If nothing else, my body serves as an admirable definition of irony. I’m blessed with hair in abundance everywhere except atop my head. Despite the current hipsterish fashion for beards, I’m unable to grow a convincing one because large patches of my facial hair are now white, making my luxuriant beard appear piebald. I also have a fairly solid upper body, which makes me look reasonably strong until it’s actually time to lift anything. If nothing else, my body has proven an excellent basis for a career in comedy.
Objectively this is silly, of course – there’s nothing much wrong with my body. But of course, these things are in the mind. And reading Lina Ricciardelli’s recent article about body image and boys, I realised that in fact, I’ve always suffered from a reasonably poor body image. Which probably wasn’t helped by my friend Charles once casting me as the “ugliest man alive” in my vulnerable teenage years for a sketch that we performed in front of most of our school.
Ricciardelli’s analysis of the body image pressures on men enabled me to feel one of my favourite things – victimhood. “Just like the female body, the male body has been depicted, evaluated and scrutinised as an aesthetic product since ancient times”, she writes. And yet “male beauty and body image receive far less attention in the media and academia than the female body”. Us poor men, how we suffer, and in silence too!
Okay, so a large part of the need for extensive study on the portrayal of female body is the fault of men, what with that whole ‘patriarchal objectification’ thing we’ve been doing for millennia. Fair cop, guv. Ricciardelli is in no way suggesting that the distribution of emphasis to date is in any way unfair, and I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I understand what it’s like growing up bearing the Sisyphean weight of our culture’s neurotic obsession with women’s bodies.
But what I can say is that her observations about the pressures that apply to men certainly ring true to me. She identifies muscularity, leanness and youthfulness as the contemporary male ideals. And indeed there are no hairy, bald, pot-bellied Calvin Klein models. Nor will you find them in Playgirl, one source that Ricciardelli refers to. (I assume the researchers noticed while reading it for the articles.) Finally, if anyone still doubts that some men are buffeted by body image pressures, simply watch an Advanced Hair ad.
What surprised me about Ricciardelli’s argument, though, is that she doesn’t really refer to what I would have thought was the most important factor affecting body image – looks. Female facial ‘perfection’ is undoubtedly emphasised in our culture, and largely explains Keira Knightley’s acting career. I would have thought that the popularity of gentlemen like Ryan Gosling and Jon Hamm demonstrates that it’s an important factor for women too, since they’re both perceived to be such hotties that women are able to overlook their ridiculous surnames.
But looks aside, there is hope for men struggling with their body image. Two of the factors Ricciardelli emphasises, muscularity and leanness, are largely controllable. Even youthfulness can be attained to some degree through cosmetics, which have increasingly been marketed to men in recent years. She also cites “metrosexuality” – a term that makes me cringe, so I will substitute “well-groomed” – but which is also merely a matter of effort.
Of course, some men’s genes make it harder for them to lose weight or gain muscle mass, but the reality is that the majority of us who feel puny and overweight have it in our power to do something about it, even though surprisingly few of us do so. Sadly, my own research in this area has conclusively proven that neither whinging nor self-deprecating humour will burn calories or tone your abs. But diet and exercise will, if we can be bothered.
Even hairiness is entirely controllable, and Ricciardelli notes that the ancient Egyptians obsessively removed their body hair, which they associated with impurity. It’s something of a taboo in our society as well – I’m sure those iconic Old Spice ads wouldn’t have proven so popular if Isiah Mustafa was hairy. You could flick through the pages of Cleo and Cosmo and not spy a hairy chest anywhere. In fact, the bias against hair is so great that a female friend of mine once told me that she couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just get full-body electrolysis. Ouch.
And yet, self-image is ultimately determined by the mind, not the body. The ultimate answer, I think, is to take the genetic cards you’ve been dealt and try to be happy. Sure, put effort into the things you can control, like leanness, muscularity and grooming. But obsessing about things like looks and baldness is only going to make you miserable. Sure, this is sometimes easier said than done. But the alternatives are too hideous to contemplate – in particular the world of hair replacement “therapy”, which as I understand involves gluing imported Eastern European hair follicles onto your own scalp. Better to be comfortable in your own skin, I think. Even if, like mine, it’s hairy.
This article originally appeared at Daily Life.