Why Do Men’s Standards of Beauty Not Shift Like Women’s?

Yesterday, during my educational peregrinations, I was reminded of a word I haven’t had occasion to use in recent years: “Rubenesque.” Rubenesque is an adjective that can be applied to bodies similar to those that the Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens put on canvas.

Below, check out the closet thing to pornography I’m ever likely to include in these postings. The painting is the Judgment of Paris and portrays the event that eventually led to the Trojan War. Here, the Trojan prince Paris is called upon by the three unclad ladies to the left to determine which is the most beautiful. The contestants in this beauty contest were three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. If ever three “women” would be granted the ideal of female beauty, these three would claim the prize, right? Yet these women, painted by Rubens in 1636, are, by our standards, pretty chunky.

As the video below illustrates, female standards of beauty have changed drastically over the years. Just within recent decades we have seen these standards swing around from the voluptuous (think Marilyn Monroe) to the emaciated (heroin chic models) and then somewhat back in the other direction.

But here’s my question. Why don’t male standards of beauty swing around as dramatically as female standards do? Do a Google search on the female side of this and you’ll get all manner of hits. The male search yields nearly nothing. A video that promises “Men’s Standards of Beauty around the World,” doesn’t even try to talk much about change over time but in the end fails to show very much diversity around the world.

Look back at the Rubens painting above. The two male characters are the god Hermes (standing) and Paris (seated). Both of them seem a bit fleshy, but I would argue that they’re carrying a lot less “extra” weight on their bones compared to our standards than are the women.

Look at other artwork from the past, works that seem designed to portray ideal male figures. Would you like to have the body of Michaelangelo’s David? Most people would. That figure doesn’t have quite the six-pack belly that magazines would suggest we need to have, but in a real world, at least 95% of men would immediately jump at having his physique. Charles Atlas or Jack Lalanne, photographed in their primes, could fit into a magazine today much more easily than could some of the fleshier female stars of Hollywood’s earlier decades.

Yes, the standards for men change, but they do not seem to change as drastically as the ones for women? Why is that? Is this just another example of the oppression of women by a systematically patriarchal society? (The tongue was in the cheek there.) Does it simply tell us that people–men mostly–don’t really know what they want in the long run?  Is there some really good answer to this question that I’m not imagining?  I honestly don’t know, but I’d love to see an answer.

We can all agree that either the 97-pound weakling or the grossly obese couch potato is both unhealthy and unattractive in a male. However, we do tend to have a much wider acceptable range when it comes to men than we do for women. A man with a bit of a belly can be tolerated far more readily than a woman with the same belly. Why?

Again, I don’t know, but I think we should all agree that healthy, functional bodies can come with a range of body fat percentages and different levels of musculature. We see that for men, but we seem to see it less easily for women. Both Christian men and women need to recognize that a beautiful female form, a body that can bless and honor God, need not conform to the very rigid and unrealistic expectations that a visually overwhelmed society would impose.

Tonight in Dietland…

As I was driving home from a race this morning, licking my wounds after being beaten by one-tenth of a second by a guy in a hand-bike, I happened to hear an interview with Sarai Walker supporting her novel, Dietland. There aren’t a lot of novels that focus on militant fat people, but apparently Walker’s is just such a novel. And I hasten to add that I use the word “fat” because she used that word rather than “heavy” or “full-figured” or somesuch.

I’ve never been a fat (or heavy or full-figured) woman, so I’m not all that well equipped to comment in this area. For most of my life I was a fat man–not huge, but certainly carrying around sufficient weight that I would never make the cover of GQ. Does that count?

If Sarai walker is correct, then being a fat woman is a dreadful thing. She tells the interviewer as much on behalf of her main character.

You know, society hates fat people and she’s been stigmatized her whole life, so of course she hates herself and she wants to lose weight, which is of course understandable. But then when she meets the women of Calliope House, she begins to think about her relationship with her fat body in a different way. She begins to think, you know, maybe there’s nothing wrong with my body; maybe it’s the way that other people are treating me. And so I think that she comes to see it as a politicized issue, because it is. I mean, a fat body is always a politicized body.

I can’t argue that society has a dreadful bias against people who do not conform to expectations of appearance. I also can’t argue that this bias is more pronounced with regard to women than to men. Men, by and large, can get away with being fatter than women. That’s not fair.

My question, though, is whether unfair bias in one direction means that we should simply embrace fatness and dismiss it as irrelevant. Or do we shift the threshold for “fat” upward.

