The Alpha-Male Illusion

When I joined my university’s gym in Fresher’s Week 2010 – a decision that cost me nearly a fifth of my term’s student loan – my priorities in the gym, as a keen hockey player, should have been improving the physical attributes such a sport demands. However, instead of endless stretching and becoming a sweaty-mess on the treadmill, I followed the example of my peers (well, most of them) and went straight to the weights room, driven by the narcissistic desire to improve my physique, to get BIG. Though usually available to both sexes, it is usually young men who use this facility at university: young men who, like me, have been unhappy at some stage in their lives about their physical appearance. Consequently, as you can probably imagine, a municipal gym – a place where men weighing more than sixteen stone, with shoulders almost as wide as your typical garden shed, sometimes roar loudly whilst bench pressing 150kg – can often be an oppressive place for an 18-year old gym-newbie (as I certainly was two years ago). From my own experience, the imprinted figure on the side of the weights you lift becomes a surreptitious means through which others silently judge you (and a means through which you judge yourself as a result), often making you feel exposed, spied-upon and anxious. However, for both young men and young women, it is almost impossible not to feel insecure about our bodies in today’s oppressive, image-obsessed society. ‘Every young girl’, says American comedian Tina Fey, ‘is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin…a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet…the hips of a nine year old, and the arms of Michelle Obama’. Young men, meanwhile, according to Mike Shawcross, Deputy Editor of Men’s Health Magazine, are expected to aspire towards ‘the more rugged’, ‘slightly bigger’ look epitomised by actors Daniel Craig or Ryan Reynolds, two of Hollywood’s current heartthrobs.

Men, in general, certainly seem to be getting musclier, dedicating a greater number of sessions to lifting weights – usually heavy ones – exclusively. The rise in popularity of the metro-sexual male over the past decade, arguably due to the cultural impact of perfectly-groomed male idols (such as David Beckham), is perhaps the main reason for this cultural change. On nights out young men are increasingly eager to flaunt their physiques, showcasing their physiques in t-shirts, usually purchased from Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch, that seem a size too small, perhaps even two. In comparison to men’s fashion in the mid-1990s – an era in which baggy jeans, invariably displaying most of one’s boxers, and thick turtle-neck jumpers were still in vogue – the contrast of style is startling. Indeed, by wearing such tight-fitted clothing, men have arguably adopted the same tastes in fashion generally preferred by women, the sex that, stereotypically, obsesses most over their appearance. Michael Addis, Professor of Psychology at Clark University, Massachusetts, attributes women, interestingly, to be the origin of this shift in the perception of masculinity. ‘As women gain more financial power in society, men are expected to bring more to the table’, he says. ‘In addition to being financially successful, they need to be well-groomed, in good shape, emotionally skilled in relationships and the emphasis on looking good is just part of that package – the stakes have been raised’. However, whilst men may indeed feel a greater need, consciously or not, to compete with women in modern society, there is also the unwavering influence of the patriarchal system, a fundamental aspect of the male psyche. ‘Patriarchy is what makes us think that ‘balls’ are symbols for aggressive go-getting behaviour, writes Caroline Criado Perez in the New Statesman. ‘Patriarchy also makes us think that this is the type of behaviour that should be rewarded above all others. And patriarchy also means that any man who doesn’t ‘live up’ to this stereotype is thereby considered a lesser man – perhaps even, horror of horror, ‘a girl’.

One example of a young male who does not live up to the patriarchal stereotype is Nick Sinnett, a 20-year old university student who appeared on I Hate My Body: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men, a BBC 3 documentary that followed four men’s respective pursuits of an ideal physique over a twelve-week training programme. Short in height and initially weighing just eight and a half stone at the programme’s beginning, Nick is visibly insecure about his physical appearance. ‘Starting from the bottom (of my waist)’, he says in week one, ‘I would tone up the abs…broaden my chest a bit…broaden my shoulders in every way…and then get my arms a bit bigger’. However, like most young males, Nick has a false perception of physical strength, regarding it as the primary means – perhaps the only means – through which he can be completely happy with himself. ‘I feel like I’m being compared to people in magazines’, he says, ‘and I think that’s what people want’. In these magazines, probably GQ or Men’s Fitness, one usually finds images of serious-looking men with Popeye-sized, air-brushed biceps on the front cover, and it is indeed hard not to look at yourself and immediately think: ‘Shit, I need to put on some muscle – fast’. However, as Nick suggests, we do not think we need to because of ourselves; we do it to impress others, thinking it will guarantee earning their respect and friendship. If we adhere to the fitness regime prescribed by these magazine’s implausibly entitled articles (such as ‘Get Ripped in Six Weeks’), the gym suddenly becomes a second home, often controlling our lifestyles completely. With 38 million people visiting Men’s Health’s website each month – a figure that is over ten times the current estimated population of Wales – it seems a fitness-fanatic community has developed worldwide over the past few decades. However, with 80% of men in the UK saying they are unhappy about their physiques, has it really had that much of a positive impact?

Though a few years older, Martin Sanker, a London-based nightclub bouncer, expresses a similar attitude to Nick, regularly lifting weights in order to verify his masculinity – both to himself and others. However, having doubled in size over the past three years (and weighing around sixteen stone at the beginning of the programme), he is arguably the complete opposite to Nick with regard to body shape. Martin, like Nick, started using weights in the gym due to being unhappy about his physique, recounting one particular moment as the catalyst for his lifestyle’s drastic change: ‘When I was eight stone’, he says, ‘there came an occasion when I was walking in the town with my girlfriend; a guy (wolf) whistles right in front of my face (and) I couldn’t do anything about it’. Describing himself as ‘lost’ and ‘confused’ throughout the period in which he bulked up, Martin arguably typifies the mentality of a lot of young men who currently use the gym, spurred on by the relentless peer-pressure of the patriarchal system. I Hate My Body: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men shows how even those sweat-drenched men bicep-curling 30kg – the sort of male a lot of young men nowadays aspire to be – still feel deeply insecure about their physique. Indeed, judging from Martin’s experience, it seems the more some men focus on their physique the more insecure they become. Beneath his sculpted exterior still lurks an acute vulnerability about his masculinity, rooted deeply in his mind, which invariably surfaces when he enters a male-dominated environment, notably the gym. During one training session, for instance, the sight of body-building men working out nearby encourage him to switch to heavier weights, showing how Martin’s insecurities could dictate his behaviour completely. However, having realised his obsession with the gym was ultimately unhealthy, slowly corroding other important aspects of his lifestyle (such as his relationship with his girlfriend), Martin is far more confident in himself at the end of the programme, describing himself as ‘the happiest I have ever been’. He has, it seems, finally realised that being the biggest does not always make you feel the best: something any young man using the gym nowadays might also consider.

This article was originally published in The Prisma.