BEEFCAKE: gay men and the body beautiful (UCL)

Good evening, my name is Ben Campkin and I’m
director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you all here this
evening for tonight’s event, “BEEFCAKE: Gay Men and the Body Beautiful”, a panel discussion
about gay men and body image. We had two main themes in mind when we started thinking about
tonight’s event, and they are interconnected themes. On the one hand we want to explore
the role that gyms and the muscled body have played in gay culture and experience, and
we’ve borrowed the title ‘beefcake’ from Tom Fitzgerald’s 1998 film which looks at gay
subculture around fitness magazines in the 1950s. The second thing that we wanted to
address was issues of body image, body idealism and body image anxiety as they relate to gay
men, and this is something that I’m sure you’re very much aware of as a matter of public debate
generally. So we’ve got a great line-up of speakers and there’ll be a chance for you
to respond as well at the end, we’re leaving plenty of time for discussion. We’re very
grateful to Professor Michael King, who is head of UCL Mental Health Sciences, for chairing
the debate. Michael is a psychiatric epidemiologist and also does work on LGBT issues around stress
and stigma that LGBT face, so it’s great that he’s charing since he has such relevant research.
So at this point I’ll hand over to Michael and he’ll introduce our speakers.>>Thank you all for coming. I’m going to chair
this and try and keep some order. This is not a debate, it’s more of a discussion, but
I’m going to try to keep people strictly to time. As Ben said, I’m the director for Mental
Health Sciences here at UCL. We’ve been interested for some time in Mental Health issues, wellbeing
and so forth in gay men and lesbians, and it’s interesting to even here your introduction,
but this situation has been well known to the mental health field now probably since
the early 1980s. We’ve been aware that there’s been body image disturbance particularly around
eating disorders in gay men. It first really appeared in the 1980s, or first was recognised,
and at that time it was felt that it was a conflicted state of men who were very unhappy
about being gay. But as it progressed into the ’90s it became clear that the body image
was more focused on increased muscularity and the sort of things we’re going to hear
about tonight. And so it’s really morphed a little bit into this situation, but it’s
been a well known problem within mental health, at least recognition of it, what we do about
it of course is a completely different thing. Now I’m going to introduce each speaker as
we go so that they’ve got time to get up here and arrange their audio visuals if they’ve
got them. I’m going to sit over there as I’ve told the speakers, and I’m going to wave my
parliamentary papers if they’re getting near time. So we’re starting a bit early, so I’m
going to be easy on people but generally after about twelve minutes I’ll expect people to
stop. Okay, it’s my pleasure first to introduce – they’re sitting the row, we got them to
sit in the order in which they’re going to come up here and speak. And first of all is
Duncan Stephenson, who is standing in for the previously advertised speaker, Rosie,
whom we had but Duncan as well is head of external affairs the Central YMCA. He tells
me he’s been involved in a campaign for body image confidence, and has been giving evidence
for what I understand for what is a parliamentary or government enquiry at the moment into body
image problems in society. So, Duncan, over to you.>>Central YMCA is part of the Campaign for
Body Confidence and it consists of a number of different organisations, but Central YMCA
is a national health and education charity. Through our work with young people we’ve identified
body image anxiety and body image obsession as a particular issue and it impacts on their
self esteem, confidence and wellbeing. From our work in the health and fitness sector,
we know that body image is one of those perennial barriers to participation in sports, physical
activity and exercise. We know that body image is influenced by many different factors, many
of them are outside the areas in which we work. But advertising, the media, fashion,
celebrity culture and businesses such as cosmetic surgery and the diet industry all have a part
to play. Within our sector, Central YMCA is doing stuff. Education is key and we’re giving
young people the space and a place to explore their body image and to counter the daily
onslaught of images presented to them in the media, for example. Together with the University
of Westminster we’re developing resources for schools and in particular for teachers,
because our research finds that in particular teachers also have their own body image issues.
With health and fitness, it’s harder. We all know that looking the part and achieving the
body image ideal are part and parcel of gym culture and gay gym culture. But while this
appears to some, it also deters a lot of people. About 12% of people in the UK are members
of a gym, and between 10% and one third of people meet the recommended amount of physical
activity each week. So there’s something not quite working. Now we did a naked photo shoot
in our gym last summer. And that’s the result. I’m not in it, because I have my own body
image issues, but what we do know is that two-thirds of the public are intimidated by
gyms and the people who use them, and we also know that three out of four people need to
do more to attract people of different shapes and sizes. But it’s not just about gyms, it’s
also about physical activity, wherever that takes place. We’re working with the government
Equality Office and organisations such as Sport England to respond to this. Anyway,
now onto the male body image research. Now you might have seen this in the press, in
the media. At the YMCA we’re uniquely placed to look at this issue from both a male and
a female perspective. Many of the organisations involved in the Campaign for Body Confidence
look at it from a female perspective. We can actually look at it from a male perspective
as well. We know that not a lot of research is being done into male body image anxiety
and male body image issues. So we conducted this research to better understand the extent
to which body image anxiety is or isn’t a problem, and together with the Centre for
Appearance Research, based at the University of the West of England and the Succeed Foundation,
we undertook an online survey to better understand men’s attitudes to body image and their appearance
and the extent to which they engage in conversation about bodies. Before I show you some of the
results there are a few caveats. It is a small sample, just under 400 men. The average age
is 38, the youngest is 18, the oldest is 70 years old. The average BMI was 25.7, so tipping
into the overweight category, for whatever that means, and ethnicity and educational
attainment were fairly representative. We deliberately recruited a high number of gay
men to take part in the survey because we know from previous research that gay men are
more sensitive to this issue. Half of the people who took part were members of a gym,
and again that is higher than the norm. So bearing in mind that, we looked at the extent
to which men engage in what’s called ‘body talk’, conversation about your appearance
which reinforces or endorses the western ideal, the dominant western ideal of male attractiveness.
We looked at men’s satisfaction with their appearance and influences on their appearance,
taking each in turn. Body talk: we found that four in five men engage in body talk, and
gay men are significantly more likely to say they use body talk in comparison to straight
men. Gay men are also significantly more likely to say that their friends and family members
use body talk in comparison to straight men. Now what’s wrong with that? In terms of the
effect, around 60% of people say that body talk affects them personally, and most of
them in a negative way. Some of the quotes that we had from the research: “causes feelings
of regret and self disgust,” “makes me aware of imperfections in my own body,” “I despair
of the images gay men are meant to adhere to.” However, body talk does motivate a smaller
number of people who feel that it recognises hard work in the gym. Men engage in body talk
for a variety of different reasons. For gay men, the main responses were hearing another
man talk negatively their appearance, or, after seeing another man with the ideal body
image. The second area that we looked at with the research was men’s satisfaction with their
appearance. Now the headline grabbing stat was that one third of men would trade a year
of life to achieve their ideal body. The figure is half as half for gay men; half of gay men
would do that. Possibly, what’s quite concerning is that 10% of gay men would trade a decade
of life to achieve their ideal body, much higher than for straight men. But digging
beneath that headline grabbing stat, I think the overwhelming finding from the research
is the extent to which men, and remember that half of these are men who use gyms, are unhappy
with their level of muscularity. Four in five men want to be more muscular, two-thirds don’t
believe their arms and chest are muscly enough, over half would be more confident if they
had more muscularity. And maybe this explains why one-third of men take protein supplements.
One-fifth are on a high protein diet, and one in eight would consider taking steroids.
And that actually mirrors research we did last year with young people, where young guys
average age of 14, about 10% would take steroids to achieve their ideal body shape or size.
We finally looked at the influences on male body image, male body image anxiety, and I’ve
just got one slide that sums it up. One in four gay men said that media messages about
body shape and size were extremely important to them. Two thirds of gay men would like
to look like the models on the front covers of magazines. So what conclusions can we draw
from this research? Bearing in mind the small sample size, it does provide a useful snapshot
and reinforces or confirms previous research that it’s not just women who suffer from body
image anxiety. For the YMCA this is useful to know. Anyone who knows the YMCA knows that
we’re about health in mind, body and spirit. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make
the best with what you’ve got – of aspiring and working hard, but we also know that when
concern with body image becomes obsession and can prompt unhealthy behaviours, whether
that’s overexercising, disordered eating, or undertaking quick fixes, there may be a
problem. Body image is a very complex subject. We’re not lecturing people, that’s not what
the YMCA is about. But we do want to raise awareness of this subject, and prompt a debate
and discussion, and we welcome tonight’s discussion. Having said that, we are a health and education
charity, and when one in four men say that body image anxiety stops them from exercising
or going to the them, then we think that’s a problem. When about 10% of men say they’d
consider taking steroids to achieve their body image ideal, then we think that’s an
issue. And when body image anxiety causes men to feel depressed, particularly gay men
to feel depressed about themselves, then we want to address this. Do any of you know Central
YMCA club? We run a program there called Positive Health, which is an exercise referral program
for people living with HIV, and back in the day people living with HIV, the medication
would sometimes lead to side-effects, such as lipodystrophy, a visible stigmata that
you’re living with a condition, and some of the men on the program really welcomed the
nonjudgement and diverse environment that Central YMCA Club provides and welcomes this
campaign. There will always be health clubs, including YMCA – we are one, we don’t represent
the whole YMCA movement, but target men and women who want to achieve ‘the body beautiful’,
and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for us, the benefits of exercise and activity
go way beyond that, and actually there’s plenty of academic research that shows that if you
exercise for reasons other than the body beautiful you’re more likely to sustain your interest.
