The body, as defined by Kosut is ‘the intersection between self and society’ (Kosut 32). The body is not only a way to portray biological and cultural identity, but it is also a way to convey personal and social messages. Since the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2000 BC), people have participated in body modifications for several various reasons (Perrin 1). Tattoos are possibly the oldest and most common form of permanent body modification (Kosut 32.) A survey conducted by Henwood, Gill & McLean showed that one third of the 140 participants had a tattoo or one part of their body pierced, and a significant bigger proportion “professed an interest in or desire to modify their body in one of these ways” (Gil 8).
For this essay, I will be focusing on reasons behind the gaining popularity of body modifications due to dissatisfaction that males have about their body, as well as the relationship it has with personal issues; Such as how it affects men’s perception of masculinity and their own body image.
Origins of Body modification
Body modifications were prevalent in meeting standards of beauty. As early as in the Song Dynasty (960-1270) period –reflecting cultural values and beliefs– ancient body modifications such as foot binding was in practice by women as small feet were considered attractive (Readworks 1). It was also suggested that foot binding made women more socially acceptable as they had ‘higher chances of marrying into a good family and moving up in society'(Readworks 1). Thus it is prevalent that body modifications was a way to improve social status and reflected the ideal standard of beauty in different time periods.
Body modifications such as neck binding and tattoos distinguished people from different cultural backgrounds. However, with time, the cultural context that was linked has been changed. For example, Neck binding was a practice originated from the 11th century and In the past, it was worn as a sign of wealth but now, women of the Padaung tribe wear it to continue the tradition (Theurer 1). Tattoos similarly have gone through a change, no longer limited to youth culture or criminal communities but ‘extends through the social scale as tattoos are increasingly used to produce an aesthetic enhancement of the body.” (Turner 4) This shows that the reasons for body modifications can be changed over time.
Rise in body modifications
There are various reasons that attribute to the rise in body modifications. It has been hypothesized that due to the media’s portrayal of a super-male, it has lead to many males in the current society to view their bodies as imperfect. The influx of strong built protagonist in superhero movies such as Superman in Man of Steel (2013), Justice League (2017) and Captain America in his trilogy (2011, 2014 and 2016), advertising and figurines of popular action figures amongst boys such as G.I joe promotes the concept of the super-male (Baghurst 88). The rise in reality television makeover shows in 2002 with ABC’s Extreme Makeover, FX’s (fictional) Nip/Tuck (2004) and MTV’s I Want a Famous Face (2014) have also influenced the overall consumption of cosmetic surgeries (Wegenstein 126).
The super male body archetype was first introduced in the 1980s when Christopher Reeve who played Superman in 1983 was pressured by the producers to put on muscles. The previous Superman actor such as Kirk Alyn in the first Superman in 1948 and Adam West as the first Batman in 1966 had an absence of any abdominal or arm muscles below their full-body stocking and elastic suits. It has been suggested that due to VHS aerobics and jogging craze in the 1980s that sparked the producers of Superman to force Christopher Reeves to either put on a muscle suit underneath his costume or work out to get a more muscular body. (The Atlantic) From then on, the trend of the superhero body grew and it almost seems like with each film, the main actors are getting more buff and muscular. The current superheroes such as Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck which are the current Superman and Batman actors offer massive shoulders, v-shaped torsos and rippling abs. Advertising also promotes the concept of the super male, with fit and buff bodies in every advertising medium like advertisement posters, magazines and movie posters. It can seem hard for males to not compare themselves to repeated exposure of buff bodies (Psycom). These expectations to look muscular and strong may have manifested from a young age. Children’s toys, such as GI Joe, groom little boys to believe that that is what we all should look like. Research has found that physical measurements made from G.I joe and Superman action figurine had much more defined muscles compared to the same figure made 25 years ago (Pope 66).
Reality TV involves documentary-style shows where ordinary people are followed in their daily lives, particularly the growing subgenre of body makeover shows like Channel 4’s Ten years younger (2004) and MTV’s I Want a Famous Face (2014) pushing the idea of the ‘ wish fulfillment ‘ technique (Wegenstein 114). It pushes the idea of how anyone, people like you and me can go on a television show, wish for something and get it. The selling point of reality television makeover shows is that the commodification of an act like going under the knife is linked with the consumption of the images and a magical transformation narrative that the media economy makes us believe. The more we see “it”, the more we see ourselves in it; With “It” referring to shows. (Wegenstein 114). Reality television holds a contract with the audience: “it could be me. It could be me who received this makeover, if I receive this makeover, I will look better and my life will be better “ (Wegenstein 115). These factors have possibly lead to the rise in cosmetic surgery ever since the 2000s as the rate of cosmetic surgery keeps going up.
