This is our truth, tell us yours
You can’t have a blog about size, or men, without a reference to cocks. Penises. Willies.
Here’s a weird thing. This is going to be a blog about men, and obesity, and food, but unconsciously or consciously, it has to start with the penis. If you consume porn you can’t get away from the idea that size does matter. Porn stars, if they’re male, have large cocks. Bizarrely, even some trans porn performers appear to be valued for the combination of large breasts and a a large cock, although, to be fair, there does appear to be more diversity in that field of endeavour than amongst hetero porn stars.
You have to be aware, too, if you consume porn, of the racially specific nature of some porn. Black men all have large cocks, apparently. American porn, in particular, has made BBC a dangerous term to google – the subtext of that genre of porn that features men with big black cocks seducing, raping and often impregnating the wives of ‘inadequate’ small cocked white men is enough to make most decent anti racists at least worried. Actually, I’ll go further. Countries where such fantasies are commonplace should not be surprised if young black men like Stephen Lawrence and Trayvon Martin end up dead at the hands of white men. Appalled, yes, but not surprised, and, given the history in Britain and the US of lynching the notion that these are new problems should be resisted at every turn.
However, having cleared the air about that, let’s explain why I brought up the issue of penis size. Simply put, it’s not a special case. Men have body image issues, just as much as women, and insecurity about the size of their cock is just one of the ways men experience those body image issues. (Rest assured, the man who invents safe penile enlargment surgery will die a very wealthy man, although he won’t have made very many men happy, or at least, not as happy as they hoped to be…) If you wonder about that, look at the baldness industry; marvel at the Just for Men adverts where the daughters get their dad to get rid of his grey hair so he can have more success with the laydeez….
If the size of the cock isn’t a special case, but just a subset of wider male body image issues, where do men start to engage with this sort of stuff? There’s a wealth of literature about women, their weight, body image, politics and culture.
For men the literature is more limited, and less political. After all, the idea that there are men who may have eating disorders as a result of the society we live in doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with notions of patriarchy or the idea that all men are beneficiaries of a society that oppresses women because they are women.
This isn’t, by the way, an essay seeking to disprove feminism. Without the clever, wise feminists I listen to I wouldn’t have been introduced to the concept of intersectionality, the notion that there are different strands of oppression that require us to look at our own privilege and experiences before we then seek to understand the privilege and oppression that others experience. Or, to paraphrase some sandal wearing troublemaker from the past, to consider our own blinkers before complaining about the speck of dust obscuring someone else’s perspective.
There’s been a wealth of literature about the Lone Ranger as the archetype of masculinity. It even affects the left; the lionization of Joe Hill in part owes its power to the way in which the role Joe Hill played as organizer and martyr could be squashed into the role of the hero. The idea of the hero is of course an intensely ambivalent one for anyone who believes in values of solidarity and mutuality; the Lone Ranger is less of a solution than, for instance, mass action rooted in a community. But there’s no denying the power of the myth.
It’s a myth I’m intrigued by because it’s almost always an over-simplification. Even authors who specialize in fiction that romanticizes the lone hero end up offering a critique of it. Chandler wearied of Marlowe, and retired him to Poodle Springs. Robert Parker, who resurrected Marlowe also created his heir, Spenser, complete with all the knowing literary flourishes you’d expect from a college professor whose PhD was on the role of the lone hero in the western novel. Even Parker though wearied of the lone hero and transformed Spenser into a worldly wise optimist who survived and flourished as the leader of an ensemble from across American culture and able to call on friends and allies at times of need. (There’s probably a PhD in the comparison between Spenser’s gang and the E Street Band – but I’ll give that idea away for free…) Of course, a key feature of the Marlow myth, and the cowboy myth before it, is the hero’s attractiveness towards women, because of his masculinity, and his troubled relationships with women because they might compromise his masculinity. That deserves a blog all by itself, but so would the way in which Marlowe, and Spenser and even James Elroy’s male heroes are intensely focused on issues of their image and appearance. There’s a scene in one of Elroy’s LA novels where the hero gives himself a ‘pocket knife’ manicure, shaping and polishing his nails, while staking out a victim. It’s a powerful reminder of the extent to which those novels emphasize male issues and grooming as ways of reminding us what successful and unsuccesful men look like. It may just be a more sophisticated version of the black hats and white hats in early western movies, but it’s consumed and assimilated by men.
I’ve spent a fair chunk of my working time recently with a couple of men in their fifties who are disabled by their obesity. While working with them I’ve had to think about how they can deal with their obesity, and get back to work. I’ve had to think, too, about whether I have the skills to help them do that. I realised, too, that as a man who is overweight but who has just reduced his own weight by about 20% I didn’t have an explanation of why I am fat, and why I decided it mattered to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I had functional explanations of my weight, and functional explanations of why making a change now was a good idea. I was also tired of the pejorative descriptions of fat men, and the assumptions that went with them. I was tired, too, of being tired. I didn’t want to lose any more of my capabilities than I had to, either. At heart though I couldn’t explain why I had allowed myself to become fat, or what it meant.
Let’s start with the fact that men have a body image issue. And it’s not just about whether you have a six pack or loaded guns, although it has to be said the fashion trend for men with huge pecs in tight tee shirts only needs some mascara and lippy to move them towards those porn images I was alluding to above.
You fat bastard is not a compliment. Sheriff Fatman, the song, expresses the intrinsic link, in some people’s heads, between obesity, greed and corruption. Since I’ve lost weight people tell me I look healthy. In my head I hear that as a compliment, not a statement of fact; being unhealthy is, if it’s linked to weight, a moral defect for men as much as for women.
I’m not daft enough to think that there’s a cultural link to all male obesity. Each of us gets there by our own road, shaped by our own experiences. But I’m struck by the number of men a little older than me that I see in the course of my work, and the insights I receive about how they got there. They tell me stories about middle age, stale relationships, careers that are cul de sacs not journeys, the changing role from father to grandfather in waiting as their kids mature and move out. In my head, because I’m working on my own demons, I wonder if, stripped of illusions, they’re sub consciously going back to the family dining table and their parents praise for the way they’ve eaten up all their food so they’ll grow up fit and strong.* Except of course that big and strong isn’t needed in a brave new world of call centres and the knowledge economy.
As an aside from that thought, maybe the growth of gyms is less about people being health conscious than it is about trying to create a version of physicality that people can belong to even if physical labour is much less in demand. That would help explain quite why unhealthy behaviour is so often part of gym culture – my local gym is full of tales of people using steroids, supplements, piss pills and behaviour more characteristic of eating disorders than of healthy living.
There’s a wealth of data about male body image and success; bald men don’t win elections, tall men get the job and fat men come last, but not in a good way. I’m sure that some young men eat for comfort, to avoid the chance of being sexually attractive. I’m more sure, now, that some older men eat for comfort because they have been defeated by life and their own experience as compared to expectations, and they retreat into the simple pleasures. If I’m right, then all the public health programmes and all the healthy eating campaigns in the world won’t get those unhealthy men to be healthy, and may just add to their sense of defeat, of being outside the norm.
If we keep telling guys that their choice is between being the Lone Ranger and Sheriff Fatman, we can’t be surprised if the guys who feel they don’t measure up the Lone Ranger’s chiselled silhouette give up on healthy eating and resort to the pleasure of food. One of the things men can do to address a culture that is damaging to women in its assumptions and boundaries around body image issues is to face upt o how we feel about and experience our own bodies.
*I owe a huge thank you to a brilliant woman for directing my thinking down this pathway