So where do we go from here? As Michael said, Central YMCA is involved in a parliamentary
group. We actually established an all party parliamentary group on body image and we’re
currently conducting an enquiry into the causes and consequence of body image anxiety. We’ve
heard from people such as Matthew Todd, who kindly came along last week, some of the country’s
biggest advertisers, youth organisations and the diet and cosmetic surgery industry. Later
this month we’ll hear from the fashion and fitness industries. There is a public consultation,
and if you’d like to make your voice heard then please go to that website and there is
a consultation form there. Once the consultation closes we’ll produce a report with a number
of policy recommendations for government, industry and others. In terms of gay men and
body image, I’m sure you’ll hear a lot tonight, the situation is complex, but I certainly
believe that insecurity about the way we look isn’t helped by the endless parade of unattainable
and unrealistic images in advertising and the media. It seems there’s a growing trend
to judge people against these benchmarks, and that’s not healthy, particularly for young
gay men. We need to crack down on industries that make a fast buck out of supposedly helping
people feel better about themselves. Thank you for inviting us to take part, and it’s
nice to be hear talking about the YMCA and not talking about the Village People song.
>>Our next speaker, Mark Simpson, who’s a journalist, writer and broadcaster, he’s contributed
to many leading periodicals and newspapers, but most famously probably, he’s attributed
to have been the first to use the term ‘metrosexual’, which was in the ’90s. So Mark, over to you.
>>Thank you. I want to thank Duncan for his presentation, which highlights the downsides
of what we might call ‘obsessive body image’. I’m going to highlight the upside. Well, not
really, but in a way. More to the point, actually, I’m going to try and outline what role gay
men have played in indoctrinating the culture, and actually kind of redesigning the male
body. And it goes back at least to 1980, the YMCA, but further really, you can go back
to AMG Physique in the 1950s, and one of the contributors, one of the most famous contributors
to those physique pictorial magazines was somebody called Tom of Finland, who you might
have heard of. I’m going to read from an article I wrote a few years ago about an exhibition
of Tom of Finland drawings. “The first time I saw a Tom of Finland drawing was in a well-thumbed
seven pound issue of Fiesta, a top shelf favourite of schoolboys in the 1970s. The image, buried
at the back, was in a small ad for more specialised publications, probably missed by most of my
school chums who had thumbed the issue before me. But it jumped out at me like an outsized
erection. It depicted a pair of muscular, butch young men with big chins and broad grins,
grabbing each other’s bubble butts and straining packets, while winking at the reader. I immediately
rushed out to the post office to buy as many postal orders as I could afford. Although
I was sorely disappointed with the lame, biker boy leather fetish magazine with no Tom of
Finland drawings which turned up, I spent much of my adult life, and a fortune on gym
membership, trying to recreate that Tom of Finland image that I glimpsed as a teen. Not
very successfully. I needn’t have bothered, however, because as it turned out, the whole
world was going to become a Tom of Finland drawing. His sensualised, cartoonish uber-male
body and its endless potentil for pleasure and pleasuring have become as common as, well,
shameless male hussies. Think of the rugby player Austin Healey pulsating on BBC1’s Strictly
Come Dancing in a tight pants and a sleeveless top, or all those footballers keen to strip
off and show their assets on the side of busses. But notes for artists’ retrospectives usually
make extravagant claims and those for a major retrospective of Tom of Finland in Liverpool’s
Annual Homotopia queer cultural festival make some very extravagant ones indeed. I quote,
‘Tom had an effect on global culture, unmatched by that of virtually any other artist,’ we
are told. But for once, there’s something to that hyperbole. Despite the debatable artistic
merit of his drawings, Tom was born Touko Laaksonen – sorry about my Finnish – in Kaarina,
Finland in 1920, and his work is literally the masturbatory fantasies of a young homosexual
Finnish boy. He began drawing in his locked bedroom in the 1940s, pencil in one hand,
penis in the other. His fetishised, over-observed, long-distance gay appropriation of masculinity
has, in a mediated, long-distance world, become masculinity. It’s often said that Tom’s greatest
achievement was in drawing gay men who were masculine, happy and proud at a time when
they were supposed to be effeminate, neurotic and shameful. This is certainly the reason
why so many gay men are Tom devotees, wittingly or not. Today’s gay porn is merely filthy
footnotes to Tom, endlessly replaying the narrative of regular guys with very irregular
sized penises and pectorals, having spontaneous, shameless sex, at the drop of a monkey wrench.
But when you look at Tom’s drawings, it becomes apparent that his achievement goes much further
than just making gay men feel good about themselves or love the snugness of leather harnesses.
Tom, who worked as an illustrator in the Finnish advertising business until the early ’70s,
when he became a full-time gay propagandist, sold the male body as a pleased, pleasuring
and pleasured thing, several decades before Calvin Klein thought of it. In the middle
of the 20th-century, Tom was effectively sketching the blueprint of 21st-century man, and boy,
was he blue. Before Tom, almost no one drew men like he did, making them such unabashed
sex objects and sex subjects, giving them such exaggerated male secondary and primary
sexual characteristics: big chins, strong jaws, full lips. Masculinity and virility
end up looking so nurturing, buxom, busty. Tom’s men have round, firm breasts, saucer-like
areolas, and nipples you could adjust your thermostat with. One picture from 1962 shows
a young man strutting down the street, biceps bulging, chest literally bursting out of his
shirt – let’s see if I can actually find that. Yes, and dressing very much to the left. [Laughter]
No wonder he’s being followed. His saucy, curvaceousness is a testament to the way in
which aestheticised hyper-masculinity is oddly androgyne. While Tom’s men may have had their
tits out for the lads, the kind of Tom-ish male body he helped to invent is nowadays
getting them out for the lads and lasses, gay or straight, online or in realtime. I’ll
show you a picture of a contemporary figure, also with his tits out. I don’t know if you’ll
recognise this chap, Mikey Sorrentino, star of Jersey Shore, a big hit reality show in
the U. S., and spawning spin-offs here like Georgie Shore, perhaps somebody’s seen that.
Interesting comparison. Clever man, that Tom. Likewise, Tom’s drawings always reveal the
male derrière as a sexual organ. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of that. Not just
in some of the more hardcore examples but the way that Tom-ish buttocks are so spherical,
so sensual, so inviting. One of the most striking and prescient sketches from 1981 is also one
of the tamest, a row of be-denimed male bubble butts sticking out at a bar, awaiting perhaps
the attentions of the hugely powerful Abercrombie and Fitch photographer Bruce Weber, a big
Tom fan, or perhaps the vaselined, wide-angled lens of a Levi commercial. Tom’s big break
came in the 1950s with Physique Pictorial, an underground semi-legal gay American fanzine
disguised as a straight men’s body building magazine, which frequently put Tom’s men on
the cover. Oh yes, by the way, this is the boys from Geordie Shore. He’s very shy, obviously.
