Peruse my Instagram feed and you’ll discover...let’s call him ‘Jack’. Jack is tall, standing at an impressive 6’2; he’s broad with a muscular frame and sits just on the right side of hairy; Jack wears a full, dense beard which rests just below his perfect Adonis-like cheekbones. Thick locks of charcoal hair dotted with silver-fox specks of grey cascade effortlessly across his head. Jack is successful, too, an entrepreneur/blogger/fitness influencer and might be next in line to appear on Love Island! With swaths of admirers, both male, female and other, and a perfect set of abs, Jack is the ideal of male corporeal perfection. Or so we are told. The truth is: Jack is not representative of the masses. This man reflects, I’m guessing, about two percent of the population. I am not Jack, and perhaps, neither are you, readers.
It’s 21:45 on a Monday evening and, against my better judgment, I’m giving myself the evening off. I want to go to the gym. I do, now that it’s become a habit and not a mission. Sitting in a place of absolute privilege I now crave the pump of a free weight, so there’s no need to drag myself along with the other New Year New Me brigade, trying their utmost to shed the Festive Five! No, the gym and I are now well acquainted.
Tonight, instead, I opt to stuff my face: Crusty whole grain bread and spicy lentil soup; spaghetti and breaded chicken doused with parmesan taken from the unnecessarily large kilo bag my boyfriend left following a decadent Italian meal on Friday night; chocolate brownie—four of them to be precise—and warming tea with oat milk, just enough to give it that golden hour glow. I sit in total satiation; still, knowing that in the morning I’ll hit the iron and get that pump I now crave. Have I finally found balance?
As a genetically-privileged, cis, caucasian male I’ve always had a low percentage of body fat. I have no idea what it is to dislike your body. I did, once upon my twenties, but now I adore it. Here in my thirties, I gratefully love myself knowing too many who don't. Being body positive comes naturally to me: I readily strip off in the gym locker rooms or eagerly undress before a lover. I’m not the ‘ideal’ of masculine perfection, but I’m not exactly 'average'.
Let’s meet ‘John’. He’s average! Here in the UK John is the epitomic Mr-in-the-middle weighing approx 13 stone; he stands at a respectful 5’9 and brandishes a 37 inch waist. John is fat. Doctors tell John he’s overweight, that he needs to eat less takeout meals and move more. The usual. John joined the gym in January but will, statistically, go approximately six times before he quits.
John is, for the most part, not represented in mainstream media. Our homogenous view of male body beauty speaks more to Jack. Jack sees himself in ad campaigns, reality shows and perfume ads. John wants to be like Jack. I ask: do we even want to see John in mainstream media, on structured reality, on our Instagram feeds? Perhaps, like women flicking through the pages of Vogue, are we men now meant to be motivated by the ubiquitous vision of Adonis. I ask: where do the barriers between comparison and aspiration blur?
Nowhere is this homogenous male—and female—body more prevalent than on reality TV. Love Island: where everyone is just another would-be influencer; brands waiting in the wings ready to sign them up to flog Boohoo gear and appear at clubs day-in-day-out during their celeb tenure, following days spent in nought but short shorts and bikinis, ripped physiques glistening in the sun waiting for a ‘text’. Then there’s Made in Chelsea—the fine young things of Chelsea, Belgravia and Kensington. Stunning. Predominantly blonde. Minted heirs and heiresses. Also in phenomenal shape but wearing clothes so we don’t see them as total Thirst Traps! The Only Way is Essex, as above (just a little more North London) but with one marked difference: Gemma Collins. The G.C, as she has become affectionately known, is magnetic and spends approximately zero time thinking about her body. The public seems focused, solely, on her massive personality not her massive curves. It's refreshing to see a shape like Collins' on the box.
Across the pond, meet Lena Dunham. In 2012, Dunham became an unintentional, or perhaps, intentional (you decide) body positivity activist by unashamedly sharing her naked form on HBO hit show GIRLS. The seminal show centred on four New York women trying to 'make it' in the world (sidenote: maybe not so seminal). But GIRLS stood apart from its predecessor Sex and the City. Where we once witnessed Samantha Jones airbrushed and bent into various positions worthy f the kama sutra, we now see Marnie Micheals bent over the kitchen sink getting her ass eaten by troubled musician husband, Dessie; where Charlotte York perfected her stepford wife part, we now see Shoshanna, the youngest of the quartet running down a street in Bushwick after smoking crack (by accident!); Where Carrie afforded a charmed life within her brown stone between Park and Madison wroting one article per week (yes one), we meet Hannah, working in a cafe getting published on indie websites, accepting handouts from her parents and getting fucked by her emotionally unavailable actor ‘boyfriend(?)’, Adam. And finally, there was Miranda. In GIRLS, we see Miranda’s exact opposite in Jessa: a wandering drug-addicted English rose with hair like a mermaid and some pretty profound issues. But hey, they all have issues. Despite its detractors for issues around race, GIRLS represented real humans. None of the men were exceptionally attractive; the girls bodies weren’t perfect and the gay characters were shown having, what actually looked like real gay sex; they took drugs, made bad choices and were, in essence, the anti heroes we can all see ourselves in.
The character of Hannah Horvath, played by Dunham, didn’t possess what you might call a ‘traditionally’ beautiful body shape. But we’ve seen it more than we’ve spotted our own. Throughout the years, the New Yorker’s weight yo-yo’d and in 2018, she shared this Instagram post:
“138 pounds, complimented all day and propositioned by men and on the cover of a tabloid about diets that work. Also, sick in the tissue and in the head and subsisting only on small amounts of sugar, tons of caffeine and a purse pharmacy. On the right: 162 pounds, happy joyous & free, complemented only by people that matter for reasons that matter, subsisting on a steady flow of fun/healthy snacks and apps and entrees, strong from lifting dogs and spirits. Even this OG body positivity warrior sometimes looks at the left picture longingly, until I remember the impossible pain that brought me there and onto my proverbial knees. As I type I can feel my back fat rolling up under my shoulder blades. I lean in.”
So, are women—like Lena Dunham and Gemma Collins—further ahead than us men? Are men fighting a more insidious, silent battle when it coms to body positivity? And when it comes to loving your body, is it less about an authentic expression of self-love and more an act of rebellion against a society of beautiful oppressors?