Friday, 5 March 2010

Objectification: what if the world were different for a day?

Picture this. You open the newspaper one grey morning, and there in a bright pixel smear on the third page is a full-length photograph of a young man. The young man is almost naked; a flesh-coloured thong clings tightly to his hairless cock and balls; he looks over his shoulder at you, his jaw a perfect masculine square, his dark eyes smouldering. Everywhere, this young man is hard, smooth, impenetrable and yet submissive, wanting you to consume him. You turn the page.

There are more young men on each of the pages that follow, naked or scantily clothed, poreless, flawless, with broad shoulders and rock-hard arses and muscles that bunch and gleam under oiled skin. You are used to the sight of these young men; these days, they hardly even arouse you. Their glassy eyes follow you on public transport, on the internet, on television, in the fashion spreads of magazines.

Picture this. Every one of the men and boys whose images you see repeated thousands of times a day is impossibly perfect, hewn from some arcane piece of rock on the platonic plane. Not one of them is over thirty-three. In the shadow of their hard, robotic masculinity, the possibility of paunches and puppy fat and male-pattern balding is unthinkable . They rarely speak, and when they do speak, they ventriloquise; they implore you to look at them, to understand their silent semiotics of commercial masculinity; they threaten and seduce you in a boring parade of billboards, adverts, music videos.

These men don’t seem to be doing very much. Usually, they are moronically thrusting and jerking around cereal boxes, insurance packages, bottles of shampoo and soap. They seem to beg to be penetrated, but it is they who have invaded your body and brain, as if the images were trying to force themselves out through your skin. Some of them are known to you by name or sobriquet, as singers or actors, or as the sons or lovers of powerful women. They grimace beautifully as they drape their impossible bodies over stages and sets, showing off watches and shoes and beautiful clothing that hangs from their perfect torsos in artful folds and flutters in artificial winds. Their images cluster in everywhere , unseeing, bored, as if they can’t quite decide whether to fuck you or punch you.

You know that it’s not real, of course. You understand vaguely that the real men and boys who pose for these images are almost all on punishing diet and exercise programmes; cocaine and steroid abuse and compulsive weightlifting are endemic in the modelling and media industries.You know that in order to make your body resemble the bodies you see around you you would have to push it to its limits, to the exclusion of all else. And yet the idea occurs to you, almost daily, oozing out of every advertising surface. You see more images of perfect men, on a daily basis, than you meet ordinary men in real life. Your sense of reality, of what gender and beauty and power mean on a day-to-day basis, becomes warped. They are the real men, not you: if you don't look like them, you're not trying hard enough. Other men in your peer group clearly are trying, perhaps not hard enough, but hard enough that they don't seem invisible in this glossy, thrusting semiotic stream of plastic masculinity. So you try harder, too. You start to eat less, go to the gym more, maybe play around with taking some steroids - everyone's doing it, what harm can there be? And maybe you succeed, maybe you don't. At least you're trying. At least you're buying things. Isn't that the point?

You begin to forget what real men look like. Older men, overweight men, plain men, scrawny men seem to shrink and fade as you look past them, unsure how to react to the freakish weight of their humanity. Images of men over thirty-five are such a rarity that when you glimpse real elderly men, they seem obscene, the lines and trappings of years a monstrous deformity. The few much-photographed men who have been permitted to age are known to have undergone extensive, brutal surgical procedures and to spend thousands of dollars a year ‘maintaining’ their appearance. Whatever their age, they all have full heads of hair -male-pattern balding becomes an obscenity, and the hair loss and implant industry is worth billions each year, as is the dangerous and murky skin-lightening industry, because these men aren't just all lean, perfect and young, they're also all white.

The small proportion of images of men from non-white backgrounds features young men who have typically Caucasian features, from height and straightness of hair to pale skin and blue eyes. Airbrushing helps here, too, bleaching faces, hardening the lines of lips and noses and erasing epicanthal folds. The pop-star Kanye West appears on a box of Rogaine looking suspiciously pale, but the firm denies altering his appearance, and the singer is contractually bound to shut his million-dollar mouth and keep on smiling.