[Laughter.] They are in Newcastle. Doesn’t look like we’ve got that Physique Pictorial
cover after all. Nevermind. Half a century later, and seventeen after Tom’s death in
1991, the world is literally inverted. Flesh and blood men who look like Tom’s drawings
appear on the cover of bestselling corporate mags, such as Men’s Health. Flick one open
and you’ll find it’s full of advice on how straight men can turn themselves into something
Tom-ish, or straight-ish. Very charming young man. If Tom did the designing, I’m going to
look at how the construction is done. This is another article from a few years ago, this
one was in the Guardian. ‘Roids may sound as ’80s as Cher’s black lace bodice, but they’re
back, even bigger and bustier than ever. According to a series of recent reports, steriods or
‘juice’ or ‘gear’ to the initiated, once an exotic judge of cheating athletes and freaky
body builders have entered the mainstream and have become just another lifestyle product
for young men. Some boys as young as twelve are reportedly taking the drug, though not
very many. And this despite the frightening possible side-effects meticulously listed
in these press reports, including liver, heart and kidney damage, atrophied testicles, erectile
dysfunction, depression and raised aggression, though arguably you could experience most
of these symptoms if you support Arsenal FC. The key to this mainstreaming of steroids
is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them
like what they see in the smoke glass gym mirror. According to the surveys, a large
majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier,
all traditionally acceptable masculine ambitions, but to look more attractive, to look shaggable,
or just make you look. In other words, young men are taking steroids the way that many
gay party boys have taken them for years, to look good on the beach, or dance floor,
or webcam. Muscle Marys, as they’re called by envious, less muscular gays, are apparently
no longer a strictly gay phenomenon. Muscle Marys are where masculinity is at, Mary. It
shouldn’t be so surprising. We don’t really need surveys to tell us this. It is, after
all, happening right before our eyes. It’s the media that has mainlined steroids into
the culture and our kids. Unlike say, very skinny girls, very muscular boys are very
popular. An anti-size hero campaign like that we’ve seen against size zero is somewhat unlikely.
Steroids are an essential, prescribed even part of the way that the male body has been
farmed and packaged for our consumptions since it was laid off at the factory and the shipyard
in the 1980s. A generation of young males have been reared on irresistibly and frequently
chemically lean muscular images of the male body in sport, advertising, magazines, moves
and tele. Even in the cartoons they watch and the computer games, toy dolls, or action
figures, they play with it seems that all that’s left of masculinity in a post-industrial,
post-maternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis or right foot good enough to get you
into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women, but especially men, will give you
kudos for that. So will people casting reality TV shows, even Action Man is now a Muscle
Mary. Let’s see if we can find that picture. G. I. Joe 1960, G. I. 2001. God knows what
he looks like now. Since the 1960s, his bicep measurements have more than doubled, from
a scaled up 12 inches to 27 inches, and his chest from 44 inches to 55 inches. His current
cut physique would be rather difficult to achieve just by eating corned beef hash rations,
especially since as far as I’m aware, a portable plastic gym isn’t one of his basic accessories.
In an age when what’s authentically masculine is unclear, but what’s hot is in your face
a nice pair of pecs, projecting synthetic manliness despite the possible risks to your
actual man bits is not going out of fashion any time soon. The only effective way to discourage
their use will be to come up with a new generation of muscle building drugs that work as well
as steroids but have fewer side effects. I’d certainly take them. Steroids are the metrosexual
hormone. They make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what
else to do with them. Thank you.>>Now may I introduce Johan Andersson, who’s
a researcher at the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and his research focuses
on a broad mix of sexuality, religion, cosmopolitan coexistence and the cultural transformation
of the public sphere. And he’s going to speak about this issue as arising from the AIDS
crisis.>>Thanks. So I’m going to say a few words
about AIDS and how that affected body culture and also a few words about the internet. So
in the early 1990s, when gay culture recovered after the initial trauma of the AIDS crisis,
it did so through the deployment of new aesthetic themes that emphasised cleanliness and health,
and the main manifestation of this new gay culture in the UK, I think, are the gay villages
in Manchester’s Canal Street, and the one in Old Compton Street here in London. So what’s
new about these gay villages is first of all the clustering of many venues within close
proximity to each other, and also they’re very inviting for sods[?], in contrast to
earlier gay venus which tended to be boarded up pubs in back street locations, with very
discreet exteriors. These new pubs, or new bars, rather, they often have very big, open-fronted
windows that expose their clientele to people passing by in the street. So it’s a kind of
collective coming out, if you like. The interior design of these venues is also very different.
So earlier gay venues in London, apart from being dark spaces and on the outside boarded
up, they were also dark spaces on the inside, with dim lighting, and in some instances,
the lighting gets even dimmer during the AIDS crisis. So The London Apprentice, for example,
in Old Street, they changed their lighting in the mid-’80s to conceal the very visible
signs of illness on many of their customers during the AIDS crisis. In contrast, Soho’s
new gay bars, they conform to minimalist interior design. The traditional dark colours of the
pubs have been replaced by light colours and natural light. Wooden materials also associated
with the public house have been replaced with chrome, steel, sink and glass, materials which
in modernist furniture design have typically been associated with machines and cleanliness,
or at least the appearance of cleanliness. So this type of cleanliness aesthetic can
be seen in the context of AIDS, and early writing on the health crisis noted that the
emphasis is on the look of high technology in western hospitals and how medicine’s impotence
to treat the illness at this time was somehow compensated for in the image of gleaming chromium.
Similarly, in the new gay bars an emphasis on clean surfaces and hygienic design motifs
was part of the promotion of these venues as healthy spaces. The first of these bars
was Manto in Manchester, which opened in 1990 and the first one in London was Village West
One which opened on Hanway Street in 1991, shortly followed by Village Soho on Wardour
Street. And at this time as well physical ideals begin to be reshaped with a new emphasis
on youth and smooth-toned bodies, and this physical ideal is not least expressed in the
particular forms of aesthetic labour that the new gay venues in Soho and Canal Street
deployed. So before opening the Village bars, the owners interviewed 150 people and selected
14 young men with an average age of 21 and they deliberated went for a very fresh-faced,
healthy-looking, clean-shaven type of look. The advertising for these type of bars is
created by the graphic designer trademark which promotes a similar look which draws
on a very classical ideal of male beauty: again, clean-shaven face and high cheek bones
often reminiscent of American icons including Marlon Brando, Chet Baker and James Dean.
What about the body? Well, I think it’s defined rather than buff, perhaps because earlier
types of gay muscle bodies, such as the Tom of Finland ideal that Mark just talked about,
or the clone, or the Muscle Mary, they may indicate strength but not necessarily health.
So the new physical ideal is sportier and it projects an image of a well-balanced lifestyle.
It’s a more sculptural body which requires much more varied equipment, so push-ups and
sit-ups and weights at home may no longer be sufficient. You probably need a membership
at a gym to help you achieve this very sculptural body. Another key attribute of this body is
that it’s hairless, smooth and silky. Again, I think this can be seen in the context of
AIDS. Many unusual skin blemishes associated with disease that could potentially be hidden
on a hairy body will be immediately visible on the shiny surface of this new gay body.
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the new sanitised gay culture is the go-go boy, a type of erotic
dancer that both of the Village bars tried to promote here in London but which perhaps
never takes off to the same extent as it does in America, where it really becomes an obligatory
form of aesthetic labour from the late-1980s onwards. Again, I think it has to be seen
in the context of AIDS and what happened before when New York City in particular was very
famous for its very raunchy sex scene, however, in 1995 the Department of Health shuts down
most of the sex clubs and the go-go boy becomes the kind of substitute that keeps the sexual
economy alive and secures the circulation of capital at this moment of crisis. Another
key example of this body ideal is Bruce Weber’s Calvin Klein adverts. This is perhaps the
moment when white underwear becomes very hegemonic in gay culture. Again, this can be seen in
the context of AIDS: white is the virginal colour that symbolises innocence but also
surgical colour against which one can easily detect any suspicious looking discharge associated
with sexual disease. So how is this new body ideal policed? Well, as the previous commentators
have suggested, it’s very much about media imagery and in tandem with this new gay scene
in Soho and in London generally, the new gay media comes along listing magazines such as
Boys, which is launched in 1991 and then QX in 1992, which very actively promotes this
body culture as well, not least by taking pictures of people with the best bodies, if
you like, in their advertorials for different clubs. In some instances, the body ideal is
enforced in an even more explicit way through door policies. The Roxy nightclub, which is
really the heart of the muscle scene in New York in the first half of the 1990s operates
a coding system whereby all potential customers are rated on a scale of 1-4 based on their
bodies and the rating then determines who will be allowed into the club. I think with
the internet, this fixation with ratings and numerical categorisation has been exacerbated
even further. So on many of the online dating sites, you’re encouraged to rate other users
and of course most things you say about yourself can be reduced to number: weight, height,
waist line, cock size, for example. Even in the section where you say a few words about
yourself, one of the most common ways of describing yourself is by simply listing the number of
occasions each week you go to the gym. And I think as some of you may know, the less
you say about yourself, the more messages you get. So it’s almost as if the obligatory
torso shot is an empty canvas on which other people can project their sexual fantasies
and of course, if you reveal something about yourself, that fantasy might fall apart. So
this blank and quantitative way of presenting yourself and evaluating others may of course
have some relevance if you’re looking for a hook-up and have very specific sexual preferences
but the internet is increasingly at the social heart of the gay community in ways that go
beyond quick sex. So if you move to a new city, for example, it’s often the easiest
way to meet new friends, and of course when you contact people it’s on the basis of this
numerical criteria or on looks, then when you meet up, for whatever reason, there might
not be sexual chemistry but you still are acquaintances, or you become friends, or you’re
introduced to this person’s social circle – it seems to me that these physical and numerical
criteria on these websites no longer only impact your ability to get laid but also on
your chances to make friends. Another example of this sexualisation of friendship is the
increasing number of gay people who use very similar type of imagery on their Facebook
profiles. Facebook is of course also increasingly used in a variety of utilitarian contexts,
so if you’re looking for a flat share for example, it’s quite common that you have to
send your Facebook profile before for the people in this flat share to see if you’re
a good match. Or even in some professions you might be asked to send your Facebook profile.
