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'I want to be like Mike!': males and body image

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The men in my gym check themselves in the mirror a lot. Especially the younger ones! Some of them seem to carry around a bag full of products for hair and skin. But it wasn't always that way.

Men were seen as breadwinners until the 1970s or thereabouts. Their role was the three Ps: perform at work, protect loved ones and provide for them. Of course this has changed a great deal. And now men must be concerned with how they look. Why is this so?

First, the men we see in the movies now are pumped-up, fit and trim. Look at the muscled-up Henry Cavill in the new Superman movie. Or the big hulking guys in "Pain and Gain". Compare them to earlier movie stars like Fred Astaire or Cary Grant who were usually dressed up in smart suits. Today it's about fitness and muscles. Second, musical performers and rock stars too, have to be unafraid to show off a trim body. Ricky Martin is a case in point. Third, footballers show off their muscles and tatts. We've seen many paraded as ideal physical specimens and sex symbols. I suppose it's only the French Rugby team that poses nude (as Dieux du Stade). Lastly, even politicians can't be seen as unfit. Many have trimmed down (as did Barry O'Farrell) and Tony Abbott has often been seen in a swimsuit.


The result is that younger men today are very conscious of how they look. It's normal today to go to the gym ; when I was growing up it was a place only weird guys went to. Men played cricket and football.

Today men are often criticized. The world of book-learning is especially critical of us. When I went to one Sydney bookshop to ask about books on men, the reply was "Oh God, I don't know. Try under mental illness or self-help". We hear constantly of men who are seen as badly behaved or unsatisfactory in their old-fashioned attitudes. The complaints about Tony Abbott's remarks about women seem to fit this pattern. Some have suggested that he's probably a fairly typical guy in midlife who is used to seeing women as either attractive or not, and in positions subservient to men. And the complaints seem not to bother voters.

As a refuge from criticism, today many men go to the gym. Let's look at the effects on the youngest and the guys in midlife.

Teenage boys are very concerned to project an acceptable masculinity. To avoid bullying, they want to look the part. Teachers tell me that if they walk into a change-room and find boys changing their shirts, boys protest: "Miss, go away!"

Adolescent boys come in odd shapes as their bodies grow. Voices change unpredictably, arms and legs shoot out, and many are cursed by acne. There is no really normal adolescent body. Asian bodies are often fairly hairless: in Thailand I've sometimes been called "monkey arms". Afro-Caribbean and African boys are lean and strong: it's no accident that the world's best runners are men like Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. Samoan and Tongan boys are physically solid and much sought-after as football players. The role of islanders in American football has also been documented.


There are tons of them in most of the football teams in Australia and New Zealand. In Australia we have Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau as just two of many examples. Dark men are gaining success as dancers and singers; Timomatic is one Australian example now world-famous. Many ordinary white boys envy dark-skinned guys, like LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx, whom they call "cool guys". Even my small grandchildren have picked this idea up. So no one body type is 'normal'.

Yet every boy wants too be strong. Boys are anxious about how they are seen and are desperate to look acceptable. They are dread being ridiculed as too fat, too thin or too-something else. Men pumped up with various substances have legions of admirers on social media. Try doing a search on "Zyzz" for one Sydney example, massively popular among young males, even after he died of a heart attack at 22. And their bodies are displayed and talked about in countless magazines.

People want boys to behave. But there are so many males who get away with not behaving. Whether it's Kanye West, Mario Balotelli or 50 cent, being a young male seems to be about being wild and outrageous. Life for these young men seems to be constantly pushing the boundaries, and our young men want to do the same. Having the right body fits in with raising eyebrows, making people " tutt tutt" and look amazed. The look is all-important, and young men are displaying wildly coloured tatts on bodies they want pumped-up like so many models and TV stars. Even black men in the spotlight have tatts, as Tyson Beckford does, and young men know that they rake in big money. Matt Damon in the movie about Liberace,"Behind the Candelabra", joins so many others in having a body young men will admire.

Let's look at body image and another group: men in midlife. Someone remarked that at about 45 we finally start getting our head together. And then our bodies start to fall apart. There are many unkind things said about men at this age, but again - most are wanting to be accepted. By their partners, and their kids. Fortunately, most of us learn to accept our limitations. In my experience, our kids and grandkids love us for the most part with all our faults. A kind heart and a great sense of humour is easier to live with than any man obsessed with his eating habits his V-shape, constantly checking his image in the mirror!

The world's best athletes are powerful in different ways. From the massive American football stars like Robert Griffin III to the leaner Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in soccer ("football"), we are looking at many different body shapes. Alessandro del Piero, with thousands of young admirers from northern Italy to Sydney, is not massively muscled- but a brilliant player. Different strokes for different folks. It's a lesson many males need to learn. At any stage in the life-cycle.

Women want to be the best woman, the best mother and grandma they can be. Likewise, we men strive to be the best man we can manage to be. Australian men aren't just fathers, sportsmen and breadwinners any more. We know that 'men' these days includes a wide spectrum: gay fathers like Ricky Martin, one of many these days. Men who are struggling to pay a mortgage and raise a family. Men of all sexual persuasions and body shapes. But if all these men can be comfortable in their own skin, worries about body image will be something they can smile about. A popular song was called "I Wanna be like Mike!" But Michael Jordan is his own person. Similarly, boys have to learn just to be themselves.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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