It’s important within the church that we look at people, as much as we are able, in the way that God sees us. In God’s eyes, minus the transformative power of Christ, we are all pitiful creatures swimming around in a cesspool. The “beautiful” people might only be 95% covered with sewage, while the outcasts–the fat, the skinny, the ugly, the scarred–are 98% covered. Would you really brag about that sort of difference? We also have to recognize that we have surfaces other than the exterior that can smeared with foulness. After all, didn’t Jesus say something about white-washed tombs?

At the same time that we attempt to look with eyes of love at others, regardless of their bodily defects, we all need to admit the 95% or 98% coverage of nastiness upon us and work toward cleaning ourselves up.

Sarai Walker seems to sympathize with her band of Fat Terrorists, as if being looked at in an unkind way justifies violent behavior. I’d have to disagree with her on that count. But I can’t ignore the fact that the fellow on the handbike is a bit “heavy.” If I had beaten him, who knows how he might have reacted.

Get Fit, Not Ripped

Round is a ShapeI very much appreciate a recent article by Dr. Michael Gleiber–that’s M.D., and not a mere Ph.D.–in which he argues that we do not need to look ripped in order to be properly fit. He goes on to describe four aspects of activity by which we can measure our fitness. For example, he suggests this push-up test for strength and endurance:

Push-ups are a great way to test your strength and endurance. When testing yourself, make sure you are keeping proper form. Lie facedown on the floor, elbows bent with your palms next to your shoulders. Keep your back straight, and push up until your arms are fully extended, then return to the starting position. Each time you return to that starting position, it counts as one push-up. If you can only do a few pushups before you need to rest, you may need to work more on your strength and endurance.

I like the idea of focusing on outcomes rather than muscle definition, but did you notice the problem with Dr. Gleiber’s prescription? “If you can only do a few pushups”? How many is a few? I have a former Marine friend who would probably say that 25 is a few. And how many is a lot?

He also suggests measuring aerobic fitness by walking a mile “briskly,” measuring flexibility with a sit and reach test, and measuring body fat through BMI (ugh!). Only in the case of BMI does he give a benchmark against which to measure fitness, but he fouls that up by saying that BMI “indicates your percentage of body fat.” As we’ve seen elsewhere–and as he surely knows–BMI does no such thing.

This guy is a spinal surgeon, so I’m guessing he’s busy. But is he really too busy to give us some actual standards by which to measure our fitness? Is it any wonder, absent those standards, that people simply look in the mirror and use the “ripped” test that Dr. Gleiber condemns?

Keep Your Eyes Where They Belong

2015 Rock the ParkwayTwice on Wednesday, I was told, “You’re looking really great” by two widely separated women. One of them has been a friend for many years. The is someone from my church whose husband I know much better. In neither case did I think they were suggesting anything beyond a simple and sincere compliment, but these comments got me thinking.

Perhaps you were not aware of this, but taking care of your body will typically make it look better. It’s true. And whether you like it or not, somebody who sees you working out might just see something in you that you’d not intended. It’s pretty hard to be around a bunch of fit people and not notice their bodies, right?

An article by Jonathan Angelilli takes on this problem in a big way. He points to what he calls the “pornification” of fitness, in which the fitness instructor becomes less an instructor and more an object of desire.

Your fitness can never be outsourced to a hot trainer, doctor, or pill. It’s you that must do it, from the inside out. It’s the very nature of the beast. That is why “the source of all power comes from within” is one of the core principles of TrainDeep. Saying “you do it for me, I’ll pay extra” just doesn’t work when it comes to organic systems and nature. Here we can experience the definitive limits of trying to monetize the natural and spiritual realms.

Certainly not everything in Angelilli’s article is something I can support, but he raises a great point. My work at improving or maintaining my body should be about making myself more fit for service and, as an added bonus, making me more appealing to my spouse. That’s really it.

So if you run into me at the gym or out on the street, just keep your eyes to yourself. I can’t help it if I’m looking really good.

Do I Really Want to Be Shredded?

Muscle BoyI recently ran across an article in Men’s Fitness that promised to show me ways to “Stay Shredded All Season Long.” While the article, which was cobbled together as answers to single questions asked of five different fitness experts–leftovers from five different interviews perhaps?–seemed to have some useful advice, I had to question the overall premise. Do I really want to be “shredded”?