So it seems that this sexualised imagery is increasingly entering spheres which we may
not automatically think of as sexual. So to conclude: the combined forces of the post-AIDS
body culture and the internet, which is a very efficient and pragmatic medium, has produced
a space which is perhaps now the dominant context for connecting gay people with each
other, where body normativity and physical preferences are not merely implicit or hinted
at but increasingly expressed in very explicit terms. So people on the internet frequently
express racial preferences in a way which I think wouldn’t be tolerated in other spaces,
of course, with the caveat that “I’m not racist; it’s just my preference.” Similarly, many
people describe themselves as straight-acting, masculine and manly, often asserted in very
aggressive terms that no camp or effeminate person should even bother to contact them.
This language, which is again presented merely as a preference should probably give us reason
to pause and reflect on the very conservative and normative values it communicates. After
all, one of the great qualities of our culture historically has been the ability to appropriate
and subvert given gender norms. However, in the current assimilationist climate of gay
politics, where the emphasis is on marriage and adoption rights, suggests a desire to
join the heterosexual structures of society, we may have internalised exactly the same
gender norms that used to, and one might argue, continue to oppress us. [Applause.]
>>Thank you very much. We’ll move quickly on to Jonathan Kemp, who’s on the faculty
of English and Humanities at Birkbeck College. He’s a novelist and researcher and his first
novel was called The London Triptych, which is a description of gay experience through
male prostitution over a hundred years. And he’s coming from a completely different aspect
of the topic. Jonathan.>>I’m going to take the discussion into a
different direction. I’m going to talk about conceptual origins of the concept of beefcake
and the ways in which I see it colluding with the advent of commercial capitalism in its
pursuit of the impossible ideal of masculine strength and confidence. So I called this,
‘The Genealogy of Beefcake, or Having Your Beefcake and Eating It, Too.’ [Laughter.]
The German philosopher Theodore Adorno, in his book Negative Dialectics, reminds us that,
“objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.” In other words, every
time we create a concept, there’s always something left out, something that doesn’t fit in. Something
locked off in order for the concept to function in its ideal form. Like the ugly sisters hacking
off toes to squeeze their bloodied fit into the glass slipper and so marry the handsome
prince, our standard ways of conceptualising inevitably distort the realities they purport
to describe in order to establish a seamless identity between the concept and its object.
Every concept requires conformity to its idealised form and what doesn’t conform to the ideal
is violently amputated in the rush to define. In other words, to define is to limit. It’s
never the full picture. The full picture is messier, more complex, and includes all those
things that don’t conform to the concept in its idealised form. Adorno calls this remainder,
‘the non-identical,’ and it is here where what doesn’t fit in is discarded that something
approaching the truth can be found. It is, he argues, ‘precisely the things that do not
fit in that will provide the supplement necessary for the full picture to emerge.’ Every definition
thus shapes reality at the expense of the truth, peddling as somehow natural or inevitable
what is in actuality a conglomeration of ideology, cultural assumption and embedded historicity.
Concepts have a history which is always political, charged with implicit values which nonchalantly
parade themselves as self-evident, as purely and simply what is. With this in mind I’m
going to talk about some of the things erased or removed from our conceptualisation of the
term ‘beefcake’. I’m going to focus on the non-identical, on the excluded or erased aspects
of that concept, and what isn’t being said when we use it. In this way I hope to expose
the ideological oppressions, the violent hierarchies that lurk just outside the ring-fencing of
that concept. An online slang dictionary gives us a slang definition of beefcake: “a muscularly
handsome male.” Offering an example of the word in use, the section: “She’s been going
out with a real beefcake.” Immediately we are given highly gender normative and heteronormative
coordinates with which to frame and focus the concept. It is always male and it’s sexual
orientation is towards women. Thus the concept of beefcake is in its most basic definitional
level saturated with cultural assumptions about the gender and sexual orientation of
the subject to whom it is attached. In other words, there is an active semantic exclusion
of beefcake as gay, lesbian, female, queer or bisexual. If we turn our attention to the
classic visual signifiers of beefcake, as exemplified by Bob Mizer’s iconic photography
for Physique Pictorial magazine in the ’50s, other layers of exclusion are added to these
conceptual erasures, for we find almost without exception, in the most cursory search on Google,
for example, page after page of white, able-bodied males flexing their guns for the world to
see. I trawled through a good couple of hundred images before I came across a single black
body, and there were no images of disabled body builders at all. As Michele Foucault
has shown, power relations have an immediate hold upon the body, they invest it, mark it,
train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.
He writes, “the body is the inscribed surface of events, traced by language and dissolved
by ideas; the locus of a dissociated self adopting the illusion of a substantial unity
and a volume in perpetual disintegration.” Foucault developed Nietzsche’s methodology
of a genealogy as an analysis of dissent, which is situated within the articulation
of the body in history. It’s task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the
process of history’s destruction of the body. The genealogy of beefcake can be seen to originate
in the 1880s with Eugene Sandow, the original strong man, who entertained the American public
with his musculature and feats of strength, inspiring a fascination with the perfect male
body which consolidated a modern commercial form of masculinity predicated on strength,
resilience and self-empowerment as the keys to success. In 1899, the magazine Physical
Culture warned its readers, “weakness is a crime; don’t be a criminal”. From the beginning,
then, body-building culture and corporate America were fuck buddies. ‘Beefcake’ is a
capitalist fetish used to characterise the American-dream-turned-nightmare. Furthermore,
Sandow’s personal narrative evoked a sickly childhood transcended by self-determination,
his strength in overcoming of personal deficit. He recounted being a slight and sickly child
whose chances of survival were slim, and this narrative of strength and determination was
mainlined into popular culture. It was at the centre of Charles Atlas’s success: the
seven stone weakling target of sand-kicking bullies transformed into the muscle man whom
no one would mess with. As John F. Kasson comments: “the theme of metamorphosis lies
at the heart of bodybuilding, and a longing for male metamorphosis lay deep in the culture
of the United States and much of western Europe at the advent of the modern age.” Rampant
corporatism is thus intimately related to a vision of muscle bound masculinity, the
development of which is coterminous with these narratives of transformation from puny boys
to men of strength, confidence and power. Weakness is criminalised as capitalism stakes
a claim on the power and success to be had once one has acquired the right body. Images
of heroic white male superiority are used to dominate women, people of colour, disabled
bodies, queer bodies and less technology advanced societies. The underside, or negative of this
narrative of transformation, however, is one of shame, an unexpressed shame. Beefcake as
the signifier of the sickly or bullied child. This shame articulates and informs a specifically
modern form of capitalism centred on the visual. It is a shame the overcoming of which necessitates
buying into the very discourse which created it thus perpetuating the cause and the effect
in a vicious circle that continues with every turn to reinforce and duplicate the violent
hierarchies it attempts to transcend. The abjected figure of the skinny child is buried
underneath a mountain of muscles that denies its shameful origins and in so doing, perpetuates
a heteronormative and capitalistic standard as destructive as it is compelling. It is
the kind of ‘kill or be killed’ mentality at the heart of corporate capitalism and we
are all its victims. The question remains whether, given its origins within heteronormative
and corporate discourse, the concept of beefcake can be somehow reclaimed or ‘queered’ in any
useful way. I’d offer the work of the female artist Francesca Steele and Heather Castle,
who use an exaggerated physique to intervene in various contexts in order to interrogate
systems of power, control and gender, or the work of Buck Angel, a female-to-male porn
star, ‘the man with the pussy’, as examples of ways in which the concept of beefcake is
interrogated in interesting and challenging ways. But what about gay men? In his study
of sport and homosexuality, Brian Pronger tries to argue that gay muscles are a subversive
take on orthodox masculinity, saturated with postmodern irony. In truth, gay muscles only
reinforce the status quo by fetishising our oppression, contributing to the ongoing commodification
of the body and reinforcing orthodox masculinity by worshipping it even as it crushes us in
its overdeveloped arms. It’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome; we love our captors. In a very real
sense, our investment in the concept of beefcake reinforces an ideology that ultimately oppresses
us, perpetuating a sense of shameful inadequacy, reproducing discursive overvaluations of an
idealised masculinity in whose shadow we all wilt, measured against which you can only
ever fall short. In the words of the drag artist and ukelele player Taylor Mack, the
revolution will not be masculinised. Thank you.
