Tag Archives: body image

Why Do Men’s Standards of Beauty Not Shift Like Women’s?

Yesterday, during my educational peregrinations, I was reminded of a word I haven’t had occasion to use in recent years: “Rubenesque.” Rubenesque is an adjective that can be applied to bodies similar to those that the Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens put on canvas.

Below, check out the closet thing to pornography I’m ever likely to include in these postings. The painting is the Judgment of Paris and portrays the event that eventually led to the Trojan War. Here, the Trojan prince Paris is called upon by the three unclad ladies to the left to determine which is the most beautiful. The contestants in this beauty contest were three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. If ever three “women” would be granted the ideal of female beauty, these three would claim the prize, right? Yet these women, painted by Rubens in 1636, are, by our standards, pretty chunky.

As the video below illustrates, female standards of beauty have changed drastically over the years. Just within recent decades we have seen these standards swing around from the voluptuous (think Marilyn Monroe) to the emaciated (heroin chic models) and then somewhat back in the other direction.

But here’s my question. Why don’t male standards of beauty swing around as dramatically as female standards do? Do a Google search on the female side of this and you’ll get all manner of hits. The male search yields nearly nothing. A video that promises “Men’s Standards of Beauty around the World,” doesn’t even try to talk much about change over time but in the end fails to show very much diversity around the world.

Look back at the Rubens painting above. The two male characters are the god Hermes (standing) and Paris (seated). Both of them seem a bit fleshy, but I would argue that they’re carrying a lot less “extra” weight on their bones compared to our standards than are the women.

Look at other artwork from the past, works that seem designed to portray ideal male figures. Would you like to have the body of Michaelangelo’s David? Most people would. That figure doesn’t have quite the six-pack belly that magazines would suggest we need to have, but in a real world, at least 95% of men would immediately jump at having his physique. Charles Atlas or Jack Lalanne, photographed in their primes, could fit into a magazine today much more easily than could some of the fleshier female stars of Hollywood’s earlier decades.

Yes, the standards for men change, but they do not seem to change as drastically as the ones for women? Why is that? Is this just another example of the oppression of women by a systematically patriarchal society? (The tongue was in the cheek there.) Does it simply tell us that people–men mostly–don’t really know what they want in the long run?  Is there some really good answer to this question that I’m not imagining?  I honestly don’t know, but I’d love to see an answer.

We can all agree that either the 97-pound weakling or the grossly obese couch potato is both unhealthy and unattractive in a male. However, we do tend to have a much wider acceptable range when it comes to men than we do for women. A man with a bit of a belly can be tolerated far more readily than a woman with the same belly. Why?

Again, I don’t know, but I think we should all agree that healthy, functional bodies can come with a range of body fat percentages and different levels of musculature. We see that for men, but we seem to see it less easily for women. Both Christian men and women need to recognize that a beautiful female form, a body that can bless and honor God, need not conform to the very rigid and unrealistic expectations that a visually overwhelmed society would impose.

Tonight in Dietland…

As I was driving home from a race this morning, licking my wounds after being beaten by one-tenth of a second by a guy in a hand-bike, I happened to hear an interview with Sarai Walker supporting her novel, Dietland. There aren’t a lot of novels that focus on militant fat people, but apparently Walker’s is just such a novel. And I hasten to add that I use the word “fat” because she used that word rather than “heavy” or “full-figured” or somesuch.

I’ve never been a fat (or heavy or full-figured) woman, so I’m not all that well equipped to comment in this area. For most of my life I was a fat man–not huge, but certainly carrying around sufficient weight that I would never make the cover of GQ. Does that count?

If Sarai walker is correct, then being a fat woman is a dreadful thing. She tells the interviewer as much on behalf of her main character.

You know, society hates fat people and she’s been stigmatized her whole life, so of course she hates herself and she wants to lose weight, which is of course understandable. But then when she meets the women of Calliope House, she begins to think about her relationship with her fat body in a different way. She begins to think, you know, maybe there’s nothing wrong with my body; maybe it’s the way that other people are treating me. And so I think that she comes to see it as a politicized issue, because it is. I mean, a fat body is always a politicized body.

I can’t argue that society has a dreadful bias against people who do not conform to expectations of appearance. I also can’t argue that this bias is more pronounced with regard to women than to men. Men, by and large, can get away with being fatter than women. That’s not fair.

My question, though, is whether unfair bias in one direction means that we should simply embrace fatness and dismiss it as irrelevant. Or do we shift the threshold for “fat” upward.

It’s important within the church that we look at people, as much as we are able, in the way that God sees us. In God’s eyes, minus the transformative power of Christ, we are all pitiful creatures swimming around in a cesspool. The “beautiful” people might only be 95% covered with sewage, while the outcasts–the fat, the skinny, the ugly, the scarred–are 98% covered. Would you really brag about that sort of difference? We also have to recognize that we have surfaces other than the exterior that can smeared with foulness. After all, didn’t Jesus say something about white-washed tombs?

