of the research was that the men were preoccupied with asserting their difference from other men. It was very ironic that the one thing that united all the men was this belief that they were different from all other men. They felt that they used their bodies to try and express their difference. Their difference came first, their body was the outward expression of it, and they used any means possible: they could use piercing, they could use tattoos, they could use the way that they worked out at the gym or didn't work out at the gym; they could use dyeing their hair.

If they worked in the city where there is a very confined uniform, they would even use tiny things like their cufflinks, or wearing slightly different coloured socks, to signal their difference. What we found was that the desire to be different and the desire to signal that difference was much stronger than the particular means they chose. The men could actually choose completely opposing means. Some said to us ' I would never buy branded goods, because everybody wears Nike and I just don't want to look like everybody else'. Other men would say to us: 'I will only buy brands because I want to look completely different'. They would use completely opposite means, but the underlying psychological imperative was the same.


This image was taken by artist and photographer, Ajamu, with whom you can view an interview in Session six. Ajamu was brought up in a small northern town in Britain. Aware of his homosexuality at an early age, he also became aware of the dearth of images of the male body and in particular of black males outside the traditional confines of pornography, sports stars and certain kinds of music. Keen to challenge traditional images of the male body and in particular representations of black masculinity, he photographs his models in unusual and fetishistic poses and clothing.


Gay difference

video Rosalind Gill discusses gay responses.
(1:18 min)
Many of the gay men wanted to work within the codes of what signified gayness. But even within those codes they still wanted to look different. The idea of the clone had definitely gone, at least within our sample. There was a sense of individualism and of wanting to look different.

One of the ways in which the gay group was very different from the heterosexual-identiufied sample was that the men were less concerned about being seen as vain .They were much more likely to admit that things they did were designed to make them to look good. A lot of the straight men would deny this. They would go to incredible lengths to deny that what they did was anything to do with their appearance. One welder from the north told us that he had to use moisturising cream on his hands because of his job. Others told us that they were building muscles because they wanted to train for the fire service. Straight men were always justifying it in instrumental terms, whereas some of the gay men were prepared to say ' Well it is very important that I look good'.

Understanding the differences

video Rosalind Gill explores the differences in responses (3:25 min)
We were very concerned about diversity when we designed the study. We expected the differences to be very evident across a whole range of factors. What really was striking was the incredible similarity in terms of the way that the men related to their bodies and in the way that they actually talked about their bodies. The same themes came up again and again.

The most salient differences that we have found in the anlysis to date were around sexuality. Gay men were much more likely to be pro-feminist, and were slightly more aware that the pressures men were now experiencing concerning their bodies had actually been experienced by women for a long time. They were also much less likely to deny being vain.. The other main difference was based on region. There was quite a strong urban--rural split, the rural sample regarding concern with the body to be a very metropolitan thing. For them, going to the gym was a mark of great conformity; 'Oh that's what city people do'. Whereas they would just go out and abseil down a mountain or pit themselves again the elements, something that they thought was more free and independent.

differences around race and ethnicity and I am sure there will be, but we haven't uncovered them yet in the small amount of analysis completed to date. However, a parallel project being conducted at Birkbeck College, London, by Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix and Rob Pattman is based in North London schools. They have made some quite interesting findings around white--Afro-Caribbean contrasts, whereby the Afro-Caribbean boys have quite a lot of cultural capital. Their clothes are greatly admired by their peers, as is their way of walking or 'bowling along'. A lot of the white boys are trying to emulate them, and so, on the strength of these findings, those Afro-Caribbean boys appear to have quite a different relationship to their bodies than the white boys have. Interestingly however, the very things that give them capital in the playground or on the street are the things that disadvantage them in the workplace, because this kind of style is seen as threatening and inappropriate by many employers. So while there are interesting findings on the inter-section between race and ethnicity coming from other studies, we haven't yet come across them in what we have done.


Session 5