>>Matthew Todd is a playwright, a stand-up comedian and an award-winning journalist.
He’s the editor of Attitudes, so he’s the problem. [Laughter.] And he’s going to continue
the theme, partly, of ‘shame’.>>I do feel a bit shamed today. No, I’m joking,
they’re all really clever, what are you going to do? I’m just going to tell you about my
experience. Thank you for having me, very exciting to be here talking about wellbeing,
health, start my clock. I just want to tell you about when I came out when I was 16, hard
to believe, in 1990, and I phoned up Child Line and they were like, ‘Oh, it’s probably
a phase,’ and I was like that was good. So I phoned a gay switchboard. They said, ‘Where
are you?’ and I said ‘In Croydon,’ that’s shameful as well. And they said, ‘Why don’t
you go to a youth group called Croydon Area Gay Youth?’ “CAGY” which is ironic. So they
gave me the number and I phoned up and I went to meet the man who ran it. I went out and
met him, I was 16 years old, had never come out to anybody in the whole word, and I went
to meet him at East Croydon station at 3 o’clock in the afternoon in the Easter holidays, got
back on the bus all the way to my house, I was shitting myself, it stopped at a little
council estate where they held the group, which was in his bedsit. And he showed me
a video of gay pride and gave me a copy of Gay Times and said ‘welcome!’ That was good.
And so, my point being about the gay media, why it’s important and why it’s relevant and
interesting and why gays are obsessed with their bodies, and I’m very proud to be the
most out of shape person on the panel tonight, for once – yeah. Obviously we do not see many
representations of ourselves wherever we look in the media, in the world. In Attitudes we
do a page called Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s couples – it just shows a couple who’ve been
together, just talking in a sickly way about their relationship, about how much they love
each other, and I get so much mail about that just from young kids saying to me, ‘Thank
you for showing that we can have relationships.’ And if you think about it you never see it
anywhere else, ever. You might see it on Come Dine With Me, perhaps. There will always be
the naff kind of mental ones from Canvey Island or something, but on the whole you don’t see
gay relationships anywhere. And I met Esther Rantzen the other day and we were talking
about it and she was saying, ‘You’ve got Elton John and David Furnish,’ and that’s the kind
of sad reality. As much as I love them, and you had Kenny and George Michael, obviously
not the most ideal role models when you’re 16 years old and thinking ‘can I be a grown
up gay and happy?’ So, it’s very difficult. So we looked at gay magazines. And when I
first looked through Gay Times, nothing against them much, I love them, good friends with
many of them, when I first looked through Gay Times – it’s full of political stuff,
because it was 1990, there was a lot of political stuff going on, there was lots of porn, there
was lots of drag, there was lots of crazy club pictures, lots of muscles and all the
rest of it, and lots of rent boy ads, and all those other lovely things. So automatically
if you’re coming out and you suddenly step into gay culture, and I think it’s worse now
– let’s try and Google ‘gay’ and see what comes up, I think it’s nine inches long…
[Laughter] Erm, it’s a difficult place you’re going to because it’s all about sex. And I
think, from what Jonathan was saying as well, the ultimate problem here is being a bit A-level
student about it, capitalism, commercialist society we live in, trying to sell you things
you don’t need, trying to flog things to you, and I think that to me that’s my experience
of how gay culture grew up and how the gay magazines grew up. I’m sure you guys all know
this and understand this, but just with QX and Boys, all those magazines are run, and
Gay Times to some extent, are run and fuelled by advertising from gay businesses, from gay
clubs, gay saunas, gay this, gay this, mostly it’s all a hell of a lot of shite, and the
one thing that links this all is sex. So part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve become
obsessed with sex. We think that sex defines us, it’s presented to us in that way, anything
gay is sex sex sex sex and that’s all you get. And so, part of all this stuff we’re
talking about: people feeling bad about their bodies, and we all do of course, I do, but
guess what, you have to kind of get over it to some extent, that is part of the truth,
but part of the thing is that if you’re concerned about sex all the time, if you’re obsessed
with the superficial, then the superficial is going to become more important to you,
if you get what I’m saying. If all you’re caring about is sex then of course you’re
going to want to be competitive, have pecs, big muscles, big penises, all the rest of
it, and that’s what the culture reflects and gay culture is a bit fucked up as far as I
can see. And one of the gentleman talking about the clubs in New York where you had
to be rated, I think that’s the same as Room Service on a Thursday night? Where they airbrush
all the pictures of the punters in the club and it’s all about who’s going to be on the
club’s Facebook page tomorrow. I remember seeing an ad for Fit Lads – I wasn’t going
there though, obviously – and they said, there was an ad saying that you get in free if you
have an 8-inch penis or bigger… so I got in for half price [Laughter.] But there’s
just this fucked up kind of message that you get everywhere. Now obviously whenever I speak
at any events everyone’s like “all you fucking do is bodies and muscles and blah blah blah”
and it comes up all the time. Very briefly the history of Attitudes: started off as a
political, Boy George, politics, et cetera, no one bought it, it stopped. [Laughter.]
And I remember we put – I was just 22 then – we thought let’s put Mr Gay UK on the cover,
Roy Fairhurst – I don’t know if you remember him, he was very attractive. And they were
like oh god, what if it’s really embarrassing, it’s really shit, and the sales flew up. And
so we realised, the editors at the time realised that you have to put celebrities on the cover,
that was the way that the culture was moving, this mental celebrity obsession and it’s gone
on like that. Now I took over three and a half years ago. I know we put lots of hot
bodies on the covers and so on, but which ones did you buy most recently, let’s be honest,
I have to say. I’ll show you some of the things we have done recently. So… where can I find
that naughty man that we did, erm… Oh yes, there he is. Now that’s the cover we did,
everyone went bloody mag, it was a huge seller, it was the biggest seller of the year, everyone
bought it, people still keep coming up to me and saying, and it’s all very well to say
‘oh body image, isn’t it awful,’ but it’s the public going out and buying this kind
of stuff. And I got to be right in front of that. Lucky me! [Laughter.] But we do do other
things at Attitude, believe it or not. When I posted that on my Facebook as I do with
every cover, someone was like “why don’t you put gay men on the cover, why don’t you put
normal people…!” and I said, “Well, who do you mean? Because I’m totally genuinely
interested to hear?” and the guy said, I don’t know, Boy George, Brian Paddick and some DJ
that no one had ever heard of. Now that’s great, and we do do those people, but the
fact is that if I put Boy George on the cover you ain’t gonna go out and buy it. I love
Boy George. Inside, in the new issue, we’ve got Elton and David, and I want to make the
point because I do get defensive about it, that we do have lots of normal people in the
magazine. I got the editorial system to count up all the last 50 covers, a hand count, so
that was good, and 25 of them were shirtless men, and 25 were not. This is the new one,
if I can open it: Daniel Radcliffe in a jumper, fuck with me gays, that’s a jumper not a hot
body, get over it. [Laughter.] Lots of the things we do, people always go on about this
obsession, all you do is hot bodies, blah blah blah, and they miss the fact that we
do lots of other things as well. There was a- I went to the parliamentary thing that
Duncan organised on Monday, Steven Williams was there, a gay MP, and he was saying he
read the magazine. He held up the current issue and I was like oh God, it would have
to be one of those, wouldn’t it, with a shirtless thing. And he was flicking through it – and
I like him, I think he’s great, but he was saying – oh there’s no 40 year old bald men
in here are there? And I was like oh God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. And then actually I
was looking through it when I got back to the office, and look at that. A 40 year old
balding gay man. And the same on the next man: another normal person. And then another
a normal person: lesbians, in fact. Look everyone, they do exist! [Laughter.] It goes on and
on and on. We do a big feature of Mrs Thatcher, look! More old, ugly gays, it’s fine! [Laughter.]
