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SocietyMay 18, 2019

Disciplined cadavers: Crafting an ideal male body in the internet age

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The thought leaders of the late 2010s subject themselves to a regimen of terrible eating and self-imposed abeyance. The funniest part is that half the time, so do I.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is a man under pressure. His company’s profit streak conceals an ongoing net drop in its real users. He’s facing renewed criticism for his social media platform’s failure to offer a suitable response to combat right-wing extremism beyond “we’re a great big marketplace of ideas”. He’s hounded in his very place of work, unable to use his own creation to simply tweet non sequiturs from the loo. Worse, he’s probably bayingly hungry in a sluggish, aching kind of way all the time  On a podcast with last month with a high profile anti-vaxxer and fitness guru, he revealed a fasting routine that outstripped most Buddhist traditions: a single meal during weekdays, a fast for the whole weekend.

A life sentence of work without the punctuation that gives it meaning, then . No Friday falafel after work, no picnics somewhere close to water if it’s getting warm, no solemn and low-key comedown dinner you throw together before you head back into the work week. Dorsey looks slimmer and more wiry than most 42 year olds I’ve met. He also looks like he’s wearing the toll of the asceticism  – dull hair, bags under his eyes, a face receding under cheekbones that you can tell weren’t meant to be that prominent. Most adult men who end up looking like this through circumstance would kill for the assurance of regular meals and comfort. We’re not conditioned to expect the opposite.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks during a press event on January 9, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Dorsey is in fine company here. The late Steve Jobs was an increasingly aggressive faster who identified the nexus between eating, not eating and control early on. Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of the Apple founder notes that when he was young, “he learned that he could induce euphoria and ecstasy by fasting”. Even as oncologists and nutritionists urged him to eat high-protein meals, his widow recalls how he would come to the table and stare sullenly at a full plate.

Speaking to Joe Rogan last July on yet another podcast, Jordan Peterson celebrated the perceived benefits of his all-meat diet (“I’m stronger, I can swim better, my gum disease is gone”). His descriptions of any attempt to slacken or not stay the course, for example by drinking some juice, sound like Ignatius J. Reilly’s litany of medical complaints: “[The apple cider] took me out for a month…it was awful. It produced an overwhelming sense of impending doom…. I didn’t sleep at all for 24 days.”

Sickness, failing health and death are very real, and no group has exclusive dibs on them. The same applies to the most serious forms of disordered eating and its associated patterns of thought  –  men can and do experience debilitating diseases like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. But we’re not talking about that, really, because more than ever, it seems we’re alive to the quotidian details of the weird tricks of successful men. They’re suffering in paradise and making a very loud virtue of it.

And although the mentality underpinning that virtue is chronic and destructive, discussing it in those terms can feel too serious, too dramatic. As an illustration, if you say something like “women exist in a relentless panopticon of physical assessment where the intergenerational and peer impact of eating disorders is all-permeating, traumatic and sometimes fatal” it’s a bit purple, but it doesn’t seem wrong. Going as hard to set out the exact societal condition of a bunch of dudes down the gym feels excessive. A lot of the time, men’s body issues are at once systemic, compromising, undignified, and totally absurd.

Take a look at your boys. They’re eating hypothetical caveman diets to achieve the spry, trim and tweedy look of a sharp-minded professor/investor. Or lurking half-seen in the permanent twenty-something dungeon man caves, pallid biceps in between drums of protein powder. Or having a Wiki-level crack at Buddhism in second year after a student bender flame-out, and doing a snap fast to show (girls? the lads? themselves?) that they can, until the whites of their eyes look like they’re about to fall like snooker balls down the ramp into their heads.

The greatest tension comes in those social circles where caring about your appearance must not be seen to matter. Does your city have critical mass of flannel-and-beer band dudes? If you’re reading this early in the week and late at night, those dudes are out running when they are less likely to be seen doing so, even if it’s freezing and they could have done it hours earlier by daylight. This is stone cold fact. I’ve been in the pack.

Trying to describe this all appropriately is difficult. On the one hand it’s obviously insanely funny. On the other hand, people are temporary or permanently leading lives that can seem like a form of self-imposed unhappiness and that’s tragic. But then again, most of our experiences as men need to kept in very tight perspective, given the overall blessed state these little rituals take place in.

Jordan Peterson at The Cambridge Union on November 02, 2018 in Cambridge, UK. (Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)

There’s plenty of lines I can draw to separate me and most of my male friends from Dorsey, Peterson, et al. The techbro proselytising is hollow and blinkered – Jobs was by all accounts a personal and professional tyrant; Peterson kind of seems like he’s just pivoting his creepy biological determinism to force-feeding himself disgusting amounts of meat. These people are corny at best and my fundamental political enemies at worst, and I think my ‘active boys’ chat DMs exhibit a very subsistence-level pride in knowing We Are Not Them. But ultimately, I’m not above the same micro-pathologies myself. I police my own body – not with brutality, but with the pedantic, sad force of a traffic cop handing out infringements.

