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Men’s Health: Men to Boys and Back Again

October 15, 2009

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So, after an astonishing 15 consecutive years of growth Men’s Health is now officially Britain’s biggest selling men’s magazine.

Reflect on that for a moment. This is a magazine whose cover presents its readers not with the promise of a small-to-medium sized celebrity’s medium-to-large sized breasts, but instead the image of the ripped physique of some impossibly-handsome man that wouldn’t look out of place on PlaygirlHoly six-pack Batman…not to get all hetro-normative on your ass, but that does on the face of it all sound a little flexi-sexual… as Madonna might have put it during her faux-British mockney phase, what’s all that about?

Obviously one simple answer is (literally) staring us in the face: we, the nation that bred men of the calibre of Nelson, Churchill, and Davy Boy Smith (aka WWF’s the British Bulldog) are descending into a nation of preening, homo-eroticised pretty boys. But before we put the tabloid press on queer-alert, it would be worth remembering that images of handsome, well-proportioned men have a longer and slightly more illustrious history than the cover of Men’s Health. The ancient Greeks and Romans practically worshipped the athletic male figure, while in Islam there are Hadiths from prophet Muhammad praising the healthy, muscular male body (no homo!). You could practically take a D&G underwear advert, set it in marble relief, and it would belong in a temple of any number of Roman religious cults. Just as Michelangelo’s had his David, we have ours.

And lets be honest, in the end it doesn’t take a genius to work out someone is more likely to want to have sex with you if you look like Brad Pitt than Danny Devito.

That said it would be hard to picture the fabled Ancient Greek heroes settling down to read an article with a title such as ‘Blast Away Belly Fat’. But behind the headlines there’s actually a different motivation to weight loss than just looking good – a desire to be healthy. It is reiterated over and over again in Men’s Health how losing weight saves your heart, and losing your guts and ‘unleashing your abs’ (a favourite Men’s Health phrase) is great for preventing back problems and heart disease.

In recent interviews Men Health’s editors have described their typical reader as the “hetropolitan man”: late 20s or early 30s, stylish rather than fashionable, and “wanting to push himself forward but also enjoy everything at his disposal”.  Muscle maybe the big sell on the cover but when you read the magazine muscle is only around a sixth of the actual content. Instead, they argue, Men’s Health provides a “holistic” look at men’s health, which includes everything from psychology to nutrition. According to the publishers “[t]oday’s man wants an intelligent, informative read covering all aspects of his life and wellbeing, and Men’s Health delivers this brilliantly”. I’m feeling better about myself already.

So what’s changed? Well, I’m not prone to excessive optimism, but I’m going to throw an idea out there and see how it’s received: at the risk of being a little dramatic, I think the single greatest crisis in masculinity which began with the ‘women’s liberation’ movement of the 1960s is, finally, dribbling to an end. The men of generations X and Y are maturing, albeit, as with all these things, for reasons slightly more complex than might generally be presented.

In the more affluent corners of the world the last few decades have witnessed a social change that arguably has no precedent in human history.  After a tangible (though obviously incomplete) shift in power across all spheres men and women are, theoretically at least, equals.  Simultaneously what it means to ‘be a man’ has also changed out of all recognition.

satisfy me!
satisfy me!

Consider the changes: women have emerged to become equal bread-winners, while changes in patterns of employment have meant a ‘job for life’, or even a job that’s secure at all, is neither widely available, nor necessarily desirable.  Rising costs of living (especially the cost of buying a home) have outstripped salaries such that men are frequently remaining dependants at an age when their predecessors would have been considering a young family of their own.

This material change has removed the restrictive—but at least reassuring—conception of manhood that had formed the bedrock of patriarchy. What has been left exposed in its place is the quintessential split subject of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory; a subject (i.e. men) faced with the impossible demand that they be both ‘real man’ (strong, dominant, steadfast) and at the same time ‘new-man’ (sensitive, caring, flexible).  To stay with Lacanian language, this is an encounter with the Real which can not help but be traumatic (‘how can I be both?’ men ask); but it is precisely for avoiding these kind of traumatic encounters that we use ‘fantasy’, an attempt in a sense, to imagine ourselves out of an impasse.

From the wreckage of the 1980s’ perverse combination of ‘greed is good’ (which if anything only deepened men’s sense of economic failure) and puritanical political correctness, emerged the ‘lad-culture’ of the 1990s. The framework of birds, booze and banter that in one form or another had always been the narrative of the working-class man, suddenly gained a resonance among a whole generation of men battered and bruised by their encounter with post-modernity. And ‘lad-mags’, with their glorification of roguish characters such as Liam Gallagher, Paul Gascoigne and Oliver Reed and their fondness for celebrity cleavage, crystallised these sentiments into a discernable culture, giving men back a clear and accessible sense of what masculinity meant.  Do you like tits? Yes! Do you like jokes? Yes! Do you like drinking? Yes! Then, fuck it, forget these demands and this tension, and let’s have some fun!

boys to men...and back to boys again
boys to men…and back to boys again

The thing is escapism is nice while it lasts, but it rarely does.  Ultimately, as a proxy for a wider cultural trend, the lads-mags have declined in recent years, in the face of a new and culturally pervasive regime of ‘care for the self’. This, at the risk of speaking too much theory, demands a totally different form of subjectivisation (or in other words a totally different man).  To see this then as a return of ‘male aspiration’ as Men’s Health would have it (and as most coverage of this has dutifully reported) is to take it at its own ideological level. Rather, doesn’t this represent a classic case of Foucault’s self-governing subject?  An inward turn forming a new success : failure narrative; men you can and should be ‘everything you want to be’, though take note of the clear pointers we give about how to orientate your goals (great in bed, sensitive in relationships, great in the kitchen, a great gym body etc).  Of course the downside is the implied (but always unsaid) injunction: but then if you are not it’s your own fault.

But just because it is just another discursive regime, doesn’t mean it can’t be better or worse than another.  The fact is that working out and eating right does have tangible benefits.  So what would you rather read, a suggestive interview with a coked-up Tara Reid adorned by semi-naked pictures subtly air-brushed to hide the botched boob-job and cellulite, or a new 5-minute abs work-out followed by a recipe for a low-G.I. chilli con carne?  And it goes without saying which will get you more kudos with the significant other in your life.  Neither does it mean that suddenly the old lad-culture is dead (far from it, though sales are declining, a healthy lad-mag industry does exist, if anything in a slightly purer form). But it is simply factually accurate to say that something new and important has emerged, and that it is both revealing and broadly positive (though it is probably a change skewed towards a higher social class).

It is perhaps ironic that rather than the reactionary expectation that feminist successes would lead to the ‘masculinisation’ of women, the more noticeable change has been the rise of male concern with seemingly more traditionally female concerns such as body-image, nutrition and ‘relationship issues’. But beyond an analysis of the dynamics of social change, perhaps the lesson here is an old but important one: any gesture of liberation is at once emancipatory and traumatic; so it has been for men. Nonetheless, though the journey has not been a smooth one, nor even in its impact across social class, there are now new and positive spaces emerging for a redefinition of masculinity and that is, broadly speaking, a good thing.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 5:39 am

    Greetings,

    Thanks for sharing this link – but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at errwhateverz.com have a mirror or another source?

    Cheers,
    Alex

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