So I think – look, more! We also do a thing – we’re fucking tripping over ourselves with
ugly, old homos, no I’m joking. Look, we do a couples page which is always normal people,
so we do try. But the fact is, the thing that drives this is sexy pictures (another normal
person!), is sexy pictures, that’s what people want, unfortunately, so we try and balance
it out. We try to do different things. We do have the actors section, which my publisher
made us do. That does have some horrible ads but – I was asked why do we take those ads,
what do we do to these ads? We don’t, I don’t have anything to do with the ads, we just
put the space in, they buy them. If we didn’t take the ads the magazine would end – that’s
the end of our business. Some people would say that might be a good thing, but there
are lots of young people who email me all the time saying they rely on Attitude and
magazines like us, and the websites and things, to give them a sense of getting over shame
and thinking that it’s okay to be gay. I’m just checking how long I’ve got; not very
long. I’m just going to quickly talk about what I think is the problem. I don’t know
if any of you read the magazine. We did the thing a couple of years ago called The Issues
Issue, writing about it a lot, had the biggest reaction we’ve ever had at Attitude, which
is about gay men and mental health. There’s a book called The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs,
he’s an American therapist, he now writes for us, and it basically explains how when
we are young, we pick up feelings of negativity from our parents, and as we get a bit older
from school, from school children, from parents, homophobia, we don’t see any positive role
models, we’re brought up in shame and shame is the problem. For me, body image stuff and
I think this goes along for straight people as well, it’s about feeling depressed, it’s
about feeling shame. The first thing we do if you’re not feeling good about yourself
is you focus on the exterior, the expression of yourself, and the first thing that is is
your body, so lots and lots of people feel shit about themselves. I’m not saying that
body culture isn’t bonkers, I totally agree, it totally is, but I’m just talking about
what I think is the bigger cause of all of this. And actually, that thing that I said
about when I came out to the guy in the first place blew up because I was too chubby at
the time, I’ve lost a lot of weight since them, but I was too chubby, but that guy was
having sex with all the young people who came into his group and a lot of gay culture which
is completely fucked up comes from oppression, no one’s really sure whether they’re coming
or going, we have high levels of depression, high levels of addiction, and addiction and
all these compulsive behaviours are about having low self esteem, you want to block
out the feelings and you can do that by drinking, you can do that by taking drugs, you can do
that by working out and making your body look amazing, and I think that’s what it’s about,
and you can do that by having sex, I think a lot of people have issues with sex addiction,
and I know that I certainly have, definitely have, issues with compulsivity and compulsive
behaviour, and I’m writing a book about it at the moment, and I think that is what it’s
about: if you don’t feel great about yourself, the first thing you do: build your body up,
be amazing, be great, and the thing is, we have to be responsible about it. Don’t you
think it’s interesting – I don’t know how often you guys get together, but it’s interesting
to be in a room where we’re not all kind of [poses], you know, and sniping, all kind of
expecting to cop off. We don’t ever have situations where we’re not in a nightclub, where we’re
not online, fucking ditch the gaydar, ditch the Grindr, unless you go to Jersey and you
need to know where the nearest restaurant is and ask a local gay, as I did last year.
We need to get out and meet normal people because we need to fucking engage with each
other as human beings, Attitude is what it is, I’m not apologising for it. That’s the
thing, people always used to say to me when I come to these kind of events, ‘You’d never
put Stephen Fry on the cover, would you?’ So we put Stephen Fry on the cover and bombed
with the lowest-selling issue we’d ever done. I put, let’s see some of these other ones
here, there’s loads of things which are kind of sexy, but they’re not all just sexiness.
They’re not all topless blah blah blah. Someone said, when we put up the new one today, ‘Oh,
it’s the first time you’ve ever had anyone with a shirt on,’ and that’s so totally not
true. Beth Ditto, put on, that totally bombed, ‘why the fuck did you put Beth Ditto on the
cover?’ Because I have a commitment to trying to change things in the way that I can, through
Attitude, but it’s a drop in an ocean, and we all need to take responsibility for it,
because part of it, when I go on Grindr with my big fat face at the moment, none of you
lot want to have sex with. So get over it. [Laughter.] Because we all do it, so we all
have to take responsibility and maybe we could try being nicer to each other? Controversial,
I know. [Laughter.]>>So I have the privilege of having to chair
this, so I get the first question while the mics are going round, but one thing I wanted
to ask, that I was really struck by, I run a sexual problems clinic for North London,
and I’m struck by the stream of straight men, who come in almost with the same sorts of
concerns about body image. And I just wondered, is this just a gay phenomenon? I know, I think
one of the speakers said well, the gay men live on this, is this partly true? Anyone
want to… does anyone have a view about that?>>Well, part of the reason why I’m not talking
or generalising too much about gay men is because the last few years I haven’t know
that many because I’m now going back to the North East. But the other reason is that although
as the YMCA survey showed, erm, and as this evening demonstrates, obviously there are
legitimate concerns affecting, special concerns affecting gay male body image. But at the
same time, I think that by separating them out from other men, there’s always that problem
of pathologising, and also in this instance, disguising the scale of the changes going
on in the wider culture, which gays may or may not be responsible for, in part. So there’s
that dilemma of how useful is it to separate gay men as a sort of species, a separate species,
and study them in relation to body image and then start talking about shame and homophobia
and this sort of thing when so much of it applies to men in general today. And as the
images you see show, there is this massive overlap now between that kind of Tom-ish body
and the straight male ideal today. I mean, Geordie Shore, that chap from Geordie Shore
shown flashing his Tom of Finland breasts, was quite dramatic. I’m not saying that all
straight men are quite like J from Geordie Shore but quite a few are, particularly in
the north east. So that’s my take on that particular question. [Provost] I think it’s
very interesting because when you do see Men’s Health magazines they contain many of the
same images that you are showing in Attitude. Right, over to you, here there’s a question.
Can you wait for the microphone to come, sorry.>>[Matthew] Can I just quickly say something
about Men’s Health? Just when I was younger and actually thought it was possible I could
get some amazing, fantastic body, it was Men’s Health that I looked to. And if you look at
Men’s Health, the covers are ridiculous. They’re completely airbrushed, they’re completely
deranged, you can literally see where they’ve painted on the abs, and that magazine is literally,
“You must do this!”, “You must do this!”, “You must do this!” the whole way through.
And that’s what it falls to. I mean, it’s interesting they don’t like to acknowledge
it, but a massive part of their readership is gay men.
>>[Michael King] If everyone can put their hands up then the microphones, while they’re
waiting, will get to them. So go ahead.>>[Audience member] Thanks very much, thanks
for organising tonight as well, I found it really, really interesting. A couple of points:
Mark, it’s interesting that you’ve really focused on the connection between Tom of Finland
and Geordie Shore, I don’t know if that’s a good thing necessarily because basically
Geordie Shore and Jersey Shore, they’re very lowbrow reality TV stuff so I don’t quite
know what point you’re making – whether Tom of Finland is a good thing, when you’re relating
it to something so low brow today.>>[Mark] Well, isn’t muscles quite low brow
anyway?>>[Audience member] Yeah but perhaps it is,
but as a kid – [interruption] – as a kid growing up, and this now leads to my second point,
what is a more general opener to the whole panel, it was only really touched in the introduction,
the link between body image, body dysmorphia and eating disorders, I think, and I find
it quite interesting that nobody’s really covered that apart from, and I’ll be really
honest, apart from stuff that I’ve read in Attitude that has addressed it, I’ve never
seen anyone across other gay media or the gay community talk about food, food addiction,
anorexia, bulimia in relation to body image. So I just wondered if anybody’s got any comment
on that.>>[Michael King] I think it’s a really interesting
point, and while you’re deciding who’s going to answer this, because it might be difficult,
I think the question of shame is even more important here. Many women with eating disorders
are extremely ashamed of the eating disorder, but when a man has an eating disorder, it’s
even more stigmatised as a shameful thing. I don’t know what – do any of you have any
views on that, or is it not an issue that comes up? Perhaps in Attitude, because the
question I think was aimed at Attitude there?>>[Matthew] Erm, since I started looking,
or my own issue, just at the time I took over Attitude, we tried to talk about it more,
we’ve got Joe Court who’s a gay therapist in the States and Alan Downs who wrote the
book The Velvet Rage which you should read, it’s really interesting, it’s not for everybody
but it’s worth a read. So we tried to address it but also we are a commercial magazine so,
you know, sometimes in the office when we talk about let’s do this feature, let’s do
that feature, we’re thinking shut up, don’t be such a do-gooder, we have to reflect the
fact that people want to see all sorts of things. But yeah, I just think for me, from
my own experience, addiction and compulsive behaviour and eating disorders and all these
things are linked and generally the media doesn’t really understand it at all. Like
when you see the way alcoholism or drug addiction is reported, it’s just crass and finger pointing,
most of it, so I think everyone’s got a long way to go to understand what drives people
to do self-destructive things.>>[Michael King] Okay, oh, sorry did you want
to…?>>[Duncan] Sorry, I just wanted to say that
I think it’s something like 90% of people with eating disorders are female and whilst
it’s an important issue for men, I think it’s slightly different from the research that
we’ve done, the ideals surrounding muscularity, it’s about getting bigger, so it’s about things
like protein supplementation, steroid abuse, and that’s not to dismiss the point that you
made.>>[Michael King] A question at the back?