It is also interesting to note that in The Cosmetic Gaze, Wegenstein also talks about ‘media bodies’ and ‘real bodies’. Wegenstein brings up that jones suggests that ‘we read cosmetic surgery reality television as a platform to present these “media bodies” to the viewer as “real bodies” that come about via screen births:’. This brings about the point where the virtual (what is presented on screen) starts to influence the real and those who consume media, especially reality television makeover shows has the mindset of ‘media body”; Consumers will then start to compare them to their own ‘real’ body. It also communicates the message that cosmetic surgery is a legitimate way to reduce body image concerns (Wegenstein 125).
Thus it can be clearly seen that the media has made an impact and shifted the reasons of how body modifications has changed to one’s needs and wants compared to the past that was for meeting standards of beauty, improving social status and signifying the different cultural backgrounds. In a way, the reasons for these modifications have changed and also retain its original meanings. Nowadays, men can also get body modifications due to their own reasonings and nothing else, their wants to fit into their different standards, becoming their own ideal type. With factors such as the super male archetype advertised through movies, advertisement, toys as well as reality television shows fuels the desire for men to get their desired body shapes through drastic means.
How it has affected men to perceive masculinity and body image
Growing dissatisfaction amongst males and their bodies have raised and mental health professionals have acknowledged two new physiological disorders named muscle dysmorphia and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). In short, muscle dysmorphia is reverse anorexia in which almost exclusively affects men and refers to the preoccupation with being insufficiently large and muscular. Body dysmorphic disorder is defined as the preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance that results in emotional suffering and disruption in daily functioning (Thompson 26). For example, excessive grooming or mirror checking. Persons with BDD often pursue cosmetic treatments. For these two physiological disorders, a distorted body image leads them to constantly think and feel anxiety about their appearance. These individuals are often tormented by their own thoughts and those consuming thoughts result in disruption of their daily lives (Thompson 125). Behaviours associated with muscle dysmorphia is excessive workouts. However for some, either because excessive exercise takes a toll on their body or they prefer not to exercise, they engage in cosmetic surgeries to achieve their ideal body (Thompson 129). Calculating men with muscle dysmorphia in the general population is difficult as studies have found that they rarely seek treatment (The Guardian).
It has been established in many instances that contemporary Western culture has failed to understand that in terms of body image, people have major concerns about their bodies. It is suggested that Males are expected to be masculine and masculinity is associated with muscular, strong, powerful and athletic (Drummond 2). Overtime, this idea of masculinity has been forced upon them through the narratives we have discussed earlier such as the super-male archetype, media, toys and even reality television shows to make them look “manlier”. In an interview from a report by Dr Murray Drummond in 2015, it has been noted that interviewees desired looking more muscular in order to positively impact their masculine identity. Some interviewees have said that it gives them a sense of empowerment, self confidence and believe in the notion of bigger is always better. It is also seen that these men have a strong perception that developing and maintaining fatness displayed a lack of control and thus is not a masculine trait. These information was gathered from various males ranging from from adolescent boys to elite sportsmen, eating disordered men and gay men. Another survey by Men’s Health magazine which has 1,000 participants showed that a total of 75% percent of men were not happy with their body shape. Most wished their bodies were more muscular. (Grogan 88)
The Ideal type
The ideal type of men has shown changes across the years specifically from 1930s to 2010s. Being overweight was a sign of wealth in the late 19th century, as among the people of that time, it showed that one was wealthy enough to feast. However, by the 1930s, excess weight started to get associated with lower classes. Hollywood actors were expected to be fairly fit and look good on camera. This started a shift in a new ideal. Later in the 1960s, a counter-cultural wave hit and skinny bodies with long hair represented the ideal. Not long after in the 1980s, hyper-masculinity came into play and started to gain popularity but quickly died down as hyper-masculinity went out of style and the everyman came in. The everyman is characterized by a medium built man with prominent arm and chest muscles as well as pectoral muscles (Business Insider). Ever since, the media has promoted a muscular male body through advertisements, television and specific muscle-related magazines for several decades. Furthermore, the message of the muscular as ideal has increased in recent years. Unfortunately, many individuals who read magazines promoting the muscular ideal feel inferior and also feel that their bodies do not match those they see depicted in the magazines and do not feel attractive (Thompson 23). Advertisements found in print media expose readers to the muscular ideal to sell products as well. Like print media, television and movies also promote the muscular ideal. It is obvious that the representation of Men in the media focuses on big, bulky and muscular males. These unrealistic body types has led most men to hope to achieve muscle bulk. The increase in body dissatisfaction seen in men and women has developed in a complex cultural context involving a growing emphasis on physical beauty and youthful appearance (Thompson 24).
