In Which I Object To Objectifying Men’s Bodies

For the past week or two, my tumblr dash has featured a steady parade of .gifs of Olympic male swimmers and gymnasts, plus male athletes photographed mostly nude for various publications. That’s a change from a normal week, when the women I follow post revealing .gifs of actors. Once, an individual shared a shirtless, headless photo of the guy she was going to hook up with later.

I don’t think the ladies on tumblr are particularly shallow, and I think this is happening everywhere. Movies, TV, and advertising are more often serving up men’s bodies as eye candy.

I’m not arguing this is comparable to the objectification of women’s bodies. Everywhere we look, girls and women are bombarded with images of the sexual objects they are supposed to be.  Moreover, I get that many girls and women have grown up feeling like they’re supposed to be the ones who are lusted after, rather than the ones doing the lusting. In this context, posting a photo of a half-naked man may seem downright empowering.

It still makes me feel bad, though. As our own Dr. Deah Schwartz noted in “Get the Picture,” more men are worrying about whether their bodies look good enough. Eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are becoming more prevalent among men, and they often feel more ashamed than women do about seeking treatment. (You can read more about it in this interview with Dr. Roberto Olivardia, author of The Adonis Complex.)

Meanwhile, I doubt fewer women are worrying about their bodies. More people feeling inadequate isn’t progress. I see images of “ideal” male bodies as just more contributions to a belief that doesn’t do any of us any good: that how you look is really important.

Humans have always thought this, I guess, but I’m sure it’s much worse in our era, when mass media, entertainment and fashion industries with a global reach, and photoshopping all combine to create more unattainable ideals. People can argue that being attracted to certain physical characteristics is natural. Maybe, but so what? We transcend biology all the time, through birth control, and not giving into the primitive impulse to punch somebody in the face, and things like that. Anyway, we can admire good looks without making such a big deal about it.

My perspective could be skewed because I’m honestly not all that moved by “perfect” physiques. In my romance writing, I create hot scenes, I hope, but I don’t go on for paragraphs about the hero’s body. If I did, everyone would know I was phoning it in: “and then she drank in the sight of his massive manly shoulders and blah blah blah and his abs chiseled like granite or whatever.”

I’m way more likely to be turned on – and not just in an intellectual way, but in a “I could use a change of panties” way – by a certain kind of smile, a look in the eyes, a kind gesture, a witty remark, or someone saying several intelligent things in a row. I would love to write a steamy, emotional love story about two “ugly” people, and maybe some time I will, though I suppose it won’t be shelved in the romance section.

There are bigger issues than male objectification, and I fully a sarcastic response somewhere along the lines of, “But what about the poor menz?!” I don’t care. (I care a little.) The cult of beauty is expanding when I want it to shrink. Conventional standards of attractiveness only matter because we think they do, and we would buy way less crap, making better dating and hiring choices, and feel about a hundred times better about ourselves if we didn’t care about it quite so much.

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

12 thoughts on “In Which I Object To Objectifying Men’s Bodies”

  1. I guess this makes me wonder, “Where does one draw the line?” I admit to drooling over Alexander Skarsgard while watching True Blood. I’ve admired some Olympic athletes’ physiques, and not just in an innocent way. I don’t think I’m objectifying men, but how can I be sure?

    1. And I think that’s human nature, right? So…I don’t really know, honestly. I think I feel the least comfortable, personally, when I see images of an ass or an almost-naked body without a head, or images that line up a bunch of guy’s bodies like a candy assortment.

      We do appreciate a good David Tennant pic around here, but I don’t think it’s very objectifying because a lot of that has to do with his personality, which leads to adorable expressions and such.

      I’m just not sure.

      1. I found Sociological Images’ series on what sexual objectification is really helpful. The first post has these questions:

        1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?
        2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?
        3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable?
        4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person that can’t consent?
        6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity (something that can be bought and sold)?
        7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

        Of these, the ‘phwoar’-type photos I’ve seen of Olympic athletes probably only hit 1) or maybe 3). What can be problematic, for me, is what some people think is acceptable to say about the images (e.g.: “I’d destroy that!” is both dehumanising, and normalising sexual violence), or when those images are the only type we see for one gender, ethnic group, nationality, or sport.

  2. I am not the one to judge. I objectify men in my sleep. I sit through actors’ entire filmographies just for the hopes of seeing them shirtless or possibly hugged up on someone. I know its wrong and I admit to being a lustful perv.

  3. Watching men’s gymnastics over the past week, the BF can’t stop talking about how he wishes he had big arms like they do. He couches it in terms of ‘upper body strength’, but I know he feels self-conscious- he’s a skinny guy with the noodly arms that come along with that.

    So yeah, I’m with you, Bryn. Nobody’s a piece of meat.

  4. While I may be extremely guilty of enjoying a David Tennant pic every now and then, I do have a huge issue with the objectification of men (and women). If we want to get away from this perception that a person’s identity and/or worth mostly hinges on how they look, we need to stop making looks so centric to our views of people, not objectify more people. And the more objectification of men there is, the more that’ll be used as an excuse to keep doing it to women; ‘but guys get that too! So it’s okay!’ Ugh.

  5. I can’t get behind objectifying men’s bodies either. It feels like a feminist double standard for me to speak out against the objectification of female bodies, but then go and drool over Channing Tatum, who seems to be the popular guy on Pinterest. I don’t know if anybody here reads Feministe, but they’ve been engaging in some shameful ogling of the Olympic swim teams that seems to be mostly to troll their readers.

    I completely understand that it’s healthy for women to finally be allowed to vocalize our desire, if we have it, for male bodies, but I think there is a respectful way to do it.

  6. I’m of two minds about this. On one hand I think it’s good that women are getting more able to be honest and open about sexual attraction. But I also think you are right about the cult of beauty problems. There are lines to be drawn between “I think so and so is sexy. I like to look at pictures of him,” “More pictures of that hot ass!” and “This is the ideal everyone should aspire to.” The first I am fine with (within reason, no crazy stalker paparazzi crap), the second only in situations where sexual titillation is the express purpose of the work (as opposed to say selling beer, or thrown in inconsequentially into some other scene), and the last not at all. I dunno. Also, on the whole I’d like to see our idea of attractive expanded to include a lot more body types. I think the fella i’m with is good looking, and the fella I’m with has a gut.

    1. There are lines to be drawn between “I think so and so is sexy. I like to look at pictures of him,” “More pictures of that hot ass!” and “This is the ideal everyone should aspire to.”

      Yep, my thoughts exactly. First is reasonable (‘he’ is still a person, with a distinction drawn between ‘him’ and ‘pictures of’), second objectifying, and third downright dangerous.

  7. Oh wow yes. My dash has been slap full of it as well and it’s such a bummer. I really can’t see any difference between doing it to the men’s swim teams or the women’s volleyball teams. It’s not cool from either side.

    But I’m sure somewhere down the line I’m guilty of it as well, so I bite my tongue and keep scrolling.

    (And now I have to wonder why I can bite my tongue there but not anywhere else.)

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