Last week was very female-positive, and well, generally, that’s what I do. I’m a woman; I fall way on the feminine side of the spectrum–I write what I know.
But last week’s topic is not something that only women face, and I felt like I needed to address that. Men struggle with body image, too. And my message of self-love is not exclusive to any one set of people.
This is going to be fun, because I’ve decided to use fictional examples as I discuss this. I’m a huge fangirl, and my interests don’t usually intersect, so buckle up!
(FYI: This post will contain spoilers).
First, and most crucially, a statement:
Toxic masculinity hurts men.
Volumes have already been filled about how much it hurts (and kills) women, but people don’t talk about how horribly it distorts men.
Zuko, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, goes through one of the most perfectly written character arcs ever, and it begins with him as a young teenager, angry and torn up inside from being discarded by his abusive father. He’s obsessed with “regaining his honor,” and it takes him down a path of self-loathing and violence.
He’s a villain, but what he really is, is a boy growing into a man, whose father didn’t think he was strong or ruthless enough. Who wasn’t naturally cruel or dominating. Whose bright, youthful smile was snuffed out.
No one could ever say that Zuko wasn’t a great warrior. He proved himself throughout the series to be not only physically strong and skilled, but incredibly clever. He grows from a villain into the thoughtful and brave young man that he was born to be.
It all culminates into the big moment when he finally sees his father again, when he calls him out for being the hateful, power-hungry abuser that he really is. Calls him out for being a terrible father. Zuko is the perfect example of someone harmed by toxic masculinity, as well as the incredible redemption of overcoming it.
And let’s not forget the man who never gave up on him. Uncle Iroh was a real father to Zuko. Gentle, forgiving, patient. A calm and loving presence in his nephew’s life. The epitome of non-toxic masculinity.
And also known as The Dragon of the West, for his legendary prowess in battle.
Gentle doesn’t mean weak. It never has.
And now that I’ve gone over that, let’s get back to the main focus, which is male body image.
It definitely seems to have changed over the course of the last few decades, and sadly not for the better. Heroes on the big screen have gone from pretty natural-looking…
I’m here to tell you that this image of the bulging, hyper-muscular male form is neither healthy nor natural. Hugh Jackman, bless him, was put through some pretty dangerous stuff to make him look like that. (Stuff like being so dehydrated that he was flirting with organ failure).
And it’s a problem, because boys obviously want to be like their heroes. Everyone does. And Wolverine is one of the best. He is so compelling, and I’ve been in love with him since I was about 12 years old.
But it’s easy to mistake having a six-pack for being strong.
A case could be made that these bulging muscles are a form of objectification for the sake of female viewers, but that’s pretty easily debunked. Just look at the covers of these two magazines.
The one on the left is tailored to male readers, with Hugh in fully-jacked Wolverine-mode and headlines that are basically “You, too, can look like this!”. The magazine on the right is meant for women, with a headline about romance and Hugh standing there with his shirt on, looking like a pretty normal dude.
So let’s not pretend. Making comic book heroes look like they’re on steroids isn’t to please the female eye. It’s a design that is 100% a male power fantasy. And it’s a toxic one. Try to make yourself look like that, and there’s a huge chance you’ll get hurt.
If you want to talk about real strength, I mean actual, raw power, this is what it looks like. This is the build. No abs, a little bit of a tummy…he could pick up and throw your average bodybuilder like a softball.
That’s Hafthor Bjornsson, aka the official World’s Strongest Man. He played Gregor Clegane (also called The Mountain) in Game of Thrones. Meet the scariest villain in the whole GoT universe. Not Tywin Lannister, not Joffrey, not even Ramsey Bolton. Gregor might have been a minor character, but he chilled me to the bone on a primal level. Standing at 6’9″, not only was he a straight up giant, he was a thoughtless and cruel individual. A real, true monster. And if he wanted to kill you, you’d have about the same chance of fighting off a freight train.
All I can say is, thank God he’s a cool guy in real life.
The grizzly bear is not a lean animal. It’s actually one of the most hulking creatures on this earth. And it is unstoppably strong.
My point is, seeing the outline of every muscle on the body is purely aesthetic. Highly unnecessary. You can be strong as hell (and also healthy), and have some fat on you. Just like what I was saying last week, different bodies have different needs, and feeling all this pressure to look a certain way is bullshit.
I don’t like knowing that some very good actors are forced into extremes just to look like this for a shirtless scene. They shouldn’t have to go through that. What does anyone gain by Thor looking this way, if it’s harmful to Chris Hemsworth?
You know what I actually found more appealing? It may shock you…
Fat Thor was more interesting, more real, and more relatable than Beefcake Thor.
It was sort of played for laughs, which isn’t really fair, but this was a character who was experiencing actual depression. He had “let himself go,” but here’s the thing: it wasn’t his body that he needed to work on; it was his mind. And when he picks himself back up and steps forward as a warrior once more…
Don’t act like he lost an ounce of his physical power.
Thor was stronger than he’d ever been in the final battle (and he didn’t “miraculously” show up all lean and trim either). And damned if I didn’t find him sexy in that moment. He even braided his beard.