Across the country, young boys are caught in this stream of images, and being young, they make the mistake of trying to swim. Young black and asian boys bleach their skin with illegal creams and dyes and turn up at hospital with third-degree burns; young boys of all backgrounds, some as young as five and six, are embarking on diet and exercise regimes to try to look more like their favourite male models, actors and porn stars. Boys of seventeen and eighteen are having surgery on their penises, their pectoral muscles and their faces to make them resemble the ideal. Fully half of teenage boys are on a diet, and some begin to take the process too far, cutting out snacks, then meals, then sustenance altogether. They pump iron for hours everyday, their infant muscles screaming with pain. By the time they arrive at university, one in ten of the best and brightest young boys are already racked by anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise and steroid abuse. They drop like flies, and you can do nothing to save them.

But there's more. Something strange is happening to many of the boys who have managed to continue to feed and nourish themselves, the boys you thought were safe. They spend hours in front of mirrors fretting about their appearance, applying make-up, spending money they don't have on clothes that might make them resemble the images they see everywhere around them, the images that everyone knows are false. They stop doing their work, abandon their studies, dumb down their intelligence, desperate to be accepted as that vital thing - handsome. They want you to notice them, they want to be allowed to exist in a culture which only allows them full purchase if they look great, gorgeous, glowing, up for it. They learn to erase their sexual identities. They learn to flirt, to give the impression of putting out, at every opportunity. They learn to be silent. They learn to stick their arses out when an important woman is in the room. They learn to smile.

These young men know that their chances of getting a decent job will be massively improved if they invest time, money and hours of pain and anxiety in their appearance and give an impression of sexual availability. These men want full, whole lives, they want what everyone wants - to be able to walk in the world as human subjects - but they understand that the culture of beauty fascism isn't going to change soon, and that means that they also have to be accepted as physical objects, and for that they need to prove their worth in the relentless economy of white, lean masculine beauty. The plea, on a fundamental level, is a plea to exist. These young men are crying out for truth and understanding, but in an economy built on lies, how can they be expected to fight the tide on their own?

What is the response of the government, of the media to this trend? They say nothing. These silly young boys don't know any better than to copy what they see. And anyway, women have to worry about what they look like too! Granted that it's the men, not the women, who are judged on the basis of their appearance in public life - but then, there are so few men in politics and in business that we're bound to look at them a bit funny, aren't we? It's all in good fun, isn't it?

And so government remains silent, as legions of young men drop out of the system, fail to fulfil their potential or grow up into miserable, half starved adults. It doesn't matter, not really. The men's groups kicking up their silly little boys' protests don't understand the logic of the market. Images of lusty young men sell products - that's all there is to it. Red blooded women like to look at hot young men - and that's evolution, that is, and evolution means never ever changing, and that's all there is to it. And after all, women find it easy to develop individual personalities, unconstrained by silly, masculine, frivolous worries about their bodies. What is it about young men that they can't do the same? Are they defective? They must be. Come on, let's talk about women's problems some more.

[Image via the excellent OddityCollector]


  1. Thank you so much for writing for this.

    Do you think you could rewrite it in language readers of The Stun would understand, and submit it to them?

  2. Yet another brilliant, thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  3. Really excellent post. I had huge problems suspending my disbelief throughout, but it's not the writing that's at fault - it's just that we're entrenched in such a patriarchal society that the opposite - an equal distance from the centre - seems completely absurd. Which, in itself, is an important point.

  4. Brilliant piece, Laurie.

    Everywhere, this young man is hard, smooth, impenetrable and yet submissive, wanting you to consume him.

    And above it there's a little bubble reading, "Tom was shocked by [non-event]. "What's this country coming to? Our spineless politicians need to [enact terrifyingly draconian measure] at once!""

    One nitpick...

