Is the male fitness industry the new enemy of women’s liberation?

When you look at photos of a supposedly “perfect” muscular male body, what do you see? Your answer may depend on your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your relationship with men, but the words that will come up the most often are fit, healthy, beautiful, strong, disciplined, sexy, firm etc etc etc…

These are the things we are meant to see, but look a little deeper and the picture changes.

Muscle magazines and now any marketing of male-targeted products exist on the hypothesis that muscularity is a good thing, and that the journey towards that goal will be self-improving and beneficial for your health. This may be true if we achieved this goal through purely ‘natural’ means, such as excercise and healthy diet, but for the most part it is achieved purely artificially. We subscribe to well-equipped and expensive gyms where man-made excercises on man-made machinery stimulate the development of muscle – a far cry from the limited food supplies, hunting and manual labour of our ancestors that would have enabled SOME men to develop a muscular frame. That was called life, whereas now we talk about ‘regimes’. Regimes, by definition, are forms of government, and when you look at this connection with male fitness you begin to see what it’s really about.

The muscular ideal of Western media and the male fitness industry comes from representations of the supreme male physique from the classical era – Rome and Greece, two military empires, and such representations were always intended to be inspirational, or rather didactic to their citizens, and instilled a very clear message of what masculinity was supposed to look like in their populations, and those ancient ideas have stuck with us. Man was a soldier to the emperor.

Nowadays when we talk about regimes they invariably have a militaristic or violent connotation that is not lost on the arenas of musculation (borrowing that word from French). The body of the muscle magazines and male marketing is the soldier’s body. It is a hyper-masculine version of the male form, hyper-masculine in the sense that the very shape of the male body has been pumped and exaggerated far beyond what it would be for most men not engaged with those activities.

The soldier in its purest sense is the violent agent of the government, so to privilege his iconography and all but requiring it of all men in Western society, aren’t we just going back to Classical times?

Germaine Greer wrote about the world becoming more sexist in the thirty years after she published The Female Eunuch, with the dominant image in world consciousness (in no small part due to the media), being that of the soldier for a man, and a weeping mother for a woman. Aren’t we simply reinforcing this through our fitness industries by promoting the buffed up soldier-like man and the emaciated, waif-like woman? When did self-improvement become less about the books you read, the work you did, the knowledge and wisdom you gained, and more about how battle-ready the human body is? Worth has become less about contribution and more about the fulfilment of materialist aspirations, the militaristic body now apparently being one of them.

So is the male fitness industry the enemy of women’s liberation? Well, the hyper-muscularity of the male body has been a symbol of capacity for violence rather than of health, and with a third of all women in the world being victims of gender violence including rape according to the UN – 1 billion women – this symbolism should not go unchallenged. It is also telling that as more and more men begin their journey towards the soldier’s body, more and more begin to drop nutritional food in favour of protein powders and so-called fitness drinks. This has lead to a dramatic increase in eating disorders amongst young men, whereas traditionally they were the province of women. It is not good enough to say that this is men finally getting a taste of what women have endured for centuries, as when men apply ruthless standards to their own behaviour they then redirect them towards women, which will do nothing if not further entrench the requirement of the hyper-gendered body both male and female; and where the body itself leads, the role of the sexes then follows.

But most sinister is the fact that muscular definition and the eradication of all softness and excess flesh only serves to define physically more profoundly the difference between the man and the women, their physical differences exaggerated no longer by the results of their different activities but now by ‘regimes’. People have created these regimes to create physical difference. And when we as people are commodified, as we are increasingly, based on our appearance or literally by the body we have, then sexism will persist. When we are taught that the exaggeration of our physique in conformity with Greco-Roman patriarchal iconography is the measure of worth then the old enemies of women’s liberation are also invoked and the struggle for women’s liberation will without doubt be set back again. We should not allow that to happen.


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