*This post informs a catalogue essay on the same topic to be printed for the opening of ‘Male;Real/Ideal’ at The Mill (154 Angas Street 5000) on the 6th of September 2013.
My first experience with male body image disorders was through a friend of mine.
We were 18-20-something’s, fresh out of high school and Living The Dream (‘bludging around’). As with many young creative types, we experimented with many random things, photography being intrinsic to all (many thanks to long-time inspiration Gemma Killen!). We developed a taste for stage make-up and outlandish clothes, dress-up days, heavily-themed parties, and fantasy photo shoots. Boys were girls and girls were boys and we all frolicked about in an artistic haze flouting boundaries wherever possible because it was FUN and the act of growing up is frankly a bit shit.
Meanwhile, somewhere in all that play our brains and opinions were developing. Boundaries were reformed even as we broke them. More specifically; when we ran into other peoples boundaries we discovered it really hurt.
Said friend, not gay but prone to wearing skirts in public, eye-liner to the beach, and his own amazing jewelery creations everywhere, found it very difficult ‘conforming’ to other peoples dress standards. He was offended that people immediately assumed there was something wrong with him for wearing a highly-gendered piece of fabric that wasn’t of the masculine style, wrong that he was strong but not tall and big, wrong that he was musical not just LOUD, wrong that he preferred making beautiful things to rounding up other people on a designated bit of ground while aiming for convoluted goals associated with gaining the most numbers. Already prone to depression, his inability to be able to express himself without the rest of society freaking out and trying to cover him up/convince him otherwise/ignore his existence/run away from the issue sometimes resulted in crippling anxiety and incredible depths of despair. Unable to face the stares, he retreated for days, weeks, at a time. We had huge conversations about conventions and gender politics and un-fucking the system, but sometimes, the weight of all those bewildered (and sometimes downright violent) eyes broke him.
We’ve all faced it.
The “why can’t I just be happy with how I look?” which really means “Why are THEY so happy with how they look?”
Its a cycle of self-dissatisfaction> jealousy> greed> self-hate> binge> purge> binge> purge> recover> something’s wrong> self-dissatisfaction> etc, mostly pushed by the media and health organisations as one of those “women’s issues” that we’re so jumpy about (hope you heard the cynicism there). But listening to my friend talk about this ten years ago, and watching the effect it had on him then strikes home to me that acceptance is not just a “women’s issue”, but (WARNING! Related tangent ahead!) as with domestic violence, its EVERYONE’S ISSUES.
Example two; I dated a painfully skinny boy for a long time (7’2″ tall, 63kg). We ate chicken nuggets, packet pasta, fried steak and potatoes, take away Chinese, pizza, hamburgers, and drank half a carton of beer a night. I gained many a tummy roll, he stayed 63kg. Sometimes he even lost weight, at one point he was 59kg, and freaked out and started eating five times a day. All he wanted was to hit 70kg. The dream was 80. I don’t think he ever made it.
Years later, I dated another boy. At this point I had lost all belief in scales and weight (“You sure that things safe to stand on?”) so I don’t remember numbers. He had a belly, and arms that jiggled when he ran. Stockily built, he had muscle mass but it was buried under years of video games and snacks. I loved him regardless. He hated himself because he wasn’t fit, buff, or skinny. He hated the jiggle. His brother, a keen sportsman, was soaked in protein shakes and workouts, and keept a sheath of ‘Men’s Health’ magazines around the house at all times. The models on the cover seemed to shout YOU WILL NEVER BE AS GOOD AS US BUT YOU MAYBE COULD BE JUST FOLLOW THESE FIVE SIMPLE TIPS… A constant reminder that whatever you are is never enough.
Compare this with a quote by a woman I found on the controversial Facebook post by Mamamia on the BodyPositiveProject that tells women that by embracing their natural face and not wearing make-up they are empowering themselves.
“I’m one of those people who only wears make up if I have to like say my wedding day, my profile pic. Most others I don’t have makeup on and my husband has always loved that about me that I look like the same person no matter what time of day it is. Join me people its quite liberating! I do however think I need to get on top of the waxing situation a little more often gorilla eyebrows don’t suit me!!”
Both genders are under the same assumption; what you are is never enough.
Earlier this year a friend of mine, Brodie Paparella, approached me with an idea. Brodie is of the super-skinny type that I described in my first boyfriend. He eats constantly but his metabolism is so fast his barely has time to gain nutrients from food before its gone. By the time he’s 30 he is likely to have osteoporosis. Colds and viruses hit him particularly hard as he has little to no body fat to feed him immune system. He has had various reactions to his weight, ranging from “OH, I wish I had you’re problem!” to “You gotta be a junky, right? Can you get me some stuff?”. Sick of the blatant uninformed judgement on his physical form, he wanted a way of telling the world “Some people just ARE this way! Get over it!”
Lo and behold; Male;Real/Ideal. A photographic art project that we devised to attack that very situation. Seven everyday men are paired with seven emerging and professional photographers. Together they explore the concepts of their own physicality versus outsiders judgement. They plan conceptual shoots for two images; one that represents where they feel most judged by their appearance, and one where they feel most comfortable and at ease with themselves.
I believe that one of the roles of the artist in society is to challenge presumption. Therefore we must create ways in to disrupt things society takes for granted, such as stereotypes. This exhibition is one of those ways.
By selecting models and creating sets, poses, and attire for them we are emulating a modern fashion shoot. By using atypical models we disrupt what is perceived as ‘attractive’ and bring perceptions of physicality out of the dreamy clouds of commercialism and back to tangible reality. These are the guys that write your smartphone apps, that teach your children, that work in your offices, that are reading next to you in the library, that make your coffee. There are thousands of them around this country, and none of them look like a God.
Most advertising works on the premise that through repetition the message sticks. We appropriate and use this same tactic against the illusion theyre trying to sell us by planning five exhibitions with the same theme. After the fifth we will make a book and sell it that way. We will cover overweight men, disabled me, transgender men, and overseas men in an effort to show Australia that you don’t have to try and be THIS
OPENING NIGHT CELEBRATIONS for Male:Real/Ideal are 6pm on Friday the 6th of September at The Mill (154 Angas Street Adelaide 5000). The show will run till the 27th of September.
See you there!