One of the questions asks for the best exercises for training the abs. The expert says, in part:

The best way to keep your abs conditioned all year round is to follow a healthy diet with a close eye on slightly restricting your starchy carb intake like breads, pastas, etc.

Do you notice a problem there? This guy doesn’t mention any exercises here. To be fair, he goes on to talk about exercises, but the fact that he starts out talking about starchy food suggests that he’s more interested in appearance than in actual strength. Does a layer of belly fat really have anything to do with the strength of your abdominal muscles? Can’t you have incredible strong abs while maintaining a few extra pounds of flab around the middle? And is that really a great burden to fitness.

The question here is what we supposed to be fit for. Is fitness a purely cosmetic thing? Does the fit person need to look like a Greek statue? Or is fitness found in the ability to do the things that we want to do?

Frankly, I don’t need to be shredded.


What Would You Change?

This video by Cassey Ho has been making the rounds recently. In it, we see a young woman admiring her fit body and then, in response to negative comments, “Photoshopping” herself into some semblance of perfection.

What place does body image–either the image that we see in the mirror or that we see in others–have among Christians? Are we supposed to look at the 400-pound person down the pew from us and somehow not notice? Are we supposed to look at our own bodies and not see what’s actually there? That’s not realistic.

Does God somehow not see the body scarred by overeating or bad nutrition, by drug or alcohol abuse, by years of hard living and bad decisions? Of course He sees those things, just as surely as He sees our sins. The wonder of the Gospel is that, while we were still sinners (including while we sinned against our bodies), Jesus demonstrated his love by dying for us (Romans 5:8).

Our Bodies Should Testify to God

God created our bodies not as objects for personal pride or as a means to sexual attraction–although both of those things can be a healthy side effect of a God-oriented body. He formed us as the crowning achievement of creation.

Look in the mirror. What does your body say about God? Does it proclaim you as fearfully and wonderfully made or does it suggest that God does indeed make junk. Regardless of your imperfections, you body is a marvel. To the best of your ability allow that body to testify to God’s amazing creative powers.

Our Bodies Should Be Healthy

When God created Adam and Eve, neither sin nor death had yet entered the world. It is intriguing to wonder what Adam and Eve looked like. How physically mature did God make them? How “perfect” were they and what standard did that “perfection” follow?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, we can be certain that Adam and Eve were healthy. Where there is no death, there is no disease. Could they catch a cold? That’s an interesting question, but it ignores the larger matter of health.

We have all seen the ravages that various diseases, self-inflicted and otherwise, can impose on the human body. There’s not much you can do to avoid many illnesses, but many others we seem to invite. To the best of your ability, you should keep your body as a healthy tool and temple for God’s use and habitation.

Our Bodies Should Be Functional

Paul tells us that we are “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Part of that handiwork is spiritual, but those good works require a body. Our actions will end with our death. Even prayer, a seemingly passive good work, cannot outlive the mortal lifespan.

The perfect Christian body will be strong enough to do the works that God has prepared for us. While a bit of belly fat will not keep us from doing much of anything, we have all seen people who have allowed their infirmities to keep them from teaching, keep them from missions, keep them from works of service, or even keep them from worshiping with the body of Christ.

Imagine if you had been in Antioch and been asked by Paul and Barnabas to tag along on the first missionary journey. What disappointment would you feel if physical limitations that you could have avoided made you turn that trip down. Physical decline will find us all eventually. We shouldn’t hurry the process along. To the best of your ability, maintain your body as a functional unit.

What do you see when you look in that mirror at your body? The triumphant Christian body doesn’t need to look good in skin-tight workout gear. Your muscles don’t need to bulge and ripple. Don’t allow the world’s looking glass to form your opinions of your body. But don’t be complacent either. Instead, look at your body realistically, through the lens of love.

But Don’t Love That Body Too Much

Muscle BoyAbout two weeks ago, I mentioned a post by Paul Maxwell in which he questioned male body image problems. Maxwell suggested that we’re trying to impress five different people/groups/entities for five different wrong-headed reasons. Here are his five headings:

  1. To our selves, we want to be confident.
  2. To the opposite sex, we want to be sexy.
  3. To our peers, we want to be intimidating.
  4. To our fathers, we want to be competent.
  5. To God, we want to be superhuman.

I’ve been letting Paul’s ideas float around in my mind since I originally agreed, and I have to say that I’m now convinced he got it wrong. Yes, these five reasons to want to have chiseled bodies are wrong, but they are not an exhaustive list.