>>>>[Audience member] Sure, so this is to the whole panel. So everyone’s mentioned this
as context of something that’s more or less socially bad, it’s socially bad that we’ve
become obsessed with this sort of body image, it’s something that affects both straight
and gay communities, but we didn’t really touch on policy recommendations. If, you know,
obviously government policy recommendations are one thing, but just generally policy recommendations
– how do we fix this? What do we do to move the culture, what can the government do, what
can the media do, since we seem to be talking about it a lot and other things, what can
the government possibly do to the media? Interesting to hear where you think we can move forward
in terms of changing and turning this around beyond the things that have already been said?
>>[Michael King] Duncan do you want to have a go at that because you’re at the heart of
this?>>[Duncan] Can you hear me? [Audience laughter.]
Yes, so as I mentioned, the YMCA’s providing the secretariat to the All Party Group on
Body Image and we are looking at this issue and we will be coming out with policy recommendations
in the spring, and they will touch on government, on industry, on the voluntary sector, on everywhere.
I’m in a very difficult position because I don’t want to preempt the findings of the
report, but I can tell you from some of the evidence sessions we’ve had, there were some
clear areas that we will be looking at. One example that we will be looking at is cosmetic
surgery advertising, and the regulations around that, there’s also, I don’t know if you saw
last week, stuff about airbrushing and L’oreal got a slap on the knuckles, and they got another
ad banned, because they airbrushed an image. Airbrushing is an important one, but I think
it’s a distraction. I think the underlying issue here is body diversity, and there just
isn’t enough body diversity in the media, and in advertising particularly. Matthew’s
actually done some great stuff with Attitude magazine. If I was to look at Attitude magazine
and flick through it, I think it’s the adverts where you have more of an issue. Other stuff,
well, if we look at young people, I think something that youth organisations have flagged
is that teachers don’t feel competent enough or confident enough to teach body image in
schools. So there needs to be something around teacher training and with PSHE education under
review, where will body image sit in the national curriculum. So those are just some of the
things that we’ll be looking at.>>[Michael King] Okay. Ben, you had a question.
>>[Audience member] Thank you very much for all your presentations, it’s been fantastically
interesting when you come and look from such different angles. And I’ve been struck particularly
by the different way that you’ve been thinking about imaging and visuality in your talks,
particularly Jonathan’s idea of capitalism being centred on visuality, and I was thinking
well, really what we’re talking about is a bigger question of imaging and representation,
and that we live in a time of increasingly, increasing confusion of images, where images
are being produced in increasingly sophisticated ways and manipulated in increasingly sophisticated
ways, and perhaps we don’t have the kind of criticality to address that complexity. I
think the key terms that have come out of this discussion for me is about fetishisation
– I can’t even say it right now – but the idea that images actually mystify things and
mystify power relations, so fetishisation in the sense of, in the Marxist sense, but
also in a psychoanalytic sense, in the way that Jonathan was talking about, images in
places where we displace anxieties, that they become tokens, so I was just wondering if
you had any thoughts about that?>>[Jonathan] Erm, yeah, I think absolutely,
if you think about the way in which we’ve increased as a visual culture, it goes hand
in hand with the increase of ourselves as a consumer culture; the visuals are being
produced for a reason, to be consumed, and I think on the one hand there’s something
great about that bespoke image producing, and the subversions that can occur through
that kind of democratisation, but I think also at the same time, there’s a consolidation
of certain imagery and what I was trying to do with my paper is to look at how that consolidation
centres around idealised versions of masculinity, have a lot to do with notions of succeeding
within a capitalist system. So at the risk of sounding like an A-level sociology student,
I’d say the solution is revolution.>>[Johan] Can I just make one point there.
Many of us have mentioned capital as the– capitalism as one of the key problems, but
I think it’s also important not to underestimate the capacity of commercial culture to actually
challenge some of these body ideals. If you think of some of the clubs in London such
as XXL or Bear Culture, which is now a global phenomena, that really proves that there is
often a market for counter-cultures within gay culture that very much challenge these
stereotypes, so perhaps we are overstating the hegemony of the gay bodies, perhaps a
bit more diverse than, for example, my presentation indicated earlier.
>>[Audience member] So back to this whole thing of commercialisation, and Jonathan’s
point, it seems to me that all advertising, certainly in television and newspapers, the
whole thing has been about sex and success, the two are absolutely equated, and the fact
that we’re all being sold Cadbury chocolate bars on the basis that if we eat them we’ll
actually think we’re actually getting more beautiful is a demonstration of that, or the
fact that if we’re advertising gravy branding it’s still about sex and success. I just wonder
to what extent it may be that in the majority of the community that’s heterosexual aren’t
actually influenced by it, they look around and can actually see that people aren’t what
they’re on the tele and maybe that may not be quite the same in the gay community, but
it seems to me that while we live in the culture we live in, it’s insoluble. Matthew isn’t
going to sell toothpaste to his readers if he’s got an old codger like me doing an advertisement
for toothpaste. He’s going to sell it by it being sold by advertisements with attractive
guys.>>[Michael King] Absolutely, that’s a very
good point. Youth and beauty are strewn over everything, aren’t they?
>>[Matthew] Well, it’s interesting just that, I notice with advertisers, I mean not so much
with Attitude because we tried to get more mainstream advertisers, but when you get some
hotel that will say hey, I saw a copy of your magazine the other day, they’ll email me and
say, wasn’t it exciting, we might do an add! And so they send in some ad with a sexy man
lying back with no top on and it’s a constant equation with – we need to get over the fact
that gay means sex because it just means so much more than that, do you know what I mean?
And also I do think that, and I love Duncan, I think you’re doing an amazing job and it’s
amazing that he’s got on all this stuff off the ground, but I think we do need to be kind
of relaxed about it as well, like that whole thing about gay men would shave off a year
of their lives to look 50x better – hello, yes please! It’s amazing, shoot me tomorrow,
do you know what I mean? We do, you know, there’s nothing wrong with looking good, there’s
nothing wrong with looking great, and lots of people who do spend some time, some are
obsessive, some are not, looking fantastic, I think the problem is this feeling that’s
pumped into us that we all must do that – you must do that to be happy, you must do it.
People want to look like that – great, but you shouldn’t feel that you should have to,
I think that’s the key problem.>>[Michael King] Or that all of sexual attractiveness
is visual.>>[Matthew] Yeah, I was going to say this
point before, but like, I have put on a bit of weight. Sometimes I do have a boyfriend
– amazing, occasionally, and what is attractiveness on a cover of Attitude or a glossy magazine,
some amazing fit body, that’s fantastic if not the only thing that’s attractive, but
the reality is that someone with a big fat belly like me is not going to look particularly
attractive on a magazine, yet in reality, in the real world, you’re having sex with
somebody, if you like someone, if you’re intimate with somebody, it doesn’t matter, those things
aren’t as important, and I think there’s this kind of distortion, you know, you see kids
on Facebook, gay, straight, whatever, feeling like they have to airbrush everything. I know
gay men that I’m friends with who air brush their faces for Facebook pictures, it’s ridiculous
– be who you are. Your airbrushed face does not turn up when you go on a date, you know
what I mean?>>[Mark] Sort of adding to that, a little
bit, I think we have to — it’s all very well talking about capitalism and corporate culture
and yes, it’s the root of all evil, and we can’t escape it without a revolution, et cetera,
but it’s not simply the case, and I’m sure this wasn’t implied anyway, but I think it
needs to be spelt out that we’re not just talking about people who are sheep being mind-controlled
by corporations. Corporations would love to, there’s no doubt about that, and they spend
a lot of money trying to influence your decisions and your deepest, darkest desires and hopes.
But the reality is that they wouldn’t have anything to work with if we didn’t have ideals
and weaknesses and art comes from that. What we’re talking about now, with lowbrow reality
TV shows featuring Tom of Finland straight guys, or Muscle Marys, is a visual culture,
whether it’s advertising, Men’s Health, Facebook, webcams, the whole thing is a visual culture
that’s conquered everything. There is no lowbrow anymore, as a result. There’s no highbrow,
either really. And whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is almost irrelevant, because
it’s happened and we’re living in this visual, mediated world now and that’s why people are
so obsessed, to use that word, but perhaps appropriately, with how they appear, because
visual culture is about how you look. And that’s the world that we’re living in, increasingly.