Here is a bunch of things I have done to keep myself at, or to move toward, some imagined physical standard:

  • Skipping lunch for several days on end in high school after my mum pointed at Anthony Kiedis dancing shirtless during the ‘Round the World‘ video and announced “That’s what your torso will look like when you’re grown up”.
  • Doing a 100-push-ups-a-day routine for a week before a 14th birthday party at the Kaipara’s beloved and decrepit Parakai pools and was too sore and stuff to actually swim.
  • Foregoing food until arduous things like an essay or a chore were done, or feeling like a failure.
  • Foregoing food until nice things like reading a chapter of a good book were done, or feeling like a failure!
  • Overeating upon doing this until I absolutely feel queasy.
  • Ridiculous habit of power walking everywhere to make up for doing the above, which I’ve had to consciously moderate into a less quasi-military march.
  • Constantly clenching my abdominal muscles to hide a gut, or worse, my perception of a gut, and retaining a weird and sore robotic posture as a result.
  • Press-ups with a bunch of books in my backpack, before skipping a meal, before going out to drink.
  • To this day, a restless, fidgety anxiety if I’ve skipped an exercise routine I’d previously committed to, in order to do something pleasant and social or even just marginally fucking easy on myself.
  •  Trying to eat around others surreptitiously, generally springing for the sad desk lunch despite being otherwise reasonably outgoing.

A huge disclaimer around all the above is that I should note that I have led and still lead an extremely fortunate and comfortable life with a very kind family. I’ve just tended to take a few minor steps of my own to remove the shine.

A recent Calvin Klein underwear campaign featuring musician Shawn Mendes

Body dysmorphia, a mental disorder which various Western studies say is experienced by between 1% and 2% of the male population, is probably under-reported and under-diagnosed. Part of this is simply because a lot of men are terrible at looking after themselves, delaying medical appointments out of stoicism, and delaying various hygiene and lifestyle essentials out of being too afraid to ask. Part of it is that a decent-sized cluster of men who have won by our society’s terms and standards wear forms of self-imposed control, restraint and endurance as a medal of honour. Part of it is men like me on the (relatively) harmless end of the spectrum who play it all down, perhaps not unreasonably  –  the public account of dysmorphia is one of dangerous and desperate steps (starvation, steroids, countless cosmetic surgery procedures) and not of mildly embarrassing compulsion. The stigma doesn’t leave place for anyone who is ‘neurotic’ in the lay sense.

Where it cuts through to my sense of self, though, is realising that in some essential physical and psychological ways, I’m not above Dorsey, Jobs, Peterson et al. I’m unlikely to ever get an opportunity to speak to the benefits of a diet on some crypto-fash podcast, but I’m likely to continue to police and punish my own wants, and make myself do physical or material work when I’m too tired, too sick, or can (rightly!) just feel a bit lazy. This isn’t just about putting our bodies through it in some physical sense, but also about the intangible qualities of achievement, success, austerity and self-reliance (and the guilt in not meeting the mark of any of these) – values that I and most other boys have been fed from year dot.

I feel like in theory, I get all of this. I have set myself a few articles of faith in terms of how I see the world:  that capitalism as we know it in the 21st century is corrosive to the soul; that feeling like you should be working or productive all the time is a self-defeating lie that form of capitalism has fed us; that rewarding ourselves with rest and indulgence is not a straightforward failure of nerve; that we can be intrinsically loved and of worth despite our level of ability or appearance. But if I can’t observe these starting with myself, it’s all just lip service. I’m a semi-willing and less successful participant in the same carnival of self-interest, solipsism, protein and abeyance.

It’s been a recent and useful epiphany. I’ve tried to shake things up as a result. I’ll crack a beer on my lounge floor immediately after a set of weights rather than fret about what it achieved, something that I’m assuming the barrelly and beloved Anthony Kiedis himself would be proud of. I ride my new bike, which wasn’t built for speed, slower and via more scenic routes. If I run, I implement very basic and pleasing tasks as part of it :  to go somewhere cool and get a photo and then go back, to absolutely foul up a gentrifying record store on the return trek with the grime of my forearms, and maybe buy something, maybe not.

In an age of constant hagiography and oversharing, we’ve learnt that plenty of those who seek to control us (as their subjects, their customers, their taxonomies) start with themselves. If I want no part in doing that, I’ll try to start with the same.

Keep going!