Investigating the “Masculinity” of the ‘Gym Junkie’

Features. Posted 10 months ago

Madison Griffiths

Arnie taking a bubble bath. Image Source.

It likely took Pat* fifteen minutes to position his iPhone in such a way that it was able to capture every last vein. Every flattering shadow cast on his new found muscles. A warm, orange tinge was his chosen filter. I mean, of course it was. It flattered his skin tone. In a moment, he’d have a camaraderie of Facebook friends commenting on his progress. Hands-in-the-air emojis. #beforeandafter hashtags. “Don’t Give Up Man!!!”.

Pat — an old work acquaintance — was a man possessed by his ‘evolution’. In true Sims 2 fashion, it was as if a green swirl of magic had catapulted his skinny body into the air (accompanied by a kitsch soundtrack), only to transform him into the hard, burly prototype he had hoped to embody. And with such transparency and honesty, Pat essentially declared his body a costume. A masculine shell. One that required work, exposure to full-length gym-side mirrors, and dieting.

Femininity has long been punished for its presumed triviality, vanity and superficiality. All it takes is a stroll down any cosmetic section of a supermarket to find a smorgasbord of pinkness: butterflies flapping their delicate wings on razor packages, flowers pressed to the corners of facial wipes. Women are encouraged to smell like ‘sexy bouquets’ (… if anybody actually knows what a ‘sexy bouquet’ looks — let alone smells like — please let me know) and lavender. Whereas masculinity — cast in steel, barbed wire, and an almost robotic attention-to-detail — cares not for triviality or beat-around-the-bush packaging. If you look close enough, you may even find a casket of sweat in the men’s section being sold for $4.99.

And yet, in ways that women have been tirelessly mocked for, the 21st century gym junkie is a man who manicures his body to abide by conventionality. He prioritises his appearance in ways that have been arguably feminised. He bathes in the sort of shallow water (shallow being the point of emphasis) women have been condemned, and yet expected, to frolic in. And — importantly — he acknowledges however subconsciously through his efforts, that the performance of gender is just that. A performance. A #beforeandafter. Like a home perpetually under renovation: expensive, tiresome, and never really finished. And in this house, calories are counted and athletic wear is folded.

A lot of masculinity’s burgeoning, self-proclaimed importance came from its apparent practicality: how masculinity, and the people who traditionally embody it, are necessary. Their muscles, and untamed body hair, sweat and blood came from them being warriors. There is nothing disposable or dispensable about their character… nor, importantly, their appearance. In a durable, Chuck Norris sort of way, masculinity was seen as reliable because of its grittiness. It couldn’t be flattered by accessories, or altered to make it more appealing; the sort of standards femininity has traditionally been held to.

In the 2013 book, ‘Vanity: 21st Century Selves’, C. Tanner, J. Maher and S. Fraser each challenge masculinity — analysing its changing face in a modern era, where masculine labour is a sexist myth intended only to elevate some, and degrade others. By arguing that masculinity — as a disposition — has been feminised, masculinity is robbed of its inviolable importance. It is now deemed an expression, not something inherent — even by those like Pat, who do not challenge the way it looks but intend on exposing how it is ‘worn’, so to speak.

When Patrick Bateman graced cinemas in 2000, he revealed how postmodern masculinity was essentially in crisis: how his sordid attempts to perform it, and relish in it (on both a professional, sexual and physical level) translated to angsty, desperate violence. Bateman was looking for accessories, after all — for ways to complement his masculine charade. Thus, behind his frenzied hatred of women and competitive insecurities when it came to other men, was a man anxious to clutch a hold of his masculinity; to pat it onto his skin like a face mask, or print it onto a rather impressive business card. To do anything to materialise something deteriorating in self-importance and worth.

However, to acknowledge Pat’s performance — or rather, to acknowledge the performance of white, able-bodied, middle-class masculinity — as a strange form of protest against gender norms, is too generous. Whilst it at least challenges transparency in that masculinity isn’t prescribed as simply something Pat was necessarily ‘born with’. But rather, something he acquired. Someone in his situation is able to ‘earn’ his stripes in encouraging ways, ways that are remarkably easier for Pat than they are for men of colour, queer men, and men who aren’t necessarily able-bodied. For example, Asian men are feminised as is — robbed of a sort of ‘blanket’ masculinity that drapes over the large majority of white men. Pat considered himself a blank canvas, a starting point — whereas an Asian man, for example, must work hard to satisfy even Pat’s initial masculine marker.

Too, whilst the appearance of masculinity is acknowledged as as much of a performance as femininity in a postmodern society, it is no coincidence that conventional femininity demands being made slender. Lesser. Able to fit into smaller pants, corners, and… inevitably, political spaces. The encouragement of women to make ‘little’ themselves — to cut at their corners, and minimise their bodies — can’t be ignored. Too, the pressurisation of women to be small and soft, comparatively to men being hard and burly, still assumes that femininity must be pleasant. Nice to touch. A conventional masculinity is still one married to largeness; to muscularity. Men inevitably are coaxed and urged to take up space, even if they candidly acknowledge the protein shakes it took to get there.

More myth-busting from Madison:

The ‘Cool Girl’ Myth Has Just Been Replaced with the ‘Chill Girl’ Myth

Society Discredits the Female Friendship Because it’s Frightened of its Power