    And after all, women find it easy to develop individual personalities, unconstrained by silly, masculine, frivolous worries about their bodies.

    Don't think this applies to young men. Either that or I'm awfully out of the loop!

  5. Another fantastic post. Thank you.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this excellent piece Laurie.

  7. You have just described the gay press.

  8. @David - Yep, down to the eating disorders.

  9. Painfully-easy to recognise; excellently written.

  10. This is absolutely excellent.

    - Francis

  11. Read The Beauty Myth, then?

  12. You are a physical object.Get over it.

    Imagine you're living in a tribe in the Amazon.
    You're confronted by real-life images of bouncing breasts, naked buttocks and swinging cocks all day. But it doesn't have the effects described (counterfactually) in this piece.

    Patriarchy theory won't help you explain this. The problem is not in the image.
    The problem is about inequalities in social power that derive from private ownership of the means of production.

    The mass media reflect and reinforce this situation. Only an image which is alienated from its subject can be used as a public commodity.


  13. Surely this piece is as fictional as the story in an old edition of the Sport entitled, "Dustbin man turned into dog"? I actually work in advertising, and, basically, all advertising campaigns are based on two hypotheses:

    (1) People want to POSSESS something;
    (2) People want to RESEMBLE someone.

    Usually people don't want to be poor, hence advertisements depicting wealthy people enjoying particular products that we want to sell, or ugly, hence the advertisements showing idealised images of highly attractive men and women that coarser and more earthy plebs fantasise about and sometimes even aspire to resemble themselves in some unimportant way.

    Advertising isn't political, it's sociological and psychological and often based on appealing to the sexual drive in men AND women. It isn't wrong. It is inevitable.

    1. Money, money, money, mon-ey. Sex sells crackers to little old ladies for their parrots. The Truth is just an alibi. We all got justifications, doesn't mean they're right.It's never nice when you realize you're a whore. But, hey, we all are.

  14. Advertising can be wrong on so many levels. Paying for the privilege of polluting our public space with disgusting images telling us to buy things we don't need and live lifestyles that aren't becoming of us.

  15. This writing is wonderful. inspiring and truthful.

    ' you look past them, unsure how to react to the freakish weight of their humanity.'

    This is also a very beautiful sentence.

  16. "And so government remains silent, as legions of young men drop out of the system, fail to fulfil their potential or grow up into miserable, half starved adults."

    Umm..considering that young men seem to be the problem child of all societys demographics, this "Ooh if young men had to walk a mile in womens shoes" doesn't really seem to wash? And it's not like the above image isn't something new unless Beckham thrusting his groin out for Armani has been completely forgotten?

    "These men don’t seem to be doing very much. Usually, they are moronically thrusting and jerking around cereal boxes, insurance packages, bottles of shampoo and soap"

    Ha ha! Oh gosh, like that doesn't happen already? My favourite is the guy who's so clueless he thinks he's hoovered up his dog.

    A guy called Dave

  17. It's like this debate we were having a while back about airbrushing. My view then, and I'll stand over it, is that if the media were full of male pinups with digitally enhanced cocks we'd soon see it being taken seriously.

    There's also a broader point about the culture, and how the images are appropriated - do women find them alienating, do they embrace a sort of ersatz femininity, or whatever. Are images being constructed around what men are supposed to like, rather than what they do like. This may be a prejudice of age, but if you see porn or glamour photography from 20 or 30 years ago it's like something from a different planet - natural tits, tummies, cellulite, even (shock horror) pubic hair. With all the misogyny there was back then, there was still this idea of women looking beautiful as women - it really worries me that young women are being sold on the idea that beauty is all about looking as similar as possible to a blow-up doll. Or if millions of women buy these celebrity magazines that pillory famous women for just being very beautiful and not impossibly perfect, what does that say about the consumers' attitudes?

    Actually, your point about objectification of male physicality is well taken, and tells us something about patriarchy, but it's not at all implausible. There is a fair amount of this around, it's just not nearly as pervasive outside of certain parts of the gay scene. Straight men will take a while yet to be socialised into these sorts of neuroses.

