For quite some time now, I’ve been aware of Mark Simpson’s writing on the ‘cult’ of metrosexuality and the male body in popular culture. Or, should I say, I’ve been aware of Mark Simpson since I first started following pedantic anti-feminist battleship Quiet Riot Girl on Twitter. Perhaps shamefully, without actually reading an exhaustive amount of the canon, the two of them inspired one of my first reasonably ponderous blog posts- a post that now has the honour of being my most viewed, due in large part to the amount of people who find it by search terms including (but not limited to) ’one direction pubes’, ‘male pubis’ and, er ‘skating pubes’.
I bet One Direction don’t have two pubic hairs between them.
Anyway, it was, of course, through QRG that I found Simpson’s op-ed in today’s Guardian. “So, men are obsessed with their bodies. Is that so bad?“, he asks. He goes on to say why it’s not. Here are a few choice extracts.
It wasn’t until the noughties that the world was ready to discuss what was happening to men and why they were spending so long in the bathroom. And of course the footie that New Lad fetishised for its manly “authenticity” went most flamingly metrosexual of all.
A third of those [men] surveyed [in a YMCA and UWE Bristol sample] said they thought about their appearance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. A Faustian 35% claimed they would happily trade a year of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives – when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to appear in a spray-on vest on the “straight” dating show Take Me Out anyway.
Men’s main preoccupation, the YMCA survey suggested, was their “beer belly” and lack of muscles, with a whopping 63% saying they thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough.
A glance at the newstand, the billboard, the telly and the queue at the bus stop will tell you that with many young men the desire to be desired, the driving force of the metrosexual revolution of the last decade or so, has taken an increasingly physical, sensual form.
Despite the downside to male self-objectification outlined in the YMCA study, the generalised, compulsory self-loathing among men that went before was mostly worse. It was also considered normal.
Okay, that’s loads of extracts.
So, men look at themselves a lot. There are whole flourishing industries that base themselves around the cult of men’s sexiness, clothing them, feeding them, sending them out into the big wide world. But for whom? It’s interesting that Simpson doesn’t seem to relate the male drive to be sexy with actually getting sex; that is, he speaks of preening and pampering and pumping iron as something that men do for themselves, and share with other men in a homosocial, but not necessarily homoerotic, way. I’m not so naive as to believe that this is the case. Plenty of men want to be sexy to get sex, either from men, women, or men and women. But I think he hits the nail on the head when he speaks of men simply wanting to be “hot”, to be what he calls their own “high street honeys”. Perhaps, for some, their obsession with their own bodies is exactly that, and it stops at themselves. Being sexy and getting sex are two separate things; related, but not mutually inclusive. I know plenty of guys who take up residence in the gym because they’re building a Spartan body for themselves, not for a woman. They know that it draws attention to them, and they’re proud of that. But it’s a bonus, not an aim.
Of course, going to the gym is one thing, while buying a wardrobe of GAP chinos and River Island cardigans is quite another. And there’s a stronger argument for gym-going as being a solitary pursuit than there is for spending vast amounts of money on items of fashion being the same thing. And the thing about fashion, as any petulant non-conformist proto-hipster will tell you (with or without the irony), adherence to fashion makes everyone look the same. Same chinos, same cardigan, same beanie hat (same drainpipe cords, same 90s batik shirt, same Mac). It’s a practise that only ends in itself. Is this the metrosexual practitioner? Or is it the guy in the gym? You can be both, or you can be neither.
As a side note, there’s a lot to be said about the distinctions between metrosexuality and hipster subculture, in terms of the body as a performative space. The notion of hipsters embodying a kind of androgyny-chic is well touted, while the metrosexual has a tendency to appropriate supposedly ‘feminine’ pastimes without necessarily obliterating normative masculinity: spending time and money on appearance, perhaps in emulation of certain pop-culture figures or trends, showing a willingness to enter, if not verbally then by one’s presence alone, into a public, social discussion of that appearance. What’s the difference? If there’s an element of faux-gender bending in hipsterdom, how does that relate to sexual self-awareness? I’m sure there’s a danger of stereotyping the hipster as a reasonably educated, [white] middle class citizen, perhaps from a conservative background but with ostensibly liberal tendencies. The way Simpson puts it at the beginning of his article, it’s as if he coyly suspects metrosexuality to inhabit a typically lower-middle class, upper-working class station: “Back in the early 90s, when Loaded magazine and footie were conquering the culture, making it untuck its shirt, admire its beer belly and leer at “babes”…”. The crossover occurs when one has the leisure time and leisure money to spend on gym memberships, fitted suits and man-bags.