At the same time that we attempt to look with eyes of love at others, regardless of their bodily defects, we all need to admit the 95% or 98% coverage of nastiness upon us and work toward cleaning ourselves up.

Sarai Walker seems to sympathize with her band of Fat Terrorists, as if being looked at in an unkind way justifies violent behavior. I’d have to disagree with her on that count. But I can’t ignore the fact that the fellow on the handbike is a bit “heavy.” If I had beaten him, who knows how he might have reacted.

Get Fit, Not Ripped

Round is a ShapeI very much appreciate a recent article by Dr. Michael Gleiber–that’s M.D., and not a mere Ph.D.–in which he argues that we do not need to look ripped in order to be properly fit. He goes on to describe four aspects of activity by which we can measure our fitness. For example, he suggests this push-up test for strength and endurance:

Push-ups are a great way to test your strength and endurance. When testing yourself, make sure you are keeping proper form. Lie facedown on the floor, elbows bent with your palms next to your shoulders. Keep your back straight, and push up until your arms are fully extended, then return to the starting position. Each time you return to that starting position, it counts as one push-up. If you can only do a few pushups before you need to rest, you may need to work more on your strength and endurance.

I like the idea of focusing on outcomes rather than muscle definition, but did you notice the problem with Dr. Gleiber’s prescription? “If you can only do a few pushups”? How many is a few? I have a former Marine friend who would probably say that 25 is a few. And how many is a lot?

He also suggests measuring aerobic fitness by walking a mile “briskly,” measuring flexibility with a sit and reach test, and measuring body fat through BMI (ugh!). Only in the case of BMI does he give a benchmark against which to measure fitness, but he fouls that up by saying that BMI “indicates your percentage of body fat.” As we’ve seen elsewhere–and as he surely knows–BMI does no such thing.

This guy is a spinal surgeon, so I’m guessing he’s busy. But is he really too busy to give us some actual standards by which to measure our fitness? Is it any wonder, absent those standards, that people simply look in the mirror and use the “ripped” test that Dr. Gleiber condemns?

Keep Your Eyes Where They Belong

2015 Rock the ParkwayTwice on Wednesday, I was told, “You’re looking really great” by two widely separated women. One of them has been a friend for many years. The is someone from my church whose husband I know much better. In neither case did I think they were suggesting anything beyond a simple and sincere compliment, but these comments got me thinking.

Perhaps you were not aware of this, but taking care of your body will typically make it look better. It’s true. And whether you like it or not, somebody who sees you working out might just see something in you that you’d not intended. It’s pretty hard to be around a bunch of fit people and not notice their bodies, right?

An article by Jonathan Angelilli takes on this problem in a big way. He points to what he calls the “pornification” of fitness, in which the fitness instructor becomes less an instructor and more an object of desire.

Your fitness can never be outsourced to a hot trainer, doctor, or pill. It’s you that must do it, from the inside out. It’s the very nature of the beast. That is why “the source of all power comes from within” is one of the core principles of TrainDeep. Saying “you do it for me, I’ll pay extra” just doesn’t work when it comes to organic systems and nature. Here we can experience the definitive limits of trying to monetize the natural and spiritual realms.

Certainly not everything in Angelilli’s article is something I can support, but he raises a great point. My work at improving or maintaining my body should be about making myself more fit for service and, as an added bonus, making me more appealing to my spouse. That’s really it.

So if you run into me at the gym or out on the street, just keep your eyes to yourself. I can’t help it if I’m looking really good.

Do I Really Want to Be Shredded?

Muscle BoyI recently ran across an article in Men’s Fitness that promised to show me ways to “Stay Shredded All Season Long.” While the article, which was cobbled together as answers to single questions asked of five different fitness experts–leftovers from five different interviews perhaps?–seemed to have some useful advice, I had to question the overall premise. Do I really want to be “shredded”?

One of the questions asks for the best exercises for training the abs. The expert says, in part:

The best way to keep your abs conditioned all year round is to follow a healthy diet with a close eye on slightly restricting your starchy carb intake like breads, pastas, etc.

Do you notice a problem there? This guy doesn’t mention any exercises here. To be fair, he goes on to talk about exercises, but the fact that he starts out talking about starchy food suggests that he’s more interested in appearance than in actual strength. Does a layer of belly fat really have anything to do with the strength of your abdominal muscles? Can’t you have incredible strong abs while maintaining a few extra pounds of flab around the middle? And is that really a great burden to fitness.

The question here is what we supposed to be fit for. Is fitness a purely cosmetic thing? Does the fit person need to look like a Greek statue? Or is fitness found in the ability to do the things that we want to do?

Frankly, I don’t need to be shredded.