  18. Penny's world-where-men-are-objectified wouldn't bother my geeky male friends much, their sense of self is in their careers and interests. They know they're not pretty, and they'd prefer to be, but they ultimately don't care that much. Men are always allowed to substitute money and education for beauty. Women can, look at Dominica, but they're not really supposed to.

    Anon of Not Searched

  19. Anon -

    They know they're not pretty, and they'd prefer to be, but they ultimately don't care that much.

    Then again, they haven't lived in a culture where pretty draconian expectations are placed upon their physicality.

  20. Anonymous said...

    " Penny's world-where-men-are-objectified wouldn't bother my geeky male friends much, their sense of self is in their careers and interests. They know they're not pretty, and they'd prefer to be, but they ultimately don't care that much."

    I'm a geeky male and I know I'm not pretty but I'd prefer to be. I ultimately don't care very much.
    The thing that one needs to think about is, in penny's posited world, would I have ever had a chance to become myself?

    Would I have ever had a chance to define my sense of self in terms of career or other interests.

    I must certainly concede that I would not have had anywhere near as many moments of social approval from pursuing interests aside from my physicality as I have in my real life and I certainly would have received more positive social re-enforcement when I did concentrate on physicality. There is no telling who I would be in Penny's world-where-men-are-objectified.

    I would either be similar to who I really am but would have had a much harder and generally more tedious time getting here or I would be someone that I can't much respect. In either case it's cause for though.

  21. "Imagine you're living in a tribe in the Amazon.
    You're confronted by real-life images of bouncing breasts, naked buttocks and swinging cocks all day. But it doesn't have the effects described (counterfactually) in this piece."

    If you were living in a tribe in the Amazon you wouldn't be surrounded by decontextualised, digitally manipulated 'images', but by *actual* breats, buttocks and cocks, presumably many of them attached to perfectly ordinary looking people of various ages. The whole point is that the ideal to which women (and to a lesser, though increasing, extent, men)nowaday aspire is *impossible* - even the youthful, dieted, plucked, waxed, tanned, toned and often surgically altered women the images are based on *still* aren't good enough, if the amount of photoshopping they endure is anything to go by.


  22. Don Draper -

    I also work in advertising and if you really believe what you typed then I can't believe that you have been in advertising very long.

    People don't want to POSSESS or RESEMBLE something - companies want them to want to possess or resemble something and we create the images to tell them why.

    It is political - we don't sell people things they want to look like. We sell them images they can't achieve and tell them that they should want to look like that in order to justify selling products. The products don't make them look like our adverts tell them because if they did then we wouldn't have an aspirational image to sell them, would we?

    Your "things are the way they are" attitude is lazy and unimaginative. Unfortunately our industry is rife with this. It's funny because we are paid to come up with new and creative ways to sell products and we should be trying to deliver. The attitude of the world is moving on and it is ridiculous that a lot of advertising is still stuck trying to sell them stuff like it is 1968.

  23. "If you were living in a tribe in the Amazon you wouldn't be surrounded by decontextualised, digitally manipulated 'images'...."
    Quite. But that reinforces the point that I was making.
    In real Amazon tribes like the Matis in Brazil, nakedness was obligatory upon entry into the tradtional Longhouse.
    The inequalities between men and women that exist in their society have nothing to do with the "objectification" of the human body.
    Identifying this as the problem blurs the issue.
    It opens the door to reactionary disgust with the human body.
    Either self disgust, or enforced moral disgust.
    It's the capitalist media that turns the image of people's bodies into commodities to sell things.
    Money always changes hands somewhere along the line.


  24. Thank you.

    It's hard to get into seeing this, but that's not because it's so wrong (it is); it's because it's so currently entrenched that it's women who have to deal with this that it's hard visualizing it any other way.

    It'd be nice to not have to visualize it at all. My merits are my brain & personality, not my body.

