There are beauty standards for men and women. Most of them are confining, inducing pressure and harming self-confidence. No gender is safe from them.
That being said, let us look at the symbolic values of these beauty standards by comparing beauty pageants to bodybuilder contests, two of the more extreme displays of gendered beauty standards. While both competitions can include both men and women, their public representation is often only focussing on one gender. This is not an analysis of these events per se, but they offer themselves as distinct examples to look at potential meanings communicated through beauty standards.
Very simply put, we look at softness versus resilience as core values that are represented through appearance – because looks is really what these are all about.
Muscles play an important role in both competitions. Of course, they help to define the shape of our bodies, allow movements, lifting, pushing, pulling, they hold us together. Bodybuilding contests focus on muscle masses, on dramatized shapes, on their hardness and resistance. Human rocks are presented on stage, unmovable with the rigidness of their muscle masses. They own their space, they are present.
This kind of presence is not desired in beauty pageants. Muscles should render the body slender, tight but not hard, defining rather than enlarging. Showing too much of them as part of your body is frowned upon.
Let’s talk about pain. Preparation to these events is painful. But there are different pains. Workouts and food limitations to keep the muscles growing, basically ripping them again and again, this requires endurance. Yet, it is a process of building, of overcoming one’s own limits, of achieving. It can be euphoric. There is nothing of this in hair removal and hunger. Waxing and other methods are about the disposal of something that is wrong with the person, over and over again, in order to become soft, smooth and non-resistant. The endurance of pain does not serve the purpose of growing – rather, quite the opposite, to remove traces of one’s organic, living, (hair-)growing body.
Lastly, I want to emphasise how both competitions rank human beings with a point system. Their value is determined in relation to each other (it is not enough to be good, you also have to be better than others) and based on a catalogue of rather arbitrary categories.
I will never argue that men are free from these social forces that impact their everyday lives. However, I think we need to look closely at symbolic values that are communicated to us, everywhere, all the time. These values are not set in stone. We, as a society, shape them, adapt them, change them. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it is happening every time you talk to someone, post something, whenever you reinforce or reject values, or just simply think twice about them.
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