A couple of years ago, right about the time I started to get my diet and exercise house in order, I taught at a church children’s camp. My lessons used the idea of masks as a metaphor. Recently, I saw a photo from that camp and–I kid you not–asked this question: “Who is that fat guy in the mask?” It was me, fifty pounds ago. With that in the background, let me tour the five audiences above.

I want to look good for myself, because looking good …well, looks good. I’d rather look in the mirror and see a healthy-looking me than the one in that camp photo. I’m not particularly vain, but I know that a less flabby, more muscular body translates to health and energy and other good things. (Proverbs 27:19)

I want to look good to the opposite sex, or at least one member of the opposite sex, my wife, because I love her and I care about her and I want to demonstrate that love and care by keeping my body healthy and reasonably attractive. (Proverbs 5:18)

I want to look good to peers, but not to intimidate. I’m not going to intimidate anyone, but by having an unfit, unhealthy body, I become a distraction. When I speak with my peers, I do not want them to be thinking of me as the fat guy or the wheezing guy or the guy who is probably going to have a heart attack. (Judges 3:17-23)

I want to look good for my father, but not really. My father passed over a decade ago. However, since I carry his name, I believe that my appearance will reflect on him. It’s a matter of honoring my father when I take care of my body. (Exodus 20:12)

I want to look good for my God. But actually I don’t want to look good so much as I want to have a functional, healthy body. God will never be impressed by how I look, but He can be pleased with how I treat the body He gave me. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

When I look in the mirror, I see a body that could stand to lose 10 pounds but that is in the acceptable range of fat and muscle. My wife is pleased. My peers are not distracted. I believe that my appearance mostly honors both my father and my God. These are sufficient outcomes, and they are worthy reasons to pay attention to that image in the mirror.

Love That Body, Men

Muscle BoyOne of my new favorite online voices, Paul Maxwell, grabbed my attention last fall with a post about male body image. Actually, Paul referred to it as an “Epidemic of Male Body Hatred.” We usually think about this with women, but guys are probably just as bad. We just tend less to eating disorders in response.

At the heart of this piece, he seems to ask, “Who are you trying to impress?” He goes on to run through five different potential answers–ourselves, women, peers, fathers, God–and explains the folly of that self-loathing. Instead, he argues, we can find all of our answers through the unconditional love of Jesus.

Maxwell does not speak against your efforts to lose weight or lift it:

You don’t have to stop lifting or dieting or supplementing. And maybe you should start dieting and exercising. This isn’t a rebuke in either direction. It’s an invitation to perspective and intimacy — with ourselves, the opposite sex, the same sex, authorities, and God. Love is better than protein (Proverbs 15:17). In his abundant love, God delights in everything about you, including your body.

Instead, he calls Christians to keep that weighty action in perspective.

Love That Body

It’s not exactly the most spiritually uplifting work on earth, but the musical Hairspray does get me going.  In the middle, the main characters, Tracy and Link, share a duet, “Without Love.” In his verse, Link shares these timeless thoughts:

Once I was a selfish fool
Who never understood
Never looked inside myself
Though on the outside, I looked good!

I can relate to that, although I’ve rarely thought about looking good on the outside. Although I’m not the perfect fitness blogger, the sort of person who went from an asthmatic 400-pounder to an ultramarathoning swimsuit model, I do look better than I used to. But let’s face it: I’m over fifty and decidedly imperfect. When I look in the mirror, I don’t join with Link declaring “I look good!”

That’s why, when Paul says, toward the end of Ephesians, “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29), I have to wonder if he would hold to that thought in the midst of a crowd of body-loathing Americans.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and said, “I hate my body”? Granted this is more common among women than men. A woman can put on three pounds and feel morbidly obese while a guy with a protruding belly the size of a middle schooler might start singing Link’s lines.

Do people who look in the mirror and say, “I hate my body,” truly put the lie to Paul’s words? Do you, assuming you don’t have 3% body fat, really love that body of yours. The answer is that of course you do. Would a person who truly hates their body feed it and try to make it comfortable?

Except for a few people, everyone loves their body. The question is how that love is expressed. It’s like being a parent to your body. Do you express your love by indulging your body’s every foolish desire or do you make it eat its vegetables?

So go ahead. Look in the mirror and love that body. But love it with a true love. Feed it and care for it not to just to please it in the moment but to keep it operating at its best in the long run.