  25. You seem to think that the gay male press wouldn't have the same unrealistic body image as the straight press has about women (or, for that matter, about men). I suggest you go read some of it, whereupon you would discover that your monograph above is not a radical reversal of the status quo, but actually a documentation of what already happens in print for people who fancy men.

  26. The points made about the gay press is that it's small scale and therefore avoidable; which doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of unrealistic body images promoted through it that perhaps need to be questioned. The reason why sexualised images of women are so pervasive is that they are absolutely everywhere - you simply cannot avoid it.

    Another point is that the gay imagery doesn't seem to effect heterosexual men's self-image because they are exposed to very little of it.

  27. Edmund's right, I guess I am missing the point a little.

    I guess what troubles me about Pennies essay is the implication that well-educated feminist should sit in judgement on the media industry to prevent thicker women's self-esteem from damage.

    There is something deeply sad about a society where the pornography depicts women with a healthier body-mass-index than a national newspaper :-(

    Anon of Not Searched

  28. (Disclaimer: I'm a woman)

    This reads as incredibly self-pitying.

  29. Yo Laurie, check this ad out - it's your revenge, I imagine:

  30. If I were to wager a guess at why, I’d say that users don’t “browse” forms. The interaction style users engage in with forms is different, and requires its own study and design best practices. This is a very interesting post, and the comments are also fantastic to read. I’ll have poses to have a little re-think about my own contact form on our new website, as this some interesting questions!
    congitation overseas

  31. This is very good. While there are issues with the representation of men in the media (mainly that men are stupid and/or violent offenders), women's representation is particularly troublesome because that's all there is. While a boy can likely FIND a male role model, there are far fewer options for girls.

    ...However, I think you exaggerate in talking about women who "fall out of the system." Most college graduates, and admissions are women, and the gap is increasing. Girls increasingly do better in school in all areas--when it was girls who were lagging in math and science, there was an outcry: "What can we do to help girls succeed??" Now that it's boys who are failing, society just shrugs it's collective shoulders and goes back to women's issues. In the US there's a office for Women's Health but not for Men's; spending on female or female-dominant medical issues vastly outstrips the reverse, and states provide services for women's medical issues but not for men's. More women are employed than men (even though, arguably, more women CHOOSE to be homemakers) and more women have health insurance.

    None of this means there aren't women's issues, even in the West, and there are not MAJOR problems with women's representation in the media and women's stories, but to paint it as some monolithic system where women are disadvantaged at every turn is disingenuous.

  32. Also, my previous comment was not meant to detract from the rest of the post, which I largely agree with. I don't think representing men as stupid or as violent offenders is any better than representing women as sex objects but I'm conscious of the fact I can turn on the TV and find lots and lots of men who are NOT defined by being either stupid or by being abusers/rapists, even if those are very pervasive themes.

    I CANNOT easily find women who are not in some way defined by their sexuality.

  33. Blimey. Your writing has always been excellent, but recently it seems to have reached a new height. Totally amazing. Thank you.

    I am writing this on the 17th, so I have read the posts above it too.

  34. Wow, What a piece. Add me to you male admirers.

  35. As men currently have their own impossible standard by which women judge them, this illustration fails on so many levels. Such a discussion requires gender reversal, not gender replacement. I would argue that it is easier to be good looking for the opposite sex than it is to be rich for the opposite sex. Thus this hypothetical reads like gay porn.

  36. A very fine article indeed. However i'd just like to make one point. Women are currently, and have been for the last few years or so, out performing men in all areas of education and in finding graduate recruitment. Yes the pressure to look good and be passive is horrific, but it seems there are atleast a cirtain number of women that it is not having the desired effect. And thank Bog for that.

    p.s. if someone has already made this point i apologise. i am lazy.

  37. Very well-written, and a worthwhile thought experiment. I'm reminded of Douglas Hofstadter's 'Person Paper on Purity in Language', which employ a related device...

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