by Guy Jones
In any discussion, debate, fireside chat, or what have you regarding feminism, the topics of body image, ideals of beauty, self-esteem, and lack thereof are hard to avoid. The conversation is important to have, though society will likely always prop up conventionally “beautiful” people as models for our emulation.
Advertisements often get significant attention in this kind of discussion, and for good reason: those who sell products know they can profit more from fear than from genuine attraction to the product. If you don’t try this diet you won’t look like Megan Fox, don’t you know Bane uses P-90X, buy our lingerie or your breasts won’t look nice enough, if you think your acne cream is working remember that girl who dumped you.
This kind of dialogue is addressed in feminist thought and is often seen to be mainly a women’s issue, and yet men have a lot to gain from the attitudes and understandings that feminists have adopted towards body image. I’ve seen plenty of men shrug off the issue of body negativity in advertising, media, and overall culture because they think women should either be able to attain the perfect body or simply ignore this pressure entirely.
However, pressure to conform to an ideal body type applies to people of all genders, and this is why I believe men who don’t self-identify as feminist have a lot to learn from those who do. Victoria Edel wrote a wonderful piece on this subject that offers ways to approach body positivity, and she is right to say that both genders can benefit from this kind of thinking. Men tend to overlook body positivity as an issue at all, because often the body negativity fed to men is more quiet, and in darker places in entertainment.
I mean, of course, in that circa-30% of the Internet that is visited mainly by males. I don’t mean ESPN, mind you, since most women love sports much more than I do. And though many women do enjoy their porn, those sites and companies know that they are targeting a male-dominated audience. As in, people with penises. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.
“Shocking Discovery Reveals 1 Secret for Big D*ck”. This one was a tad strange: “I taught my 23 year old virgin little bro ONE amazing secret to get a big d*ck”. Or perhaps this great offer: “C*ck under 7”? 20% of men know the secret to growing 4” in 4”. (this one cut off here, and I’m anxious about how long it takes. Four days? Weeks? Years?). And this was found all in just a few pages of internet porn.
Now, whether or not you think porn is wrong and supports the subjugation of women, or a sex-positive expression of ownership over one’s body (a very different conversation which is worth having), it’s hard to deny that men are very often assaulted with similar fears and anxieties concerning purported body flaws that serve to make them purchase some terrible product. And while it may be more direct and less nuanced than advertising targeted at females (I hardly see ABC running an ad that even mentioned the word “dick”), and though it is obviously all a scam, many men have an incredible anxiety regarding their body image as it relates to their attractiveness and sexual performance – even those with average or above average body types.
Take, for example, the one penis enlargement advertisement that makes it onto actual TV: ExtenZe. What they are doing with the Z there, I don’t know. But consider the tagline for a moment – “natural male enhancement”. Tongue-in-cheek as it may be, this is a deceptively sinister marketing strategy that should be lauded at least for its complete honesty: when it comes to male bodies, bigger is always better, and smaller is always worse, and when there’s always room for improvement (or “enhancement”) you ought to buy all of our products and continue their use for as long as possible (ExtenZe claims its effects are only temporary). Don’t forget – in all this talk of “male enhancement”, men in almost every clothing ad have six-pack abs and huge biceps; they’re tall, tan, and chiseled. And (implicitly, since there’s nearly always a conventionally pretty girl under their arm) they have a big penis.
It’s important to know that the repercussions of all of this negative advertisement are not limited to buying bad products. As feminist thought has already unpacked in great detail, selling poor body image as a way to make people feel dependant on your product harms everyone’s self-esteem and can move them to destructive habits. Crash diets, eating disorders, unhealthy supplements and even unnecessary surgeries are undertaken by people of all genders, and men need to recognize this as it affects them more silently than it does women. Whether one self-identifies as a feminist or not, everyone must support a body positive culture in which self-loathing is not a marketing tool and beauty is found in everyone, including ourselves.