Back to the article, the denouement of which would appear to be that with great body awareness comes great body confidence. Lots of men checking each other out in the changing rooms is a Good Thing. As he concedes, though, there are obvious, complex, and potentially devastating downsides to self obsession.
Let the record state that at this point, the author went to look at a first year undergraduate essay that he wrote on anorexia and femininity, thinking ‘I’d hate to be one of those guys who ever uses the phrase “I wrote an essay about this in university.”‘
Simpson quite rightly points out that young men “historically have been very reluctant to visit their GP and tend to die at a younger age than women.” According to an EU-wide study conducted by a team of researchers including Men’s Health Forum’s Prof. Alan White, it seems we still are.
This report was commissioned by the European Commission and funded through its Public Health Programme to inform policy makers, health professionals, academics and the wider population of the health challenges men face.
The press release identifies the following key findings:
- Over 50% of premature deaths amongst men are avoidable.
- Men are less likely than women to engage in routine or preventative health checks.
- Testicular cancer, despite effective treatment, still remains the first cause of cancer death among young males (20-35 years).
- Men’s depression and other mental health problems are under detected and under treated in all European countries. This is partly due to men being less likely to seek help.
If men have suffered in the past from not visiting our GPs soon enough, then we’re still suffering. Increased body awareness in a public sense doesn’t necessarily equate to an advanced sense of physical or sexual health in a more private sense. Obviously, not all men are metrosexual in the classic (is there a ‘classic’ metrosexual?) sense, if at all. It might be the dominant image in pop culture, but Paddy McGuiness’s Take Me Out hasn’t Taken Over the World just yet. And the demographic of men is as diverse as the day is long. Those working classes with little free time and little disposable income will most often be even less likely to visit a GP than a high-flying man with time on his hands.
The point is, while a man’s public sexuality might be in the spotlight, very little of this seems to push past that level. Does the metrosexual man exist away from the high street, the gym, the nightclub? Has he supplanted the archetypal, no-nonsense masculine figure who shuts up and gets on with it, like the orchestra aboard the Titanic who supposedly carried on playing while the ship sank? Or has it just modified him, dressed him in different clothes and put crap dubstep in his headphones? After all, the term “metrosexual” is, in its modification of “heterosexual”, somewhat of a misnomer. It has to express a new kind of thing without complete departure from the original quality, like “man-bag”, “man-purse”, “man-flu”, “man-candy”, “man-crush”, “man-date”, ad infinitum. While I would agree that ‘heterosexuality’ is to an extent constructed by how one acts in a public/social/economic sense, I don’t know if metrosexuality yet inhabits a similar place in the sex canon. It seems less dependent on being sexually attracted to someone else, than it does being sexually or physically obsessed by oneself. It’s another modification of a base entity, and by that virtue, tends to retain many of the core qualities of the original- for better or for worse.
This is, I suppose, the crux of my bœuf with Simpson’s prognosis for metrosexuality. Are secondary school-age kids who follow TOWIE and Geordie Shore turning up to sex-ed lessons with a more nuanced perspective on themselves and their relations to others? Have they stopped teasing each other or bullying one another based on physical traits? How many men buy JLS brand condoms as part of a rigorous metrosexual health lifestyle? I’m afraid I still need convincing that pop-public metrosexuality is synonymous with physical, sexual and mental self-awareness and self-care. “You could be rotten underneath but if you look great no one gives a fook”, says Simpson’s gym buddy. Metrosexuality seems to be just as much about competition and a Darwinian eradication of the unacceptable as it does an enlightened inclusiveness. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
Mark Simpson says he’s happy enough to watch “straight men flaunting their depilated pecs and abs on reality shows”. I hear Nero also fiddled while Rome burned.