>>[Michael King] Well I think it’s interesting, that you say that, “we’re all this,” or “we’re
all that,” when I’m actually picking up a very cynical view from the audience. I don’t
get the feeling that the audience is very into this at all, but someone trying right
back up here…>>[Audience member] I would like us to discuss
making best use of the significant element of gay body culture that is very positive,
and I think in a time where there’s an obesity crisis, if we look at the cultures in places
like Brazil and Australia, you can see an element of that body culture that is positive
for people and while I agree with lots of the comments on the panel, I feel that we
as people who care and who care about our own bodies apart from anything else, could
actually be doing things together that help ourselves and other gay men without, well,
I would relate it to the problem with the internet. Our sex lives have become things
we have to pay to get access to, almost, and I can see where all the comments are going
with the commercialisation of our bodies, which is our health, but we as a community
need to take these things back.>>[Michael King] Okay, thank you very much.
We’ve got about five minutes more to…>>[Matthew] Can I just quickly say one more
thing about we have to pay for sex, that’s the message we receive, but actually we don’t.
When I don’t go on Gaydar, and I do on sometimes but it makes me feel shit because I’m competing
against these people, it’s a body, it’s a this, it’s a that, everywhere you go, and
it makes me feel really depressed when I go onto Grindr and people… [unintelligible
interruption]… I totally agree with you, that’s why we need to create it. We’re all
here, it’s nice to see you all here today, we’re not all going to go off and not see
each other again. Let’s change it. Let’s start – there’s the, what’s it called, Out in the
Country or Out in the Sports or something. Some lads. But some thing started in Manchester
where you go in, you meet up and you go trekking – Outdoor Lads! But maybe some people are
a little bit cynical because it’s a bit boring or whatever, but I think it’s a really good
way, we need to get offline, I think, to some extent, we need to meet people in the real
world, we need to not be about sex and about how big your chest is and how big your cock
is and who you are – God, I sound like Julie Andrews – but it’s true.
>>[Michael King] Okay yes someone has been trying for a long time…
>>[Audience member] Erm, just coming back to the comment on the visual culture, I think
it’s really quite problematic to just say that we’re in this culture where visuals have
won and that’s sort of okay and that’s that. It’s not really because a lot of those visuals
are championed and a lot of those visuals are punished, so until we actually have a
level playing field we can’t just say there, that’s it, we live in a saturated visual culture.
>>[Mark] But it’s a fact. I was just bringing that fact up, and you’re absolutely right
to have a response to that, and an ethical response, but I think it was missing from
the discussion. There was a pretence that it hadn’t happened almost or that it was just
a corporate illusion.>>[Audience Member] So shouldn’t we try to
challenge it more by undermining the images that are continually championed and rewarded
and the images that are constantly punished and demeaned? Shouldn’t we try and really
fuck with that a lot more rather than just saying, well, it’s happened?
>>[Michael King] Any responses to that apart from the panel, or from the panel?
>>[Matthew] Yeah I think we should. We can do it by not focusing on Facebook, I mean
I go on Facebook, you know. When I met Duncan I was actually upset, having lunch with him,
because I thought, oh God, he’s really broad-chested, he’s attractive, he’s fit, real people in
the real world make me feel shit about my body, but ultimately I’m a grown up and I
have to get over it, it’s not the end of the world, get on with it, go and do whatever,
sit in my office and have a nice life, it’s great. We all have some degree of power, I
think, in the situation, to not partake in it that way.
>>[Michael King] Of course, as many of you will have seen recently in television programmes,
it’s not at all good to be clear and out and attractive, as it is in football. I don’t
know if any of you saw Justin Fashanu’s niece who was trying to find a gay footballer and
is now trying to do it on television without much success. There’s a question right up
there.>>[Audience member] I guess my question has
to do with what you were talking about, the consumption of visual culture, and how there
seems to be, like a time warp and a split in between two different ideals that are both
put forward by gay men. There’s the gay ideal and then – which seems to have been very similar
to the ideals of fashion in the ’80s and ’90s but in the past ten years, male models have
been shrinking and getting thinner and thinner and actually going completely against what
is popular in popular gay culture. And I guess fashion is pretty much dictated and run by
gay men. So how are there two such different ideals and why do you think at that time it
might have split? Sorry, I’m raspy from the weekend still. [Audience laughs.]
>>[Michael King] Well – do you want to come in?
>>[Matthew] We shot David Gandy, a supermodel, in November and he was fucking huge and to
be honest I’m not that much interested in fashion. I’m into the political stuff and
whatever, and there was some talk of this big fashion photographer called Mariana Vancor
who shot it and they were really excited about the fact that these bigger men were now coming
back. And they were saying what you were saying, that men had been getting smaller and smaller,
and I kind of think who gives a flying fuck, I couldn’t care less about it all: tall, small,
blah, blah. I don’t pay that much attention to it. And maybe there was something that
came up at the parliamentary thing about maybe educating young people about how the media
works and how fashion works and how it’s all perfumes and this and that, just so people
understand when they see images presented to them what they are and what processes they
go through, what they’re there to sell. I don’t know, it’s complicated. But I try not
to – I’m long over – maybe that’s a bit of a wankerish thing to say because I get to
see the industry of it but I don’t care about this amazing body and that’s fine.
[Audience member] You say you don’t really care but [unintelligible] but your magazine
needs pictures of semi-naked men on the front?>>[Matthew] Well I care in that I like looking
at pictures of Harry Judd but I don’t go oh no, I’m not like that. I’m not like that.
I don’t mean to be flippant about it actually because I know it’s important but I can appreciate-
I love looking at sexy pictures of men. When people look at porn they’re going to go to
the porn sites of people looking fit and tall and buff and the rest of it. But that’s that,
it’s another thing, isn’t it? It doesn’t need to interact with me and I don’t need to feel
like we have to be like that.>>[Audience member] [unintelligible] ..buying
into the gay ideal. And I don’t look at pictures on Facebook, I don’t look at Gaydar, I don’t
actually think that Harry Judd is a sexy image, I think that larger men are a sexy image,
and the thing is that you keep saying that this is me, I’m a bit overweight, but then
the sexy men over there. Why are you not a sexy man as an overweight man?
>>[Applause]>>[Matthew] But we do have those images in
the magazine, I can show you. I can show you, I brought some with me. I can show you pictures
of bears and bigger guys and all the rest of it. But the fact is that when we put people
like that on the cover of the magazine…>>[Audience member speaks unintelligibly]
>>But I’m just describing the point about economics. We’re talking about the fact that
what’s popular, you know, I don’t know, maybe I’m losing my point, I don’t know.
>>[Michael King] Ok, can we come down here because we’ve only got a minute or two…
>>[Audience member] Thank you. I sort of noticed from one point of view that a lot of body
builders do body building because they want to reclaim their masculinity and I wondered
– this is an open question to anyone who will answer their point of view professionally
– and I guess in reference to their lecture.>>[Duncan] All I’d say is that a lot of body
builders wax their chests, don’t they?>>[Mark] Erm, yes. [Laughter.] One of the
peculiar things about body building is that it does actually, even if it is to acclaim
or reclaim masculinity, or accessorise masculinity, it often ends up somewhere a bit more androgynous,
very androgynous sometimes. But I don’t think that body building today, or going to the
gym for a lot of young men, is necessarily about that. It’s not necessarily about – and
that might be an added bonus, but for many of them it does seem from the surveys and
whatever, and from talking to them, it does seem that it’s about how they look, it’s about
seeming attractive.>>[Audience member] It’s about sex.
>>[Mark] It’s about sex, it’s about being hot. Whatever that means.
>>[Audience member] Do you think that moving away from the sexual aspect now and in the
last few years we’ve begun this drive of healthy eating and a change of a life and organic
food and this all kind of idea that now being healthy is the key, not necessarily just being
sexy. And to sell the health image, do we not need those kind of poster boy or poster
girls that portray that visually as well?>>[Michael King] I think this is exactly the
point Duncan was trying to make.>>[Duncan] You can’t judge a book by its cover,
and actually Men’s Health magazine and the images on the front cover of Men’s Health
for me, that’s not the image of health; it’s obsession. And I think the point that Matthew
made – it’s all about balance, really. You can look around the room, and something I’d
really like to do is another naked photo shoot at the YMCA, any volunteers? But I’d like
to take a photograph of each person and I’d like to then do a health assessment of each
person, and I guarantee that the person with the ripped torso is not the healthiest person.
You’d be surprised. Actually, if you’re slightly overweight you’re probably more likely to
live longer. So it’s all a bit messed up.>>[Michael King] Alright, I’m really sorry
to draw this to a close, we have to. I’m sure the discussion can go on over drinks. We’ve
touched on so many big issues here and I think what’s coming through is that the buffed male
is not necessarily the attractive image it’s often thought.