The insane, overly intense bodybuilder culture we’ve been perpetuating is harmful. The idea that you have to be hyper-muscular (or hyper-masculine) to be a “real man” accomplishes little more than lowering the self-esteem of men worldwide.
The original Star Trek series (which is so worth watching) showed us a wonderful variety of characters, and had an enjoyable amount of shirtlessness itself. And something I noticed right away was that Captain Kirk (the guy always portrayed as the sexy one), never had a six pack. He had an athletic, but entirely normal body.
It led me to believe that beauty standards had yet to get so outlandishly unrealistic in the 60s.
Spock (the cerebral one) got a few shirtless scenes, too, and that’s what I was there for. (Give me the smart one). He was the intellect in the group, and he had less of a reason to look like he was in the gym a lot. You’ll notice in the picture above that he’s skinnier, and he even has natural body hair–I really don’t know why Hollywood feels like it has to wax every chest in sight.
(The funny thing is that Spock is the designated nerd, and he could still kick Kirk’s ass).
No less hot.
Lord of the Rings accomplished a rare thing. Taking place in a world of high fantasy, with magic and epic sword-fights and a lot of men doing a lot of heroic deeds, toxic masculinity is nowhere to be seen.
Look at the variety in the picture above. The Fellowship was made up of men from all across the realm. They all have different perspectives, different strengths, different struggles–and they are so damn caring and supportive of one another. They are, each in their own way, incredibly tender and genuinely good people.
They don’t want war. But they’re stepping up, facing peril at great personal cost, because they want to protect their world from darkness.
And their muscles are never a focus at any point. Because that would be stupid. Muscles don’t make the man–if they did, I wouldn’t have wanted to marry Samwise Gamgee when I was a young teenager watching these movies.
And this isn’t solely about strong vs. not-strong.
Looking for a role model who’s a leader? A real alpha-male type with nerves of steel? Look no further than Captain Jean-Luc Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d marry him in a heartbeat, and so would millions of other women.
Big muscles and an excess of machismo don’t mean a damn thing in terms of who’s appealing. Pro-tip: As a woman who’s attracted to men, I can tell you that we would choose a calm, reasonable man over a brash one nine times out of ten.
I can’t make many generalizations beyond that, of course. Every individual has a completely unique sense of taste when it comes to what they find sexy. And personal taste can go all over the map. I myself, for example, have had a thing for Darth Maul since Phantom Menace first came out.
All of this to say, it’s time to forget about what shape you are and focus on what kind of person you want to be. What you want to add to this world. It will come naturally to you, because we’re all different, and the world needs all of our differences.
We fantasize about living in these massive realms like the Star Wars universe or the Lord of the Rings universe, with all this fascinating variety–aliens, elves, hobbits–but who are we kidding? We bully each other to death just for being slightly different shapes and colors. If we even thought the Zabrak or Mandalorian races were real, we’d declare war immediately.
Men come in all forms, and they’re all still men. Some are like Kristofer Hivju (left). Some are like Sean Chong-Umeda (right). And there are a million sorts in between. It’s just as well, too, because everybody likes something different. If you’re worried about whether or not you’re attractive, I want you to know, there are people out there who would find you sexy exactly the way you are right now.
The important thing is that you’re not an asshole.
Men have emotional needs, inner struggles, and poignant vulnerabilities. Toxic masculinity tries to squash that all down. “Anger is the only emotion you can feel.” “Real men don’t cry.” “Real men don’t ask for help.” “If you don’t like violence, you’re weak.”
“Women will only like you if you have big muscles.” (Whoever says that has never spoken to an actual woman before).
Way too many men live their lives trying to pull off this false sense of stoicism, never feeling “allowed” to explore their full range of human emotions or interests–for fear that their manhood will be snatched away somehow.
There are real consequences to that shit. We already know how dangerous it makes things for women, but here’s what else toxic masculinity does: there are no baby changing stations in men’s bathrooms (Screw single dads, right? Childcare is for women). There is pretty much zero access to care for male victims of domestic abuse (because only women can be abused, right?). Men suffer from eating disorders (and yet, people believe that’s only a female problem).
Boys get mocked for showing emotional sensitivity, so they tamp that down. Men often grow up never even getting hugged by their loved ones, so they walk through life touch-starved and unsure of how to express affection. We teach our sons, “be tough” and nothing else. Having biceps is the same thing as having a personality.
Men commit suicide at four times the rate of women.
The thesis of my entire blog is to encourage women to take their places in this world as queens. To embrace their personal power, put on their crowns, and sit comfortably on their thrones.
I am the queen of my life. That’s my mantra. My home is my kingdom, and I decide how I will walk through this existence.
But just as I was once a little princess, our boys ought to grow up as princes. I’m not talking about spoiled brats; I’m talking about kids who are raised to understand responsibility and benevolence. And if you weren’t raised like that, then it’s time to teach yourself. Because just as women should be the queens in their lives, men must be their own kings.
Good and just kings. Bringers of peace. Supporters of love.
I am going to look after myself, and I am going to look after the people I care about. And if I were a man, nothing about that would change. And it certainly wouldn’t be changed by something as petty as my body fat percentage.
Hail to the king!
Have a beautiful week.