Posted January 10, 2013
As a transguy, the question “What makes me a man?” has meant both pretty much the same things to me as to any other guy, and also something a bit different. I had to figure most of it out on my own, going through a second puberty of sorts at a point when all my peers were full grown, and in the process I’ve read about and watched a lot of versions of masculinity. From Charles Atlas and men’s exercise magazines to feminist and gender theory, there are so many options and perceived limits around how to be a man. Men’s self-improvement books like The 4-Hour Body and movies like Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Mansome are just a few examples.
When I first saw Timothy Ferriss’ New York Times #1 bestselling book The 4-Hour Body, I said ‘yeah, right.” It sounded like the epitome of everything that’s wrong with quick-fix self-help culture. Subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman”, all presumably achievable in just 4 hours – a week? in total? – it tapped into my feeling that the society I live in is losing the ability to see the value in earning things. Want to get there? Here’s a shortcut. Feeling something? I’m sure there’s a pill for that. Gutter comics editor Carol Borden has a theory that if we ever develop the technology to teleport, we’ll just end up complaining that it took 30 whole seconds to get to work.
I imagined the next step would be to become like the people in WALL-E, who never actually have to walk anywhere to get anything because everything just appears in their grasp as soon as they express a desire for it. Of course, part of the message in WALL-E is that even though we long for instant gratification, something critical is lost if we actually get what we want without having to do anything or even look around to find it. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, where people discover they can get places faster if they never look up, so everything gets ugly and then when no one notices it eventually fades away altogether.
Having complained to my co-workers about The 4-Hour Body based solely on the title, I felt motivated by concerns about fairness and my lack of intellectual rigor to actually read some of it. And, no doubt because I mocked it, I ended up buying it. Although it does advocate a minimalist approach to achieving its stated goals, it reminds me more of Mythbusters than Biggest Loser. Ferriss basically uses himself as a test-monkey for a bunch of theories about fitness and health that doctors can’t really test because they wouldn’t get permission to do those things to anyone. The basic principles can be applied to everyman, but a bunch of it is either unaffordable or ‘don’t try this at home.’ Pay to be suspended in his undies in a tank of cold water for the most accurate body composition test? Check. Implanting a Continuous Glucose Monitor under his skin to track his glycemic index as he eats different foods? Check. Ferriss does it so you don’t have to.
Reading it started me thinking about the language of self help narratives aimed at men and movies like Morgan Spurlock’s comedy-documentary Mansome that grapple with the definition of manhood. Mansome is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exploration of beards, body hair, men’s grooming, and how they relate to what it means to be a man. It’s not revolutionary and I’m not sure what the conclusion is exactly, but it’s an interesting combination of challenging and reinforcing the limitations of conventional definitions of masculinity.
The section that stood out most for me was the interview with Jack Passion about beardsmanship. Beardsmen grow beards competitively and beardsmanship is talked about as a sport, although watching it here reminds me more of Best in Show. Passion talks about his belief that man’s natural state is to be bearded and that any man without facial hair is stuck in a state of boyhood. They keep filming him almost as if they can’t believe he keeps saying the things he says. He compares growing his beard and competing for titles to training for a sport, and the camera follows him as he pulls out his vitamin supplements and goes for a run.
It’s interesting to try to balance the value of men talking about being men and accessing their feelings against the reinforcement of a construction of masculinity that limits the possibilities for everyone. Men talking about what it means to be a man is something I see as part of feminism and an important counterpart to women having space to talk about being women. If men never talk about their issues or expand their definitions of manhood, women redefining gender still helps women but it also starts to resemble unilateral disarmament. And what space is there left for anyone who doesn’t identify with either thing?
The idea that no one should have to look or smell not like themselves to be attractive seems very sane, but when the idea is that it’s not manly to go to any lengths grooming yourself it seems that opinion is also usually balanced on a hypocritical double standard. For instance, experience tells me that a lot of guys who think men shouldn’t shave anything but their face or pay attention to their clothes have opinions about women’s armpits and make-up and skirts that aren’t “you’re beautiful exactly the way you are”.
On the flip-side, when I was reading a men’s fitness magazine in a waiting room recently, I came across a ratings chart for what glasses, facial hair, expression and face shape women voted most appealing. Seriously, face shape? I could shave, get new specs, and practice looking ‘confident’ in the mirror, but I can’t mail-order myself a chiseled jaw. Really, I should be old enough to know that having more muscles or a bigger dick isn’t actually going to get me what I want. Most days I even do.
alex MacFadyen fails to see what being chewed to bits by giant turtles or having weasels rip your flesh has to do with manhood. Fortitude? Yes. Weasels? No. Perhaps he is still missing something fundamental about what it means to be a man…