Keeping up with the male image ideal isn't easy.


On my jog last night I was thinking about how dedication to fitness isn’t always an easy task. Every time I go out to get my regular cardio exercise it’s a little different. Sometimes it’s nearly effortless, everything feels great and 4 miles goes by no problem. Other times it’s a real slog, I might be tired from working late the night before or I didn’t get the right nutrition during the day but whatever the case sometimes it takes real will power to keep going. My basic rule to keep it up though is that I ask myself “Have you ever regretted not getting exercise for the day?” and the answer is inevitably yes while if I ask myself “Have you ever regretted going out for a jog?” and the answer is always no. Other ways I keep motivated is reading scientific studies that have proven that stress actually destroys brain cells while exercise actually helps grow new ones. That’s a significant fact to consider about why we should keep in shape: you’ll feel and perform better mentally as well as physically.


Looking better is of course probably a major factor why people exercise and I’m not immune to that either. Since I do like trying out a broad range of underwear I figure it’s best to keep in decent shape since some styles aren’t very forgiving of extra body fat. As stated before I know I have a long ways to go to get into really good shape but I feel like I’ve made progress the last year and intend to continue to work at it. Where my goals lie I don’t really know but the question got me thinking about male body imagery in underwear marketing. There have been a series of recent studies showing how the male image ideal has gotten increasingly bulkier over the last 40 years to the point that many men now believe the ideal body is one that is only achievable through steroid use.

I was able to find an old 1984 Jockey ad image with Jim Palmer as the model. Jim Palmer was certainly in shape at the time but compared to today’s model for the same Elance Bikini Briefs, he’s much less muscular. Compare Jim Palmer against today’s nearly hulking physiques found in Undergear and many other modern underwear marketing images and you really start to see the differences. Chest to waist ratios have moved what would have been considered extreme in the past to just normal now. The interesting thing to note is that by today’s standards Jim Palmer may seem too “slim” but at the time I believe most people thought his body type was the ideal and the extremes we see as “normal” today would have been considered somewhat odd. It’s no longer sufficient to have a six-pack these days, now you have to have an 8-pack.


A recent magazine cover for Men’s Fitness magazine also re-emphasized the extremes to which marketing and image enhancement have gone. US Tennis star Andy Roddick’s photograph was featured recently on an issue that also featured LOSE YOUR GUT and HOW TO BUILD BIG ARMS. The photograph of Andy however was almost embarrassingly fake with a likely body double poorly melded with his disproportionately scaled face shot. Comparing photographs of the real Andy Roddick against the cover clearly reveals a difference in body types not simply lighting. Andy himself later discussed his surprise at how they had changed his image on the cover. The irony in all of this is that Andy Roddick really doesn’t need fake image enhancement, he’s a pro athlete in great shape and it’s only because of the confounding motivation to perpetuate unrealistic body types in media that Men’s Fitness magazine made a near mockery of itself.

Besides muscle bulk, today’s ideals are getting thinner as well. In order to get as much definition as possible fat percentages must fall and waistlines now dip close to sub 32” ranges to meet the new perfect male image. It’s no wonder that an increasing number of teen males are suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and now “biggerexia” which is the need to constantly get more and more muscles through extreme workouts and often steroid use.

Of course the irony in all this is that Americans are only getting fatter and more out of shape year by year. Although there are a lot of reasons why Americans are losing the battle of the expanding waistline I would propose that a part of that reason is that as the male body ideal has gotten harder and harder to live up to, many people are giving up entirely feeling like it’s impossible to match what we see on TV, in magazines and online. For men, getting in shape these days has little to do with cardiovascular health and has more to do with muscular bulk through anaerobic workouts. The pressure is on not to workout for the sake of your heart health but to work out so you can look good in expensive clothes. Reality show “Transformative” makeovers emphasize quick, revolutionary changes viewable in the course of an hour. Sure fitness factors in to a certain degree but TV is a highly visual medium and viewers tune in to see the amazing body transformations not the latest EKG or cholesterol levels of the contestants.


Where am I going with this commentary? I don’t believe we’ll be able to suddenly change the currents of male body imagery, there’s way too much money involved and social capital engineering going on to stop it easily. What I think we CAN do however is remember to put what we see in perspective and to emphasize the right ideals of being healthy. Remember that for the models you see wearing the latest briefs and trunks from a given label it is their job to stay in perfect physical shape. Those men in advertising campaigns can spend 4-5 hours a day working out because it’s the core goal of their livelihood. Also remember photographs are retouched, models will lift weights just prior to being photographed and they will often dehydrate themselves on purpose to get as much muscle definition for the photo shoot of the day. So unless you intend to switch careers anytime soon consider making realistic goals that you can reach bit by bit day by day through regular exercise and eating right. It’s not an easy solution nor is it a fast solution but it’s one that you are more likely to maintain for the long-haul.


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