Only one highlight from year’s MTV VMAs ceremony piqued my interest.
No, it wasn’t Lady Gaga’s questionable performance as Jo Calderone. Or Beyoncé’s earthshaking pregnancy announcement. Not even Britney Spears’ hollow gaze provoked any afterthought. For me, the moment of the night came from Jonah Hill, who delivered a not-all-that-funny joke about public reaction to his recent weight loss.
Co-presenter Nicki Minaj asked Hill if he had dropped some pounds, and he explained that, indeed, he has but not all of his fans have taken kindly to his slimmer figure. Apparently, some have (bizarrely) criticized that Hill can only deliver effective punch lines when he’s portly. Then he delivered a tired “why did the chicken cross the road?” joke that ended up with this:
“He did it for fitness… It’s not funny that the chicken wanted to change his lifestyle, become a little healthier? Is it funny instead of getting a pat on the back, the chicken gets a bunch of jerks tweeting that he’s not funny anymore?”
Granted, it wasn’t Hill’s finest comedic performance, but the comment stood out to me because it’s rare for celebrity males to publicly talk about body image—whether it’s cloaked in humor or not. In pop culture, comments and discussions about beauty standards and body image are often directed at women. Same thing often goes in feminist commentary as well—we constantly receive messages about the “beauty myth” and the unrealistic, destructive and exploitative messages about what cisgender females “should” look like (and thereby cordoning off anyone who doesn’t conform to heteronormative gender roles as the abnormal “other”).
But men aren’t immune to the “beauty myth” lies, either, as Hill’s faux tirade indicated. And his was an interesting example of that since fans lambasted him for losing weight rather than gaining it, which is what typically incites tabloid public shaming. Perhaps, in that case, pop culture’s image ideals for men come with their own complications and double standards, which are worth addressing as thoroughly as those leveled toward women. Just as Western female beauty ideals are modeled around straight, white women, Western male beauty standards worship at the altar of the straight, white, six-pack ab-toting man. And both are equally problematic.
For the next eight weeks, “Isn’t He Lovely” is going to explore beauty and body image standards—and double standards—as they apply men. Let’s talk about the race-based sexualization of black men in mainstream advertising (hey, Old Spice Guy!). Let’s talk about the perpetuation of the “real man” myth that more hammers home lies about what real men aren’t (i.e. queer, trans, non-white, short, sensitive, curious) than what they are. Let’s examine the established standards of male personal hygiene, wardrobe, and physique and deconstruct the detritus that is “the Axe effect,” among other things.
And why do I personally care to jump down this rabbit hole of male beauty standards? This issue has been percolating in the back of my mind ever since I recorded an episode on beardedness for my podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You. While researching the psychology and behavior patterns behind male facial hair growth and removal, I ran across this nugget in a sociology journal essay on beards:
The whispering wisps of men’s beards contribute to a symbolic system which acts in contingency with cultural implications about masculinity as a concept and male subjectivity as a construct.
Who knew so much was riding on a five o’clock shadow? And judging by the effusive feedback from male podcast listeners whose emotions ran the gamut from intense pride in flowing, Walt Whitman-esque beards to genuine insecurity in baby-smooth, hairless chins, that observation about those “whispering wisps” wasn’t an overstatement.
Oh, and did I mention that “Isn’t He Lovely” will cover body hair, too? And if there’s any male beauty standard-related topic you’d like to start a dialogue about, just let me know in the comments!