3:00 pm EDT, August 13, 2018

Unpacking Hollywood’s obsession with muscles: Let’s stop the body-shaming cycle

We tend to consider body-shaming a women’s problem, but it’s more insidious than we think. How can we stop it?

Grant Gustin, star of the CW’s The Flash, made headlines last week after his strongly-worded statement on Instagram, which addressed fans that tried to shame him for his appearance. After an unauthorized test photo of him in his new Flash suit for season 5 surfaced, many people took to criticizing his physique, stating that he was not muscular enough for the suit, or even the role.

In his statement, Gustin spoke about his own experience with having a thinner build, difficulties gaining muscle, and holding up his self-worth in the face of the criticism of others. He also pointed out that it’s important for young boys of any body type to be able to see themselves as superheroes, noting a lack of diversity in male leads for boys to look up to.

Gustin’s statement was important, not only because it helped put rude fans in their place, but because it also addressed a problem that has largely gone unspoken in Hollywood. There’s little variety in body shapes when it comes to male actors that movies expect people to admire.

This is far from a new trend. Ancient gender roles demand that men be strong, be forceful, be dominating. Our conception of male attractiveness is rooted in muscle and build in general. The art we have consumed for hundreds of years have depicted some form of this stereotype, perpetuating a male body standard that, quite frankly, is mostly impossible and kind of ridiculously huge.

body-shaming wolverine

But with the rise of social media, and interviewers focusing more and more on what actors did to get in shape, we’ve started seeing just how crazy bodybuilding in Hollywood can get. We all cheered for Chris Pratt when he got buff for Guardians of the Galaxy, leaving his more average self from Parks and Rec behind. Christian Bale is still admired for the drastic changes to his build he made within only a couple of years. The plot of Captain America (there are so many Chrises in Hollywood, oh my god) isn’t ever really questioned — is the fantasy of becoming a savior of your country rooted in developing the moral uprightness necessary, or just getting really, really big?

Maybe because of this, none of us were really fazed when we heard about Hugh Jackman’s absolutely insane method of looking muscular in every shot of Logan. Maybe because of this, many movies featuring the Rock are more shots of his biceps than actual plot. Maybe because of this, when Zac Efron’s body transformed overnight for Baywatch — in a way that was concerning, as noted in this article, which, by the way, is one of my favorite articles ever thanks to its use of the phrase “literal arms race” — we just kind of assumed that having an eight-pack was the new Hollywood standard.

This isn’t intended to get all “men’s rights” or anything. But male characters in the media, though the overwhelming majority, all still resemble each other, especially when it comes to blockbuster franchises. The Hero’s Journey beckons a certain type of hero; the superhero genre requires a set amount of muscle; even romantic comedies hardly ever star “average-looking” people of any gender.

body-shaming captain america

Gustin’s case is one that deserves attention, not so much because of what it says about Hollywood — although that’s worth examining too — but because of what it says of us as a fandom, especially when it comes to straight women (and gay men, but I’ll refer to women here because of my own experience). What comments are we making about male leads’ bodies? Are we unconsciously falling into the same attitudes that have driven countless men to sexualize women they don’t know on the internet?

Perhaps in our attempts to bring equality to a media that constantly places unreachable standards for women, we’ve degraded our own sense of worth of others’ bodies to match theirs.

Yes, it’s important to own our sexuality and not be shamed into repression; but another important part of feminism is ending the objectification of human bodies for mass consumption. And while in women, this objectification manifests in a more violent, in-your-face kind of oppression that results in the #MeToo movement and rape culture on a global scale, that doesn’t mean that the patriarchy hasn’t also had a hand in skewing the way we view leading men — or the way they men view themselves.

As we advocate for equality in the media, and more representation of all kinds of body types, let’s remember that the forces of society that told us women to be unhealthily thin, long-legged and big-breasted; innocent but sexy, white but tanned, smart but subdued, are the same forces currently telling boys that the only way to be a strong man is to be violent — that the only way to be attractive is to be covered in muscle.

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