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Why Have Men Become So Obsessed With The Perfect Body?

In an era of Instagram perfection, are washboard abs ever enough? MR PORTER’s US Editor asks if our self-image needs a reboot

During one of my regular, recurring crises of vanity and identity, the designer Mr Rick Owens told me, by way of encouragement, I think, that “changing your body is more hardcore than changing your clothes”. It’s certainly more difficult. And surely the difficult things are the ones worth doing. But, in an era ruled by self-image and the projection thereof, it does beg the question: if we’re going to change our bodies, what should we be changing them into, and to what end?

In Mr Owens’ case, “I just aimed for making the best of what I’ve got,” he says. “I like an Egon Schiele sinewy anarchist or a stoned Joe Dallesandro, so I aimed in that direction.” He has more than achieved this and has, at 56, become a living fitspo god for his efforts.

He’s not the only one. In the Instagram age, where health can translate to wealth (or at least sponcon dollars) the goal is not just superhero stature and/or a washboard stomach – it is complete and utter physical perfection. Without reaching that peak, we can never expect to be happy, obviously. It is exclusively through Barry’s Bootcamp and a regular regime of retinol that we shall pass unto the land of bliss.

This is no different from the way beauty ideals have been marketed to women, of course. It’s just that, in the past few years, the searing eye of the male gaze has finally turned back on itself – on ourselves – so that even for men now, abs are the new statement accessory, fitness the fashion.

Perhaps the past few years is a conservative estimate. Throughout the new millennium, it has seemed as though 85 per cent of every celebrity profile was utterly incidental to the main meat of the story. The health and fitness regime by which someone named Chris achieved his superheroic shape. (It’s hard out here for a Chris. To Mr Chris Hemsworth’s credit, he is the first fitness gawd to benefit from his brawn. This spring, he launched Centr, a subscription service that offers classes with his buddies, trainers and chefs.)

More recently, the bar has been raised for regular non-celebrity dudes, too – moving the goalposts of #goals – with a particular subset of tastemaker guys trading in their raw-denim blogs for fitspo homilies and hanging up their fixed-gear bikes for SoulCycle. This kind of guy, an early adopter, a creative professional in a fashionable global capital, perhaps – let us call him “Aesop man” – might have feverishly devoured JJJJound posts in 2011 but, in 2019 is training for an ultramarathon. Ultrafitness, it seems, is the new normcore.

Then again, maybe it’s more than that. For Mr Ryan Willms, the former editor of Inventory magazine, a beloved bi-annual (published from 2009 to 2015) dedicated to beautiful things and the craftsmanship with which they were made, fitness is something more, something like a search for meaning. After heartbreak and a torn ligament, Mr Willms moved from his native Vancouver to Los Angeles a year ago and began applying the same enthusiasm he’d had for stuff as an editor and creative director to his physical and spiritual self. He dedicated himself to a holistic wellness programme that included not a little celery juice, some qigong, plenty of meditation and ultramarathoning. “That form of competition and running in the mountains is something I really look forward to,” says Mr Willms. “It’s a huge area of enjoyment for me, getting into a flow state, feeling my body get stronger, knowing that the fitter we are, the more connected we are to our bodies, to the universe, to others, to our food, to our life-force energy.”

Mr Willms is a lifelong athlete who dabbled with modelling in his adolescence and has done pretty well for himself professionally, but he says he still struggles with feeling good enough. “Am I successful enough, good-looking enough? Is my body good enough?” he says. “Growing up, I often heard that I was handsome and I subconsciously attached my value to being that. If I wasn’t that, I thought I wouldn’t receive the love that I really wanted.”

And when the bar is where it is these days, what love, even, is enough?

This reminds me of something Mr Glenn O’Brien said around the time his book How To Be A Man came out in 2011. Either he was being uncharacteristically earnest or I totally misread him when he said, “Being a man means being everything a man can be.” Which is certainly the way we seem to be grading ourselves. At least against the super Chrises in the empyrean, as well as against the high-performing influencers who, online, seem to be drinking the finest wines available to humanity yet still managing to work out at the crack of dawn, travel the world and remain the perfect fathers to their photogenic offspring, are always on the grind and yet make plenty of time for friends. They probably give great dinner toasts and best man roasts, too.

This sort of Renaissance man completism to which we now aspire, seems to be a part of the same bar raising in which everyone these days is, or at least presents themselves to be, an expert in every field – sommelier-savvy with a wine list, endlessly knowledgeable on arabica bean arcana, happy to recite rare Rolex reference numbers and tell the wittiest jokes at dinner. Our standards for ourselves in every regard are so damn high. It’s like we need to have the panache of Mr Graydon Carter, the wit of Mr Oscar Wilde and the body of a Greek god just to break even. Gotta be Thor or GTFO come beach season.

But what is it all for? If no one comes along when you are at the peak of physical fitness to turn you into a vampire for all time, what then? Do we just go on like this, building sandcastles against the rising tides? With the planet dying around us, do our physical bodies matter any more than our pensions? Or are they dreams of a future that may never come, a willing denial of the fall?

Well, yes, except that, when the world is itself so unstable, maybe our own body is the last place where we have some quantum of control, where we can count on a certain amount of return on our investment. Maybe the gardening of our own little personal plot, for our own enjoyment, is the best way to stage our resistance against superhuman perfection. Maybe, in our present WeWork dystopia, barre class is our Cabaret and self-care our last-gasp claim to civilisation in a world gone so disembodied online. Maybe, in the gym and the kitchen, as opposed to out there in the howling maelstrom of the world, where our energies and emails are gobbled up, unanswered, we can at least find some causal correlation between our effort and its effect.

“A fit body is one of the few things in life that you can kind of control,” says Mr Owens. “Being able to cultivate anything successfully is one of the simplest but most fulfilling things in life. This [perfectly etched body] is just one option.”