Gender watch

lifting II.jpg

Today, I did an interview with “Jim,” a guy who was a college freshman in 1997. That year, he said, “we all went to the gym and got as big as possible.” Weight lifting was the thing to do on his campus that year. Everybody was doing it. To go for extra bulk, they used a substance called creatine.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. People started to notice how a guy looked. Girls would make comments. You’d hear references to ‘abs’ and ‘pecs.’ People were joking, sort of, but guys heard them.”

This is a lot of things but it does seem in some ways to be the work of feminism. The objective of this social movement, this shift in values, was to discourage us from objectifying women.

But that’s not the way things work in our culture. We never seem to roll things up. We are much more inclined to extend the franchise. In pursuit of equity, we began to objectify men, too.

The first generation to experience a cultural innovation, and almost every generation is the first to experience something, usually takes it hard. There is no parental wisdom on offer. There is no “oral culture” that records the misadventures of the previous generation. There is only a new imperative that has to be satisfied. (Personally, I believe this is the only way to explain the disco clothing innovations of the 1970s.)

To be the first generation of men to endure the burdens, anxieties, and near compulsions that come from being an object of scrutiny, that must have been unpleasant. And it can’t be a surprise that some guys over did it. It is not surprising to hear that they were keen to emulate Mark McGuire, a guy who was apparently using supplements of his own. But it is mysterious. As the member of a generation that sought speed by looking for a trade off of mass and lightness (the so called “speed formulae”), the task and the outcome of “bulking up” seems (and looks) unpleasant.

But an important lesson of the anthropology of contemporary culture is that it doesn’t matter what I think. Ours is a culture in which every generation occupies its own small constellation of values, activities, and preoccupations. With children as our guinea pigs, we experiment endlessly. Naturally, the kids don’t mind. Our experiment is their protest. Nor should we. Their protest is our culture.

Please note:
Some of these quotes are reconstructed from memory and not, therefore, verbatim.

5 thoughts on “Gender watch

  1. Nigel Mellish

    It’s spelled “McGwire”. And his popularity wasn’t spectacular until 1998. I’d look elsewhere for your alpha male.

  2. cmb

    I wonder if there will be a backlash to this objectivization of men and, if so, what form will it take?

  3. JM

    A 14yr old girl starving herself or bulimic. A 14yr old boy taking steroids. Which is worse, which is more harmful to the person (body and spirit)? Which is more common? Which is more a result of society pressure?

    I have no idea.

  4. liz

    Nigel, you obviously weren’t living in the Bay Area in the Canseco/McGwire era (late 1980s)

    Grant’s anti-spam efforts isn’t going to make these a clickable link, but:

    And how about Lyle Alzado? ” “I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped,” he admitted during his pain-racked final days. “It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety per cent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300lbs or jump 30ft. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better…”

    Or how about that beloved wild man, John Matuszack?

    The pressure of the gaze or the pressure to succeed? I don’t know either.

    “To be the first generation of men to endure the burdens, anxieties, and near compulsions that come from being an object of scrutiny”….I don’tknow that the boys on campus of the late 1990s were the first to be objects of scrutiny, to be objectified in this manner.

    What’s different is the ease in which the body can be modified. It was a scandal in my high school when a girl had a nose job (in 1968). MIND remodeling drugs were available, but to change the body….well, you can starve, but that doesn’t always result in an admirable result. Body remodelling — the remarkable effects that steroids will give — is a function of the availability of the product.

  5. Patty

    Very small comment,

    I think the use of steroids as described speaks more of desperation to succeed and a ruthless imperative to compete against other men in a pitiless social milieu or sport environment than it does of responding to women’s objectification of the male body… (*women may be part of the reward, but sure they are not the prime motivator?)


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