The advertising media that targets consumers are not the only one's guilty of promoting a limiting desirability of 'ideals' through photographic imagery, the representation of valuable male bodies. Equally to blame are some well known health organisations, both gay & straight, that use 'the same' stereotypical muscular mesomorphic bodies to illustrate their health campaigns.
To be fair, there is an awareness amongst quite a few people at The Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Mens Health Centre in Melbourne, Australia, of the need for the imaging of a broader cross section of body-types in health promotions. Still, this does not stop the images on postcards such as the two below (designed by an advertising company), appearing with regular monotony. The back of "Are Men from Mars?" asks you to discover for your yourself what makes men tick by joining one of the many VAC courses. From the postcard image it would seem that what makes men tick is a muscular well defined body, clenched hands (symbol of phallic masculinity) and beer!
According to Richard Dyer,
"The penis can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus. Hence the excessive, even hysterical quality of so much male imagery. The clenched fists, the bulging muscles, the hardened jaws, the proliferation of phallic symbols - they are all straining after what can hardly ever be achieved, the embodiment of the phallic physique."
Once introduced to the VAC young gay men may attend the 'Young and Gay', 'Boyant' or '18 and under' courses. In an interview with Jim Sotiropolous I asked him about the courses, media advertising and body image commodification:
MAB: "OK, so one example I heard about as that you looked at people's underwear to see whether they were wearing Calvin Klein."
JS: "The only thing I can relate that too is that in the first week we use autograph sheets as an icebreaker. A sheet has 6 questions on it and one of these questions is who owns a pair of CK underwear."
MAB: "Why is that there? This is interesting to me because of the commodification of the body and consumer culture - if you can't have the body you can buy the underwear!"
JS: "Because people talk about it. It is something that we know will get people saying "Well, yeah I do." So they will sign it. Its no use asking very vague questions and you won't get a response, so you have to ask very specific questions because we just know they will respond. They know about it. I think it is stronger than a gay focused strategy. You can't miss the billboards and the advertising."
MAB: "So they have been attracted by those images of men and gone out and bought this underwear pre-knowing about the gay community and what's expected of a gay image?"
JS: "Yes - the images are very erotic in the CK ads. I was in New York recently and there is a billboard that stretches 2 blocks with the range of CK underwear, its amazing!"
MAB: "Is this self-reflective narcissism good for how people feel about their own bodies?"
JS: "No - I think that there a lot of people who know they will never achieve that ideal but I'm not sure ..."
MAB: "... whether that's a bad thing."
JS: "Up to a point, yeah."
I suggest that the very presence of this kind of question (whether it illicites a response or not), still smacks of a certain elitism and the promotion of a particular 'lifestyle' (the gay 'lifestyle', 'gay pride') as desirable. Calvin Klein models are, after all, the epitome of the clean cut, well groomed, tanned, successful visible male body promoted by an advertising web of communication. This is how bodies unintentionally get caught up in webs of communication which affects the behaviour of all bodies, in this case through the proposition of such a question. This enmeshment causes problems not only for the gay male but also for the heterosexual male; increased levels of body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and steroid abuse have been noted by researchers. This may be due in part to the desirability and valued social status of muscular mesomorphic body images such as those used in the Calvin Klein advertisements.
I believe that the search for self-identity through consumption is, in the end, a self-defeating exercise. It is like looking into a thousand mirrors at an image of infinite regress never able to find the original image, that essence of inner Self that is ours in the quietest of moments. We are the ones that create the images in the media, the mirror images of how we would like to be and be seen. As Lakoff and Scherr have said,
"Who, in the first place, are these faceless hordes? Who is 'society' but you and me? And the 'media' are not active, it is well known, but reactive; what they discern that their viewers/hearers/readers want, they provide. If we, the viewing public, are not stimulated to buy by the blandishments dangled before us, the media will be instantly responsive - there will be a whole new set of blandishments dangled faster than the eye can blink. So if the same tired messages, the same recycled pictures, pass across our weary retinas year after year, we cannot in all honesty blame the media."
We can only blame ourselves.