The commodification of the male body has become the norm
The past year has seen the formation of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a powerful organization striving to combat the dehumanizing hyper-sexualization of women. As a broad-gauged association including feminists, human rights advocates, and religious and cultural conservatives, the National Center aims to uphold the dignity of every woman in a society that reduces women to objects of desire by insisting upon a sexualized ideal.
The existence of this new coalition shows that the commodification of sexual imagery is an issue on which “conservatives” and “liberals” can cross the conventional party lines. Indeed, by doing so, they have already changed the culture for the better. For instance, due to the Center’s Dirty Dozen initiative, two national apparel chains have redesigned their marketing strategies by eliminating sexualized imagery; a major hotel franchise has removed pornographic movies from its entertainment options; and the Federal Communications Commission has begun enforcing decency regulations that had fallen into abeyance.
Combating the exploitation of women and girls is critical. What has received much less attention, however, is a more recent trend in American culture: the commodification and sexualization of the male body. Mass-marketed movies by mainstream production companies as well as easily accessible print and internet media have conspired to establish the respectability of the consumption of the male form. Though widespread in popular media, this trend and its implications are not appreciated by most activists campaigning against the sexual exploitation of women. The growing social respectability of the sexual objectification of males, however, is a poisonous force spawning genuine and pressing problems.
Counter-Objectification and Other Consequences
As a small but important group of scholars has documented over the past two decades, mass marketing and the popular media increasingly purvey an idealized male physique, defined particularly by muscularity and large chest size. Harrison Pope and Roberto Olivardia of Harvard Medical School have donethe groundbreaking work in this field, with other important work also conducted by Stacey Tantleff-Dunn and her colleagues. This new norm of male sexual objectification—that is, the depiction of men as sexual beings whose worth depends on the power to arouse the opposite sex—is creating serious but underappreciated consequences.
First, reports indicate that young men increasingly suffer from body-image problems. One study finds that young men are now more concerned with their physiques than with their job status. Indeed, “The TODAY/AOL Body Image Survey released in 2014 found that men worry about their appearance more than they worry about their health, their family, their relationships or their professional success.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia—the disorder characterized by the belief that one’s body is defective and requires fixing or concealment—are rising sharply among men. Although these conditions are usually thought to occur almost entirely among females, one estimate gauges that as many as one in four instances are now found among men.
Body-image disorders follow the pattern set by the market’s idealized forms. For women, this generally means becoming thin. Men, on the other hand, inordinately desire muscle mass and muscular tone, leading in turn to steroid abuse and the dangerous over-ingestion of unregulated muscle-building supplements. Indeed, according to the January 2014 report of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, only 15% of male body-image issues include a desire for thinness; 85% relate to muscle tone, abdominal musculature, and chest muscle size.