Types of body modifications
These various factors might have contributed to the surge in body modifications in the past decade. Current popular trends in our century includes cosmetic surgery, implants and excessive gymming.
Surveys carried out since the 1990s consistently showed that more people are being recommended to cosmetic procedures than before (Grogan 103). Based on the statistics provided in 2018 by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), there is an increase of 35% for males who went through Gynecomastia (Breast reduction) compared to 2008. There was also an increase in 86% in males who went through calf augmentation and a 34% increase in buttock lift. ASPS’s statistics also show that patients for cosmetic surgery procedures have gotten increasingly younger with each year (Wegenstein 113). A disturbing fact was that in 2018, 6,330 out of 24,753 males who did breast reduction were aged 13-19 years old, followed by 8,639 were 20-29 years old. While plastic surgery does not have a ‘right’ age, it is commonly agreed that people should wait until mid-20s. Dr Nora Nugent, a Plastic surgeon in Royal Tunbridge Wells, England said that until the age of 18, and even in the early 20s, parts of the body are still developing. When teenagers begin to change things too early surgically, they may cause more harm to their body (Dazed digital). As clearly seen, a significant proportion of men opt to surgical fixation to alter their bodies’ appearances. Based on the statistics provided by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons through the years and several interviews recorded by Sarah Grogan in Body image, the main areas that produce dissatisfaction are the mid torso, biceps, shoulders, chest and general muscle tone. The incidence of cosmetic surgery procedures in men has increased since the 1990s and is being maintained until now. For these men, body image is so important that the risks are worth taking and the costs are worth paying for. (Grogan 104)
Implants were originally designed for persons with congenital or deformities. However now pectoral, calf and gluteal implants are personally tailored for cosmetic purposes. According to a report by American Society of Plastic Surgeons, an increasingly common operation is abs sculpting, where surgeons reshape muscles and skin to create almost magically six packs where once none existed. Penile augmentation procedures are becoming increasingly popular, and there is also high demand for anal tightening. Just for 2015 – 2018 alone, 1,033 men did buttock implants and 3,762 men did pectoral implants. It is also interesting to note at Doctor DuPéré of Visage Clinic in Toronto referenced that patients come in with images from social media on a daily basis to show how they want their face or body to appear. Although he said that this is more common in women, the number of male patients doing this is also growing (Vice). He also shares that he is currently performing roughly 25 to 40 pectoral pair implant procedures per year and seeing about 50 to 75 patients per year with male calf implants (Vice). This proves the men are most likely influenced by the media and especially social media that they aspire to be like someone they see online so much that they would want to change their bodies to look as good as theirs.
Research shows that Chris Hemsworth Workout is the top search suggestion when searching for Chris Hemsworth (Salon). Actors of superhero films has popularized the ‘Superhero workout’ back in 2011. Researchers In Denmark has found out that the benefit of exercising might be reversed if people push their bodies too hard (Salon). Not only that, it could also cause a decrease in life expectancy due to the high rate of injuries as most professionals have trainers, while the average person doesn’t. The contemporary standard for superheroes also appears much more muscular compared to how the original Superman and Batman were depicted. This reflects the cultural shift of the ideal male body (Michaelis 1). Not only are body modifications linked with social status or cultural backgrounds like in the past, but are now a normalised form to define ourselves. This change has impacted both men and women, including concerns about health, self-esteem, body image and eating disorders (Gil 4).
In conclusion, the number of individuals seeking body modification especially cosmetic procedures, has increased drastically over the past decade. With the influence of the super male archetype, print and digital media such as advertisements and television shows, it has been implied that men gradually grew more conscious about their bodies. The muscular ideal is constantly pushed on by the media in advertisements, print media like magazines and movies (Thompson 24). This pressure to look good is suggested to be linked to the rise of muscle dysmorphia and body dysmorphic disorder. Those who have these disorders typically engage in excessive workouts and cosmetic surgery to change their appearance as they are unsatisfied with how they look. Thus, this leads to the rise in body modifications (Thompson 129). Across several books and readers, it is suggested that more research is needed regarding the psychological aspects regarding BDD and muscle dysmorphia as well as exploration of treatment protocols for muscle dysmorphia. Like mentioned above, it is also hard to gauge how many men are affected by muscle dysmorphia as they do not seek treatment for it (The Guardian). Not only are excessive workouts and cosmetic surgery on the rise, implants are also another form of body modification that is becoming more popular. The number of muscle implants such as bicep and pectoral implants have increased based on the statistics given by American society of plastic surgeons. Thus it is apparent the muscular body type has become an important issue for our society as well as for psychologists and research. There is a need to address this situation now before men’s body image concerns become a serious public health issue.